DIRT Brings HIV/AIDS Advocacy Down to Earth for Black Communities in Ohio

“Black folks are not hard to reach. People just never take the chance or the time to really reach them.”

As the founder of the DIRT (Direct, Inspiring, Reachable, Teachable) model of advocacy, Bryan C. Jones, has traveled the country teaching others his distinct style of talking about HIV and AIDS.

The Cleveland native developed DIRT as an alternative way to talk to Black communities about testing, treatment, and prevention using language that is accessible and conversational. Instead of using tools like outdated pamphlets or trying to accomplish change from afar, DIRT takes the conversation straight to places where people are gathering or receiving other necessary services, like neighborhood gardens or food banks.

The Buckeye Flame talked to Jones about his methods and how everyone can support DIRT taking root.

Why did you create DIRT and how does it provide something we don’t already have?
This all came about around 2013–2014. I had a National Advocacy Leadership Summit here [in Cleveland] with an organization called Campaign to End AIDS, because I’ve done a lot of advocacy work nationally and internationally. Around 100 advocates came from around the country and initially kept saying that they had never done advocacy outside of a classroom or outside of a building. Meaning they had never really been out in a community. I said, “Well, we are this time. We’re going to go into every club, garden, alley and teach people how to do advocacy.”

So we went out to Cleveland’s Garden Valley neighborhood, passed out condoms, and had conversations. We started at the food pantry there, and as we were walking around, people in the community were blowing their horns and saying, “What are y’all doing? Thank y’all for coming over here.” It was like a parade. A lot of people came back and they were so pumped up. They had never experienced anything like this. It seemed like it peeled a layer off of the community, like you could see the community kind of open up like a flower blossoming. Just from that one excursion, not only did it change the community, it also changed the people who did the work. It made them realize that penetration into these communities and spaces is possible.

Something advocates had been told was that there are hard-to-reach populations. Black folks are not hard to reach. People just never take the chance or the time to really reach them. This work becomes more intentional when you think about the DIRT acronym — direct, inspiring, reachable, teachable — and when you think about the tools that you provide a person. You’ve got to have real conversations, you’ve got to use real language.

How does DIRT work?
The wonderful thing about DIRT advocacy is that it makes sure a person can maintain their dignity and respect as you help them. We speak to people in a way in which doesn’t have blame. Information is what people are there for.

I share my status of being a person living with HIV for 38 years and that makes people sit up and listen. Sometimes people in the room will stand up and say that they’re living with HIV themselves, and some of them have never shared that in their community. It gives people the strength to step forward and have this conversation and then they start to ask questions that they really wanted to ask somebody but they never had the space.

It’s a misconception that people in these most impacted zip codes and Black communities don’t want to have the conversation. People in these communities welcome the information. So we offer them communication. We offer them condoms. We offer to possibly go with them to get tested. A lot of times people don’t want to go outside of their zip code to get tested, so we’ll bring testing to them. More importantly, we give people the conversation, the chance to express themselves, the chance to listen and the chance to learn.

What will success look like for DIRT advocacy?
It’s really an ongoing conversation, because DIRT deals with the systemic structural disparities that affect Black people. We’re trying to change the perspective that Black people are more at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS simply because they’re Black. That’s basically what the health department tells us, which is not necessarily true. We’re more at risk because of social and structural disparities…the systemic problems that impact us, like access to care. We don’t have any more sexual partners than our white counterparts. We don’t have more rampant drug use than our white counterparts. It’s lack of education, lack of housing, and lack of resources, that puts you at risk of contracting HIV.

Another thing DIRT advocacy does is hold the health departments and those people who are receiving money accountable. They don’t want people to look it up when they show the money that they got, so a lot of times, DIRT advocacy will sit at those tables and hold people accountable. I’m not here to be anybody’s friend. I’m not here to play nice in the sandbox, I’m here to make sure that you’re doing what you said you were going to do with the money that you received. Because a lot of times we hear that $1.2 million was allocated to those zip codes most impacted. But when you go out into the community, you don’t see that money on the ground. Where did it go? By the time that money reaches the community, it may be less than $100,000. Where did it go? Providing a pamphlet with some outdated resources is not helping anybody.

How can folks support your efforts?
It’s not about funding or anything like that. It’s about providing a space for education and conversation. If you live in a community and you see these things tearing your community down and you’d like somebody to come in and have a conversation to educate a community, a block club or organization in your zip code, reach out to me, email me, write a sign on the wall. I don’t care how you reach me. Send up smoke signals. I want people to call me and provide a time and a place and I’ll bring you a program to have that conversation.

A lot of times people want resources. The only thing you have to do is have a willingness and a space, and even if you don’t have a space, we can gather outside somewhere to educate people. So if you have a food pantry, if you have an organization, if you’re on a college campus and you want to do community service work, let’s have a conversation. We can design something that works for you, something that’s real, if you want to do real work. Supporting [DIRT]  is allowing me to have a space in which to educate and inform people. 🔥

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