The Grassroot Project: Combining HIV Education and Role Models Into One

The issue of HIV and AIDS is bigger than Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe, and Ryan White combined. Even bigger issue? The number of people who can recognize those names in our generation is fading away… Magic Johnson: first round NBA draft pick, infected with HIV in 1991. Arthur Ashe: one of the most talented American tennis players ever, infected with HIV at some point in the early 80’s, died from the disease in 1993. Ryan White: small town kid from Indiana expelled from middle school due to his diagnosis, infected in 1984, died from the disease in 1990. All important figures in the HIV/AIDS world at one time or another that helped to destigmatize and put a face to this devastating disease.

Poverty, education, and stigma are the major sociological root causes of this horrible disease. According to the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance and the Center for Disease Control, 75% of people infected with HIV are living below the poverty threshold in the United States. In order to change that number, people need to become educated about the disease in order to make safer decisions. Due to the high correlation between education level and socioeconomic status in the U.S., we’ve seen a clear connection since the 1980s of increased poverty rates, lower education rates and as a result, higher rates of HIV. Research shows that if implemented correctly, “evidence-based sexual health education programs are effective in decreasing youth sexual risk behaviors, including delaying the onset of sexual activity and increasing the use of condoms among youth who are sexually active,” according to the District of Columbia’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2012. If people are educated about HIV there is the potential to reduce the negative stigma of HIV being a disease “only gay people have” or a disease “only drug addicts have.”

The number of HIV positive people in the District of Columbia is, literally, an epidemic. Youth that are infected or at risk need someone to look up to; someone to inspire hope and courage, someone to educate them about HIV transmission and epidemiology. They need someone to show them how HIV could drastically affect their lifestyle, as well as the effects on their family and friends; someone to help the community take preventive action; and in the end, someone to support them. Who are young people most likely to listen to? Someone they perceive as a role model.  

This is where The Grassroot Project comes into play. The Grassroot Project is a collaborative group of Division 1 athletes from The George Washington University, Georgetown University, Howard University, and University of Maryland that teaches HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention to at-risk youth. The ultimate goal of The Grassroot Project is to create an AIDS-free generation in D.C., using the theory of sport for social change. Grassroots “coaches” use a unique curriculum to create a fun and safe environment where students can share their feelings and beliefs, increase knowledge, and develop healthy and safe attitudes toward HIV and AIDS. Throughout this 8 week program, coaches not only educate middle school students about HIV but also develop relationships as role models and mentors. This provides a mutually beneficial relationship as student-athletes learn more about the hardships within their community, while middle school students feel a connection to a hard working, accomplished collegiate student-athlete.

Talking about sex, drugs, and a life threatening disease is always uncomfortable, as one could imagine. When you’re 12 years old, it’s even more difficult. Grassroots aims to create a more comfortable environment to help address the HIV issue in D.C., as well as create ways to support those with HIV in order to reduce the stigma. The Grassroot Project coaches portray the program as an active fight for change, and challenge the students to join in. Students form bonds and relationships that last beyond just the 8-week program. The Grassroots coaches then become an outlet for at-risk youth in other times of need or question.

Since the pilot program in 2009, Grassroots has touched the lives of over 3,000 middle and high school students in 40 different schools. In order to keep those numbers growing, people need to be informed about what Grassroots is in order to become actively involved. One of the sayings heard frequently at the SEED School in Southeast D.C., where Grassroots has multiple programs this semester, is: “be a leader, not a follower.” That is exactly what The Grassroot Project is trying to project to the students. It is in the hands of many individuals working together as a community to support those with HIV, to protect themselves from HIV and to educate their loved ones about the disease. We are all participants in creating an AIDS-free generation in Washington, D.C., The Grassroot Project is just the first step in creating a community that is ready to fight.