EHE Superstars Investing in Community Voices in LA County

EHE Superstars: Investing in Community Voices in LA County

Feb 28, 2024 | Anthony Green

This blog continues our new series highlighting collaborative projects between health departments and their partners in jurisdictions working to improve community health and inequities through the national Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) Initiative. The EHE Initiative aims to reduce new HIV infections in the United States by 75% by 2025 and by 90% by 2030. To recommend a program to be featured, reach out at [email protected].

With a population of almost 10 million and an area that exceeds some states, Los Angeles County is one of the largest and most diverse in the country. Being home to so many diverse voices, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health strategized on how to use both CDC and HRSA funds to amplify the experiences of community members to advance prevention, treatment, and wellness messaging about HIV and sexual health. Research has shown that priority populations are more likely to respond to messaging from their peers. With EHE funding, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health partnered with The Wellness Center at the Historic General Hospital and the AMAAD (Arming Minorities Against Addiction & Disease) Institute to create eight different community teams across LA County tasked to launch EHE-related projects of their choice, led by them and for their respective communities. The community teams are representative of the EHE Priority Populations identified by LA County and include Black men who have sex with men (MSM); Latinx MSM; Ciswomen of color; Trans, Gender Diverse, Intersex (TGI); Young Adult; Youth; and two geographic-based community teams in East LA and South LA. The The Wellness Center is the largest community-benefit program of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center Foundation, providing free programs and culturally sensitive services to address the root cause of disease, empower residents to take control of their own health and lives, and improve the health outcomes of their community.

The community teams funded by this EHE Community Engagement Program worked together to agree upon and implement their own projects to create CHANGE. The Women of Color cohort produced banners to empower women affected by HIV. The Black MSM cohort collaborated with spiritual leaders to provide HIV education in religious spaces. The South LA cohort provided outreach through storytelling in non-traditional spaces such as barbershops. The TGI cohort created a Pillow Talk series and ultimately, a day long conference Finally, the Young Adult cohort (under 30 years old) created a zine to raise awareness of HIV among young people and share voices of those impacted.

NACCHO had the opportunity to speak with two organizers of the Young Adult cohort about the zine; Xelestiál Moreno-Luz, Program Manager at Reach LA, a partnering community-based organization focused on engaging and empowering young LGBTQIA+ people of color, and Sophia Raygoza, Senior Project Coordinator at The Wellness Center. Xelestiál has worked on this project from the beginning, utilizing her experience around creative arts, personal development, trans/youth programing and harm reduction. Sophia is new to the project but already integral to bringing this zine to life.

Sophia shares, ‘I love the way HIV prevention can be looked at through a lens of art programming.’

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After planning conversations about how to best connect with peers in their community, the Young Adult cohort decided to produce a zine around stigma and specifically how LGBTQIA+ communities of color experience stigma in the realms of sexual health. According to LA County Public Health, the majority of newly diagnosed LA County HIV cases are among persons aged 20-39 years (66% of cases in 2022). The rates of new HIV diagnoses among both 20-29 year olds (40 per 100,000) and 30-39 year olds (37 per 100,000) are nearly double the rate of the next highest age group, 40 –49 years olds (20 per 100,000).

The vision was a product created by young adults in LA for young adults in LA. Creators would not only consist of members of the Young Adult cohort, but the team would recruit local artists to contribute to the zine to make the product truly participatory and reflective of LA’s diverse young people It was vital to include a participatory component for those, from the community, who weren’t necessarily in the cohort but wanted to add their voices as well. The jumping point was connecting with LA based, young people who use art as their activism.

Sophia informed NACCHO, ‘We reached out to artsy community members. We visited spaces where artists reside.’

Xelestiál led a workshop around design and how it relates to HIV Prevention. As a person with experience bringing artists together to collaborate on impactful art projects around identity, she not only provided examples of the legacy of addressing sexual health through art activism but also inspired participants to consider what could be done in the future. As with any multi-year project, there were many transitions over the two years of working on this grant. Staff changes, shifts in the project’s focus and cohort retention were just a few of the obstacles identified. Thankfully, the LA County Public Health Department viewed this project as a community investment and patiently supported each cohort as they blazed their own paths.

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The results of the Young Adult cohort’s hard work, the zine is visually stunning, authentic and surprisingly intimate. The pieces read like creative young minds attempting to make sense of the crazy world that they’re inheriting. In a bold move, the cohort holds safe space for raw dialogue that even challenges public health systems. What stands out are the direct quotes from participants that serve as stigma reducing affirmations. The art in these pages is distinct, fully realized with its own perspectives and colored with positive HIV Prevention, Harm Reduction and Addiction messaging.

For the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, the initiative has been a success because it generated community ownership and creative freedom: by asking each cohort to not only steer, but also build the ship, the health department empowered the cohort members to plan, produce, and evaluate projects that truly represented and resonated with their communities. One of the greatest learning lessons was that pre-engagement takes a lot of work and identifying the right community members to steer the ship. Taking the time to garner community buy- in is crucial and finding people who are already doing the work attributes to this.

Xelestiál shares, ‘I feel like the zine reflects our collective camaraderie and commitment to seeing this project through. Yes, the participants were invested in the project, but they were also invested in me.’

As a dedicated leader, Xelestiál advocates for the compensation of participants. She reminds us, ‘Viable incentives are no longer simply having your work printed in a magazine. The community wants to be paid and the $25 gift cards just aren’t enough anymore. If we want the community to invest their time, talent and hard work, they should be compensated fairly. That’s really important to people.’

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The future looks bright for the Young Adult Cohort as they’re working on a second issue and a launch party in 2024. To view the zine please click here. To learn more about LA County’s EHE initiatives, please click here.

Want to be featured in an upcoming EHE Superstars blog? Tell us about your Ending the HIV Epidemic activities at [email protected]!


About Anthony Green

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