#youth #HIV #awareness
Social Media-Savvy & Camera-Ready AIDS Activist Benjamin Di’Costa Is a Voice for Today’s Youth
by John Francis Leonard

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Michael Kerner

One need not look any further than the Kardashians and their ilk to know that to reach young people today, image is everything. The power of social media is paramount in getting a message across and reaching your target audience. Your image can be what you use to grab the attention of your intended demographic. But what if you want to be a voice for change; what if your cause is more worthy than any desire for fame or recognition? Benjamin Di’Costa has such a message and is motivated to use the power of social media to reach young people with important information about their sexual health and stop HIV/AIDS in its tracks. He reaches that demographic through Twitter (almost 40,000 followers) and the ubiquitous Facebook (over 10,000 followers) among other platforms.

So Benjamin is not just a handsome face; he understands the politics and the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic as well as anyone twice his age and cares deeply about saving lives and empowering today’s generation with regard to their sexual health regardless of socio-economics, ethnicity, geographical location, gender identity, or sexual orientation. His outreach through blogging, public speaking, and as the face of many worthy HIV campaigns and causes hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2016, he was awarded a prestigious Honor 41 Award as a leader in the LGBTQ Latinx community and included in the 2015 “15 HIV Advocates to Watch” list.

Benjamin is a driven, focused, socially conscious twenty-six year-old who currently resides in Chicago where he attends Truman College as a political science major. It is clear after minutes talking to him that this major is integral to his deep understanding of subjects such as HIV activism, research, and demographics. Like many who have been inspired to make a difference in the world, he was brought to action when an issue affected his life personally. In 2010 his then-partner was diagnosed as HIV-positive and Benjamin was struck by the negligence and insensitivity of those in the role of healthcare professionals. Procedure and standards were not maintained at all. Then and there he vowed to effect change and get educated, for his boyfriend and for all young people.

As he says himself, “I didn’t really know much about HIV. My parents had never really had the birds and the bees talk with me.” He started to get passionate about the subject and was soon recruited by an intervention program called “Popular Opinion Leader,” where he recruited his social networking group, educating them about HIV/AIDS and compelling them to get tested. Asked what his reply is if someone asks him what he does, Benjamin says of his work. “I would describe myself as a community health advocate working to insure that, regardless of background, you have equal access to prevention tools.”

He continues to be compelled to reach out to young people because they need to understand that HIV can affect anyone regardless of who you are or what your background is. He promotes himself as a “face of HIV prevention because, as he sees it, “HIV/AIDS has no one face.” He wants youth to understand that their voices are heard and that they matter. In the healthcare space, he feels, that’s not happening as often as it should be; their voices are marginalized and discredited due to inexperience. He gets frustrated at conferences he attends seeing the same major organizations and the same major healthcare providers espousing the same message to the same audience. New organizations and especially new and different healthcare providers need to be empowered so that they can reach underserved communities with advances in treatment and also prevention with tools such as PrEP.

Benjamin may live in a major urban area where testing, treatment, and prevention tools are more readily available to those with the means to access them, but he hasn’t forgotten about underserved urban and rural communities affected by HIV/AIDS. One of the major reasons HIV rates are climbing in the Deep South and rural areas is this lack of access to care. Benjamin notes that a young person, of already limited means, is expected to drive thirty, forty, even fifty miles or more to get tested for HIV and then drive back for treatment if they’re positive or for a prescription to PrEP if they’re not. Further complicating matters is the fact that Planned Parenthood, which is often the only economically viable provider available, is under attack with its clinics closing due to cutbacks to its funding. Young people in poor inner cities face the similar barriers in accessing care within their own communities.

Benjamin’s work goes beyond social media; he provides boots on the ground for Chicago House, working as a Care Navigator in his free time. He gets people tested for HIV and if they’re positive, connects them with a network of much needed services and resources. For Advocates for Youth, he’s a Great American Condom Campaign Ambassador, providing condoms to those who need them on college campuses. He’s also a member of the Youth Advisory Board for ViiV Healthcare. The CDC’s recent “Doing it” campaign, which encourages people to get tested for HIV, features Benjamin. He’s also a face of the “#TrustPrEP” and “My 60 Second” campaigns. Benjamin is an ambassador for “Embody Progress” which is an important social justice organization.

Over the course of his work in HIV/AIDS Benjamin noticed that the messages being sent were redundant and repetitive and he saw early on what an asset his own image could be to his work. He could use his voice and image to inspire his peers to feel empowered when it came to their sexual heath. He had the message and found the perfect means of delivery. It has proven quite effective.

The new political administration has many on their guard, but Benjamin remains cautiously optimistic. In the Reagan years, he feels, we were unprepared for the onslaught. We had to figure it out as we went along. Benjamin notes that now, “my fear is for [the administration], because they’re dealing with a community and movement that is now organized….We have a solidified voice to respond to injustices.” He’s hopeful about the research that’s being conducted but understands that, with red tape and the cutbacks this research will be subject to, he might not see a proven cure in his lifetime. Advances in PrEP and antiretroviral treatment, however, could be just down the road.

Benjamin’s proudest moment came this past December when he had the opportunity to meet Ryan White’s mother, Jeanne. He was thrilled to share a space with her and actually received a few words of wisdom from this remarkable woman. In the future, Benjamin sees himself in the field of urban community development, helping grassroots organizations build a solid voice in their communities. He’d like to expand his horizons beyond HIV and bring his own voice to different spaces around the country. One thing is certain, if he continues to bring even half of the passion and depth to the table that he does now, whatever he puts his mind to will be a huge success.

For more information about Benjamin Di’Costa, log on to: www.benjamindicosta.com.

For more information about photographer Michael Kerner, log on to: www.kernercreative.com.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.