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NCFY: Welcome to Youth Speak Out, a podcast series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau. Christopher Barnhill was 16 when he learned that he’d been born HIV-positive. That shocking discovery set him on a course to teach other young people about the realities if sexual health. At age 25, he’s now an educator for Metro Teen AIDS in Washington, D.C., and says that his clients are inundated with sexual images, facts and warnings. But that makes it all the more important to put a human face on the HIV issue.
CHRISTOPHER BARNHILL: One thing I’ve learned is that young people know a lot more than what we think they know. These are kids that have information at their disposal 24 hours of the day. This generation’s definitely HIV-fatigued. I mean, you can’t go, "What does the H stand for? What does the I stand for? What does the V stand for?" Because they already know that.
Now they need to really understand and see other young people who are HIV positive and how they’re living and how they’re going through life as being young and HIV-positive. I think that is something that is missing from the HIV/AIDS work that we do in the community and the schools, that you don’t have enough of those experiences being taught. Every time that I go to a youth group and I tell them my experiences of being positive, it is like they have never met anyone that’s positive before. It helps them in terms of understanding that HIV is real. It’s not an orange or blue pill that you can take and then it’s perfect.
I think that's the falseness of what HIV education is telling young people that, you know, you take an orange or blue pill and it’s going to be manageable. It’s fine. But when you get a person who’s HIV positive and they talk about how hard it is and the challenges that may come along with being HIV-positive, it really drives home.
NCFY: Christopher wasn’t always so willing to put himself on the line as an educator, but he learned early that his perspective, like his personality, could be an asset when addressing a young population that craves honesty.
BARNHILL: When I first started teaching about sexual health, I would come in, just try to be very professional, play by the books, play by the rules. And I was ineffective because I was not being myself. My energy is very youthful. It’s very all over the place. It’s colorful. And so I was giving them a false product of myself. And so, they weren't feeling me until I started to really be comfortable with the work and also be comfortable with myself and trusting myself that I know the information and that I’m here to deliver the information and deliver it in the way that is natural for me to deliver it.
NCFY: But the curiosity has to flow both ways. Christopher says that educators should engage young people’s interests and tastes and always look for underserved populations to reach.
BARNHILL: You kind of have to kind of like go in and really pay attention and ask them what does this mean? What does this style mean? Pay attention to what’s happening in pop culture. Pay attention to what’s happening in fashion. Paying attention to what’s happening in music influences how you bring HIV information to its relevance. Because when you bring current information, it really helps young people kind of understand that it’s not just some 1985 disease that happened and it’s no longer here. It’s still here.
And even in 2013, there are a number of ways that can put you at-risk and young people should know. And I think that's how we really keep it relevant, just keeping our eyes and ears on the ground. This is HIV prevention in the words. And I think what happens is, we get that person in your youth group that is HIV-positive, but how do you reach them? Because we’re talking to people, assuming that they’re all negative. What about the person who is HIV-positive? So what I also say is that if you're HIV-positive, you too need to also protect yourself to prevent contracting another STI or contracting another strain of HIV. But I think that is important. Prevention of positives is probably like my life’s work.
NCFY: Learn more about adolescent pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health by visiting the National Clearinghouse on Families &Youth, online at ncfy.acf.hhs.gov.
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