It Takes A Village
By: Angelita Brown and Nikki Fernandes
The HIV Testing and Prevention Program (HTP) at IWES focuses on reducing stigma and providing increased access to HIV testing, linkage to care for people living with HIV and support service referrals to communities, specifically African American and Latinx communities, that have barriers to accessing these resources. Recently, HTP has shifted its focus to the Hispanic/Latinx population, a community that has been repeatedly left out of the conversation about HIV/STIs locally due to the lack of cultural competence and services offered in Spanish. To address these barriers, HTP has partnered with NOLA Village, or El Pueblo NOLA, an organization that is a hub for the Latinx community. NOLA Village is dedicated to uplifting and providing any service possible to people in the community, such as helping with: immigration matters; transportation; funeral planning; enrollment in schools; translation assistance; assistance with domestic violence situations; social services for families, women and children; and now, access to health services through HIV testing and referrals.
Through this collaboration, both HTP and NOLA Village are addressing and overcoming challenges around differences in language and culture, and partnering with community leaders and advocates to address the lack of information and data about Latinx populations and HIV/STIs, and above all the lack of access to health services due to these challenges. We work with two amazing partners at NOLA Village that have been key advocates in their community for 19 years, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Cristi Fajardo and Chief Operations Officer (COO) Tiane Oliver. Their relationship with the Afro-Latinx, Latinx, and African American communities in New Orleans East has been instrumental in introducing HTP’s services to the people they serve. Another partner, the Office of Public Health (OPH), has also played an important role in addressing “hidden” barriers by approving NOLA Village as an HIV testing site. Even though it is not a space that OPH would traditionally approve, through the efforts of Cristi and our HTP Manager, Angelita Brown, they shifted their understanding of the Latinx community’s cultural customs and recognize testing at this location as a new approach that is conducive to their needs. We’re very appreciative that the Office of Public Health listened to their concerns, as the previous lack of access was definitely a “hidden” barrier for Latinx folks in New Orleans East. Other “hidden” barriers to accessing health related services are: increased economic hardship for people without financial resources; a language barrier combined with a lack of Spanish-speaking personnel providing services, such as partner notification; and a lack of trust in testing because of the fear that information will not be kept confidential. Going to NOLA Village definitely reduces these barriers in a very concrete way because they are a hub for the Latinx and Afro-Latinx community, and it is a place where people feel safe and comfortable. Information is provided in Spanish, and testing and outreach is done in Spanish as well by people familiar with Latinx cultures.
With the recent surge in fearless youth activism, as we highlight this partnership with NOLA Village, we also want to take a moment to underscore the incredible work of NOLA Village's COO, Tiane Oliver, a youth advocate in the African American, Afro-Latinx, and Latinx communities. She has been involved in the work through her mother, Cristi Fajardo, throughout her whole life. Tiane has also been involved with IWES over the past 4 years. Her first introduction to the organization was through the Peer Advocates Undoing Stigma through Education (PAUSE) reproductive health presentations she attended when she was a member of the Vietnamese American Young Leadership Association of New Orleans (VAYLA) when she was only 15 years old. These presentations got her interested in public health and she became active through peer advocacy. She encouraged her peers to get tested and helped to create a comfortable space for African American and Afro-Latinx youth as she participated in outreach to get information out about HIV/STIs in her community. Tiane expressed that she was impressed and inspired by IWES because it was a group of (mostly) women of color out in the community working as community health educators and implementing programming administered by people who reflected the community they served. Through PAUSE, Tiane became involved in another IWES initiative, the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project, in which youth conducted their own research around specific areas of their choice. The participants were taught how to engage their peers and get information about their chosen topics through interviewing and doing surveys. To see the results of their work, follow this link to access the YPAR Report.
With such a strong base of activism and interest in public health and community issues, it is no surprise that now Tiane is operating NOLA Village alongside and in support of her mother, Cristi. Bringing HIV testing to NOLA Village has made things come full circle for Tiane. Because the NOLA Village main office is in their home, the community’s need for those particular services is so apparent to her and she loves that it opens up a space where people can exercise their autonomy over their own health. Tiane also sees herself and her mother as ‘gatekeepers of health’ in their community. She feels that being an Afro-Latinx who grew up in the United States, she has a cut and dry view of health. It’s a personal thing, - you go get tested - it’s not an intangible thing. This is different for many people in her community who did not grow up in the U.S., and for some, health systems have a history, and for others, HIV in particular is associated with personal pain as many folks have had people close to them affected by HIV. This creates doubt that maybe it is their fault, or it is an evil spirit, or something intangible to deal with, which in turn presents a barrier to testing. It becomes a cycle of people getting sick and being unable to take control of their health, and then blaming themselves for it. Tiane takes a step back to fully understand their beliefs and not judge, but to provide whatever they need in the way that they can access it. Tiane believes that IWES makes health access tangible for her community, and she believes the collaboration with IWES is exactly what her community needs to take back autonomy over their health.