Doing what has to be done

The circle of caring women behind Straight Up!

Lisa Bowleg, PhD
Department of Community Health and Prevention, School of Public Health, Drexel University & Straight Up! Community Advisory Committee Member

A peek behind the scenes of the Circle of Care’s (COC) Straight Up! initiative for heterosexual men of color shows that there’s not just one, not two, but three good women involved: Alicia Beatty, COC director; Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer, COC deputy director, and Marie Ransell, COC program coordinator. In the following interview, Beatty, Abdul-Khabeer, and Ransell chat with Straight Up! Community Advisory Committee member Lisa Bowleg about the genesis of Straight Up!

LB: So tell me a little about the program [Straight Up!] and how you started. How did you go about getting men?

The women behindthe Straight Up! initiative: (L to R): Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer, COC Deputy Director; Marie Ransell, COC Program Coordinator; and Alicia Beatty, COC DirectorRAK: Once we convinced ourselves, it was a matter of dialogue, and present the data, and debate and discuss, and then we sent Alicia, and she milled around her apartment and thought about stuff, and came back and said, “I have the perfect idea! This is what we’ll do.” And now we have to generate lists of men who are active in the community, regardless of where they are, just name them. Write them all down. So that’s what we really started to do, which is the way we’ve begun many of our projects. It’s really looking at …the resources available in the community. It was basically free.

AB: Well, the other thing is, we brought a young man into this.

MR: We had a consultant who did groundwork.

AB: We would never … have gotten to this point if he had not come to you [Rashidah] asking for development. He wanted to learn from us, how to develop programs, how to manage budgets, how to look at staffing. And so this was an opportunity for us to help him grow and do work for us that we really needed doing. I mean, it’s taken me 2 months to figure out who should get the real job. So, this would not have happened if he had not fallen in our laps.

RAK: We did have both of those things happen, but we knew the direction we wanted to go. We knew that we had to talk to men. And so his coming at the time he did, looking for … this administrative mentorship, gave us an opportunity to get the research done … by someone who we wanted to see developed. So we did know what we wanted to do and we gave him a task. He put together the list, he made [visits] to the executive directors, who are men of several different kinds of organizations, prisoner reentry programs …

MR: Faith-based programs …

RAK: … Youth mentoring programs. All different kinds of people. Our governmental, state, and local governmental offices, and talked with them. And we decided then that we needed to bring them together for a dialogue. And we decided food was … required. And male food—not just food. We eat all the time when we meet …

MR: …But salads…

RAK: But male food. We needed to have steak! We needed to have meat! And the restaurant that we chose catered to the sort of manly “we gotta hunt” [all laugh]. It has dark wood. We talked about that. I mean we’re laughing about it, but we really talked about the environment that we wanted to be able to do this in. It couldn’t feel too girlie, as it were. It needed to be a manly environment.

MR: And we stepped back.

RAK: We had questions. We knew we had to deliver basic information, and so that was the other thing. We knew what kind of information … we needed to bring to this group of men — the attention that the HIV epidemic is [getting] in our community—and give them not just … the statistics, but … our interpretation of it. That there’s a group of us that are being missed that are passing the virus on. It’s young men, young adolescent, early, young adults who are sexually active, who are missing gender and cultural pride associated with it. There are men who are seniors, who [are] … by themselves. They have some income, … are getting sex [in exchange for giving] money, companionship. Not prostituting in that sense, but they are viable, they are alive, Viagra generation, we needed to get them in. How do we do that?

And so we had one of our physicians do a presentation on basic HIV, the seriousness of the epidemic, and that gave them … basic information. Once that happened, then we could pose the question to them, “What do you think we should do about this?” And then posted notes all over the walls; brainstorming … to look at [it] from their perspective. And some of the ideas that they came up with … will speak to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but also address some of the social concerns for the community in a much larger way…. The idea of what is a man? I thought that was one of the most profound questions put forward. How do you define it? Which gives you both cultural and gender pride … to want to do something helpful and positive for the community? And I thought the fact that they spent so much time talking about that was so important.

LB: In closing, what sort of advice would you have for groups in other cities who are interested in focusing programs on heterosexual men?

AB: Well, I think one of the lessons I have learned [is] … that you just need to take it on and do it…. So often we think and think and don’t move, and don’t begin. And so if you never start it, then you’ll never get it done. And, don’t wait until you get a lot of money. Find partners in your community. Sometimes it takes just hobbling along until you really get the partners, get the funding, but continue to build.… Eventually it will be a success. That has been our whole experience here at the Circle. We didn’t start as a big program. It was a small program, but we have a community. We have always had a community spirit and have always had partners.

MR: Document your process. The reason we can say that we had some success, more success, less success in our other projects is that we wrote it down and we could see where we were very successful, we could see where we were successful, but not in the way we wanted to. For [Straight Up!], which is going to be a hybrid of some other types of things, it will be important … to … step by step [write down] everything that has been done. And so that way at the end of this 6 month period and another 6 month period, 18 month period, …we can look back and see how well we actually did.

RAK: I would also encourage community groups to go with their guts. It’s important to have the scientific, empirical backup for what you do so that you can demonstrate it in that very polished, professional way. It is important to engage university partners, all that kind of thing. But I think one of the things that has been a pillar for us is that we feel we are a part of the community. We talk about what it is like for us. We’re not “them.” We’re a part of the group of people that we are really trying to help, and I think that that allows you to, with that gut reaction, say, okay, knowing what we then know, how can we approach doing something about it? And people sometimes dismiss that. They go, “Oh, you’re just a consumer or you’re just a program director, you don’t really know.” But I think we do know and we should work with that. Don’t dismiss that.