Sister 2 Sister Keeping it Real 10-Year Anniversary-Part 3
Updated: Sep 19
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
In understanding that knowledge production around HIV prevention education in the West is biased, racist, and purposely constructs Black women as the Other, thus, creating silos, I was able to consider ways to empower, validate, and counter dominant hegemonic discourses that mark the bodies of Black women.
What I’m about to share isn’t new, nor was it at the time. It was, however, my added touch and contribution at a time when as a youth myself, I needed programming that was reflective of me and other Black women like me. I was tired of the boring information sessions that didn't get the Black experience. I needed art. I wanted community. I yearned for vulnerability, and permission to bring my emotions and traumas with me in the space while addressing topics like anti-Black racism and white supremacy.
Dr. George Dei (1996) states that "the task of developing an inclusive curriculum begins with educators asking the critical questions about themselves, the school, and society in general.” With this in mind, I focused on four areas of knowledge production that usually perpetuate negative stereotypes for Black women in healthcare, being; 1) representation in marketing posters; 2) culturally relevant and appropriate naming of workshops and sessions; 3) engaging in outreach differently, and 4) addressing barriers to young women accessing health care.
1: Representation: The shades and complexions of the women were something I was particularly aware of. It was important to not reproduce negative images of Black women. Because the media and society tell Black women that the lighter they are, the closer to whiteness, the more desirable they are. Wrong! I wanted to ensure that women of darker shades were not only represented but beautiful. Hair texture also had to be represented in a way that showed the diversity of Black hair, including women covering their hair and Muslim representation.
Other forms of representation that were taken into consideration were around themes of friendship and positive imaging of Black women getting along, being silly, having fun, smiling, same-sex representation, and positive imaging of women. The poster was bright and laid out like a collage. In retrospect, there was still a lot of light skin representation, try as I may. The bias runs so deep.
2: Language: Because the posters would be the first point of contact to the discussion series, I
had to ensure that the content was something that the young women connected with. Naming and terminology were important.
At the time, workshops used words like "workshop", "focus group", or "sessions", which can come off as academic, stuffy, interrogating, not inviting, and boring. I wanted to create titles and names that were engaging, grabbed attention, was clear about the discussion but also left room for the young women to interpret for themselves. "Discussion series" was the term I used. It validated the idea that we would be having conversations each week, if not sharing circles. I also used AAVE like "keeping it real," "real talk," "what’s the 411," and "to tell or not to tell." "Money, Sex, and Choices." and "let’s talk about testing."
3: Outreach with Care: the next step was how to get the attention of the community. I had to do outreach differently and reach out to the community, by being present in the community. Attending community events, spreading the posters, talking to young women about the series, collecting phone numbers along with email addresses, and calling them before each discussion not only got young women to the venue but also created a relationship between me and them, building trust.
During these conversations, I would check in with them regarding the previous discussion, check in with them regarding their week, how they felt they could use the new knowledge in their day-to-day lives, etc. I found this form of outreach, although timely to be extremely successful. The young women were held accountable to their word and would not only attend but would bring a friend along to share in the experience.
4: Reduce Barriers to Access to Care: In order to address these issues, they had to be identified. Some problems included: the cost of workshops; transportation; childcare and identifying with the content material. Each workshop was completely free to the community. We provided food catered by HIV-positive women in the community who had start-up businesses. All meals were hot, hearty, and from various parts of Africa and the Caribbean.
Being located downtown and understanding that our location can be a challenge and deter people, we provided free TTC tokens to every young woman that attended. Free onsite childcare was also provided to those that had young children or were babysitting younger siblings.
Providing gift bags at each session was a nice token of appreciation for each person taking the time to join us. Gift bags were filled with resources such as male and female condoms, dental dams, educational pamphlets, a contact list to various agencies, gift certificates, etc. I also ensured that facilitators that were invited to share their expertise were given a paid honorarium for their work, as well as the Peer Educators who assisted with running and organizing the sessions.
Feedback: Collectively through art, music, theatre, painting, and oral storytelling, I joined the young women each week in our circle and learned as much as I shared. It was a give-and-take relationship. Creating social networks; engaging in play; reliving youthful experiences; sharing stories of trauma in a space with other racialized women, and being open to admitting when we were wrong, are all experiences that create a shift internally and for me, were a spiritual experience.
Each week I recognized and celebrated the need and want for the young women to be present. We gently challenged each other to think outside of the dominant hegemonic discourse. We grew to trust that each person’s words were coming from a place of love, giving each other room to be able to call each other out when correcting norms that had never previously been challenged.
The evaluation forms they filled out highlighted words such as "love," "trust," "non-judgmental," and other words, that based on societal standards, would be considered emotional responses. Responses to be left outside of the classroom or learning spaces. These young women spoke about the physical space, and how the very way in which our office was set up in the shape of a circle, the shape of a womb, was symbolic. Some spoke about the connection between artwork and poetry. They expressed their appreciation for the food, and simply being in a room with other women, hearing about their real-life experiences. They valued the intimacy and spoke of how it was life-changing and empowering.
Takeaway: Prevention work from the very beginning must include the community, and must ensure that collaborations with others are mandatory. We must ask from the very beginning the right questions in order to address some of the barriers, like how knowledge has been produced and who produces it.
To simply say young women are not showing up for programming is not enough. We need to address the barriers that keep them from accessing health care and give tools to empower them to take the necessary steps. We can no longer afford to use traditional Eurocentric forms of learning with young Black women. Their voices must be heard, validated, and acknowledged as theory. Their experiential stories must be celebrated, and told, but on their own terms, not off their backs.
I’ll end by sharing another excerpt (most of this post was all previously written 10 years ago and copied and pasted). “Since the Sister 2 Sister: Keeping it Real series we as a Community Health Centre have increased the number of young ACB women accessing our services. Each day I see more and more young people in our hallways. They are booking appointments for anonymous testing, and not only coming alone but coming with friends for support. Such success stories show that they not only understood the importance of HIV prevention education, but that they understand that as indigenous bodies, the community is crucial, and love and support are what will sustain us, and showing up with others. For me, all of this validated the importance of Prevention work done in a particular way. Many of the young women were able to use the sessions as networking opportunities and still connect with each other since the series.
I started this paper with my social location. I would like to end by acknowledging that this series, this paper, (these blog posts) was only made possible because of the young women I collaborated with. It is again a site of privilege to be able to use my education as a tool to give voice to Sister 2 Sister. I am cognizant of this privilege and want to give thanks to those that made it possible. Healing took place each time we met together.” Don’t forget to like, subscribe, and share.
Until next time, in solidarity.