HIV Has No Face—RCP Has Many
by Sean Black
“Was your hair free? No. Were your nails free? No. How much would you pay for an HIV test? $20? $10? No, cuz today it’s free.” High school senior Janae Dennis shouts passionately through a bullhorn, encouraging drivers, bicyclists, and foot pedestrians to take advantage of the free rapid HIV testing arranged for and sponsored by a South Florida not-for-profit organization known as The RCP Movement. Standing for Respect Yourself, Check Yourself and Protect Yourself, RCP is a social-marketing campaign geared toward heightening the awareness of HIV/AIDS through creative in-your-face initiatives with the goal of steadily reducing new cases of infection.
Is Janae your average seventeen-year-old? No, and neither were any of the other many smiling faces who gathered together on February 19th to holler out reality checks and to hand out life-saving literature at one of Dade County’s busiest traffic intersections.
Calling the event a “Street Scare,” RCP founder Donovan Thomas elaborates, “It is a prime opportunity for us to get the word out in nontraditional ways about how seriously HIV/AIDS is impacting our community.”
He continues: “On a busy intersection it’s not something people expect when they drive up on a Saturday enjoying their day; but then again neither is HIV. It’s not something you expect, but it can happen to anyone.” The RCP Movement boldly suggests safer sex practices, routine HIV screenings, and the exploration of abstinence.
RCP was started in 2006 in response to the “Silence is Death” report handed down from the state’s capital of Tallahassee pointing particularly to alarming statistics among blacks in Florida—as high as 1 in 35 are infected. Thomas believes that this is a constant battle that needs more attention than ever. “Outside of World AIDS Day and other national days of observance we are called to fight against this pandemic on an ongoing basis.” Six-foot-six Thomas continues, “You’ll see us everywhere, concerts, basketball games, festivals, anywhere there are a lot of people that is where the message needs to get out.”
RCP member and community educator Quintara Lane selected the corner of 27th Avenue and 183rd Street in Miami Gardens, Florida, for the “Street Scare” because of its busy traffic and its location within an at-risk community. “You have the stadium, you have the local flea market—this is a very high populated area with an increased risk for HIV/AIDS.” The twenty-four-year-old advocate, who was born with HIV, continues, “A lot of people in this community don’t think about getting tested; some people probably have the virus and do not even know it. So I figured what better place than here.”
Besides these clever and frequently organized “scares” and aggressive marketing campaigns to promote open dialogue, such as “The Power of a Shirt” initiative featuring T-shirts that read “I Have HIV” on the front and then “If it was only that easy to tell” on the back, RCP has built a strong network throughout Florida’s collegiate community through a program that Thomas calls Campus RCP. Through its many programs, it is RCP’s hopes to affect change, eradicate the stigmas associated with HIV and bring this virus to the forefront of people’s minds.
Fulfilling its mission under sunny blue skies, the rally began with a team huddle by Khaliah Jack, a junior studying journalism and multimedia broadcasting at Florida Atlantic University. Khaliah, FAU’s Campus RCP Chapter President, kicked off the afternoon’s event. After a friendly round of placing names to faces she begins, “Hey, we are trying to break the silence here about HIV/AIDS.” Khaliah has always been on the forefront of advocating for proper education and knowing the truths about HIV as she was only three years-old when her father contracted the virus. At the time, “he was an activist who was tremendously inspired by the work of Magic Johnson. He wanted to teach me the facts about his disease early on and he wanted me to grow up without any of the stigmas.” He is still in the fight against AIDS. Touchingly, she continues, “I want to make my father proud of me.”
Family members and loved ones of the volunteers supporting Thomas’s RCP Movement have a great deal to be proud of. Like his physical presence Thomas innately possesses a Goliath leadership quality, attracting these types of robust and compassionate individuals. Asked about the caliber of his support, he responds, “Basically, we identify people who are really interested in the movement and provide them with the tools that they need to be effective.” He continues, “We have partnerships with many of the Florida college campuses and the local high schools. We plant the seed at an early age. Many are introduced to RCP in high school, like Janae satisfying school board-mandated community service hours, and then they go off to college continuing the movement. Many stay involved, even after graduating from college and into the workforce.”
The arms of community outreach extend vastly throughout the RCP network. Adella Watson, a local high school reading teacher and peer education sponsor, facilitates bringing speakers to the area’s classrooms. Many of the speakers are HIV-positive and talk candidly to her students about the disease. About HIV, Adella says “It is tailor-made, like a suit or a dress. HIV can fit anyone.”
In just three hours of community activism, Thomas and his team of smiling faces successfully brought in sixty-three people for testing, generously provided by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and passed out hundreds of pamphlets. During our correspondence to set up this interview, I notice that Thomas’s e-mails close with “Have a great and powerful day.” The RCP Movement echoes every bit of this living sentiment through its social outreach initiatives bringing HIV/AIDS to the forefront of our minds. Scaring us with the truth and arming us with the facts about the pandemic, The RCP Movement is in every way great and powerful.
For more information about The RCP Movement, log on to www.rcpmovement.org.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in California. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.