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EHE Superstars: Using Art to Improve Youth HIV Awareness in Houston

Sep 25, 2023 | Julia Zigman, Anthony Green

This is the first blog in a new series highlighting collaborative work between health departments and community 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].

Health departments and community partners know that HIV awareness and sexual education plays a large role in supporting young people to stay HIV-negative or undetectable. Nationally, 20% of new HIV diagnoses in 2020 were among young people aged 13-24, and almost half of those living with HIV do not know their status. Reaching youth with effective and accurate information about HIV can be difficult, but one multi-sector collaboration in Houston, TX is thinking creatively to reach local students.

At the NACCHO360 conference held in July 2023, visitors to the poster hall learned about the Art on the Streets World AIDS Day project, an innovative and interactive campaign aiming to raise youth awareness of HIV and reduce stigma around HIV in the Houston area where youth of color are disproportionately impacted by HIV. Through the campaign, students across the Houston region are invited to design posters about HIV prevention, treatment, and stigma in honor of World AIDS Day for the chance to win scholarships and have their posters displayed throughout the city. The project – the largest display of youth art in Houston and Harris County- is a collaboration between the Houston Health Department (HHD), the Houston Independent School District, and the Changing Communities Movement (CCM) Foundation, an organization using music and art to educate adolescents about sexual health and wellness.

This fall, NACCHO had the pleasure of sitting down with poster presenter Corey Garrett, Community Liaison at HHD, to get an inside look at how the Art on the Streets initiative supports Houston’s Ending the HIV Epidemic goals. Garrett has worked in HIV/STI prevention since 1993 and attests to the need for unique approaches to reach Black and Latino youth.

“Basically, [Art on the Streets] is a way for youth at the middle school age to not only express themselves creatively, but educate themselves while gaining some awareness on HIV/AIDS and ways to prevent it,” says Garrett. Using World AIDS Day as a prompt, students conduct research about HIV and create a piece of visual art based on their learnings. The call for submissions is disseminated every September to art teachers in the Houston Independent School District, where healthy relationships curriculum starts in seventh grade. The project is open to grades 6-12 in efforts to reach students before they become sexually active.

According to Garret, HHD appoints a panel of community members living with or affected by HIV to judge the submissions each year. The panel consists of health department employees, members of the LGBTQ+ community, local sponsors, and community partners of the county’s Multi-Service Centers, which provide educational resources, direct services, referrals, and access to basic needs for Houstonians.

Finalists in the Art on the Streets contest attend an awards ceremony hosted by the health department on World AIDS Day where the student artists present their pieces and inspiration. CCM and HHD staff educate participants about HIV transmission and lead discussion among students, their parents, and school officials about HIV prevention, the history of the epidemic, and the realities of living with HIV. As Garrett recounts, the event creates space for students to share not only their learnings about HIV but also feelings and stories they may not know how to express otherwise.

Winning art is reproduced on banners, posters, and other mediums around the city, which are also featured as centerpieces of the City of Houston’s public World AIDS Day Remembrance events. HHD plays a central role in identifying locations where the art displays will have the highest impact, focusing on sites in zip codes with high HIV or STI morbidity. Houston Health also works with CCM to ensure that the art displays highlight local resources for HIV testing and prevention, and CCM partners with the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Baylor Foundation of Medicine to create a yearly calendar featuring selected art pieces.

Finalists setting up their World AIDS Day posters at a Houston Multi-Service Center

Multi-sectoral collaboration makes this work possible: The program is supported in part by funding through the Houston Arts Alliance, a local arts and culture organization whose principal work is to implement the City of Houston’s vision, values, and goals for its arts grantmaking and civic art investments. The support is supplemented by local companies serving as event sponsors. For the 2023 contest, Art on the Streets is distributing over $4,000 in cash prizes to winners and to teachers from schools with a high volume of submissions. In addition, Art on the Streets partners with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to provide winners with a scholarship for courses at their Glassell Junior School of Arts.

While Art on the Streets is crucial to Houston’s recent Ending the HIV Epidemic strategies to reduce HIV stigma and support prevention of HIV transmission among young people, Houston Health’s partnership with CCM dates back to 2007. Since the contest’s launch in 2015, Art on the Streets has received over 3,500 submissions, reaching an estimated 5,000,000 individuals via billboards, calendars, street displays, exhibits, social media, websites, conferences, postcards and more. Beyond the Art on the Streets campaign, Houston Health Department and Harris County Department of Health have also partnered with CCM to place artistic billboards in the Houston area featuring messages about HIV and congenital syphilis to spread awareness about the importance of testing.

Garrett believes that art should be a vital key tool in our toolbox, asking why it isn’t used more widely as a tool by public health practitioners: “Just look its presence in our lives since we were kids – at some point in our lives, we’ve colored or used stick figures or whatever the case may be. Art reflects how we understand the world around us.” As Garrett’s work with Houston Health and CCM shows, visual art brings a perspective that can be a vital aid in eliciting the empathy required to tackle issues as a community.

To learn more about the Art on the Streets World AIDS Day project and view students’ artwork, please visit CCM’s homepage at hivawareness.org. For more information about how youth are impacted by HIV, check out these resources from the CDC and Advocates for Youth.

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


About Julia Zigman

More posts by Julia Zigman

About Anthony Green

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