My name is Dara Gordon and I’m from Toronto, Canada although I spent the last 5 years living in Ottawa where I completed my undergraduate degree. I am one of 6 CIDA interns hired by ICAD to work in the Caribbean with a grassroots HIV/AIDS organization. Samara (my lovely partner in crime and in the eyes of most Antiguans, my sister) and I have now being living “on island” for almost 3 weeks. After losing a bag and being held at the airport for 2.5 hours until the airport’s resident pharmacist came to confirm that my probiotics and meds were nonthreatening, we were allowed through customs to begin our life here for half a year.
Samara and I are working at an HIV outreach organization that provides peer counselling to men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers (SW), and at risk youth. It is called the Antiguan Resilience Collective Inc. (ARC). The organization was established through a project run by two host organizations including the Directorate of Gender Affairs and was funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). ARC has been a legally registered NGO since September 16, 2011.
Currently, I am working on my first assignment, which is a grant proposal. I am going to be responsible for helping leverage funds for the organization to hire, train and retain outreach workers to work with ARC’s vulnerable populations. This position seems like a genuinely perfect spot for me as it intersects several facets of ARC’s core operations including program development, monitoring and evaluation, research, financial analysis, and networking with other actors in our system, hereby presenting me a significant but dynamic learning curve.
Most of ARC’s past programs have followed the same structure:
1. Interview MSM outreach workers to be peer educators to other MSM;
2. Train these MSM educators on HIV and STI transmission, prevention, and leadership, behaviour change and communication skills;
3. Send MSM outreach workers into the field on their own time to counsel their peers on these issues and complete client intake forms, (have MSM provide a referral service for MSM to get treated at an MSM friendly clinic);
4. Have MSM outreach workers provide condoms, lubricants, and other safe sex commodities and information;
5. Collect client intake forms and run a debriefing session with MSM outreach workers to detect gaps in the information they’re providing;
6. Contact public health clinics and compile data of who went for testing;
The cycle and duration of these programs are based on the amount of funding we can gather. Because ARC is incredibly young and functioning with restricted human capacity, I am currently working in tandem with Craig, my supervisor and ARC’s Executive Director, to create upcoming projects and he has so far given me a substantial amount of creative liberty to really create something here (and then ask him tons of questions!).
As the two of us have sat in his sweltering office discussing ARC’s five-year Strategic Plan, objectives, and SWOT analysis, I’ve subconsciously begun to create a systems map for ARC. Thanks to a few years with my friends at Engineers Without Borders, I’ve developed the autonomic impulse to orient complex issues in a visual map of actors and influencers. I’m asking: How can ARC reach more MSM through outreach to provide HIV prevention education? How can ARC work with community clinics to provide testing and services that are MSM friendly? How can ARC retain its MSM outreach workers to form a cadre of trained peer educators? If heterosexual, gay, bisexual and transsexual people are all at risk for HIV, why is MSM outreach the best avenue to reach the population? Who else influences prevention education and how can we strengthen our working relationships with them?
Listening to Craig and mapping these relationships has allowed me to highlight where ARC’s strengths lie and what relationships, actors and issues to focus on when crafting proposals for ARC’s next projects (including trying to involve members of the Ministry of Health, the National AIDS Secretariat, and other stakeholders in the next round). I am humbled by this opportunity but there is obvious value in building a project on the shoulders of past projects and not reinventing the wheel.
Final thoughts: Working with an HIV organization that serves men who have sex with men, including male sex workers is unfortunately unfavourable in Antigua and for that matter most Caribbean and other developing countries. A caveat of this work means that when asked why we’re living in Antigua and who we’re working with, Samara and I have resigned to saying we’re working with the Directorate of Gender Affairs. This is true given that the Directorate is where Craig works and ARC does not have an office, but a small part of me is defiantly frustrated by the intolerance which fuels the need for MSM to remain underground in society.
Antigua is hot and sticky and muggy but the beaches are oh so lovely. Plus the tropical storms are crazy.
Carnival was a sea of colour, soca beats, dancing and insanity and gave us a very rich introduction to Caribbean culture.
Buses: I am totally enthralled with the bus system here. Buses are essentially small Canadian utility vans. Buses seem to run every 2 minutes as I have yet to wait longer than this while standing on All Saints Road. They pull up, you open the sliding door, say good morning, good day or good evening to everyone on the bus and then you walk crouched to your seat. To get off the bus, you say (calmly; Samara and I quickly learned to turn down our frantic), “Bus stop” and the driver pulls to the side of the road while other cars whiz past and you climb out and give him EC$2.5 through the window. Also, buses wait for you if they can see you coming down another street. Fantastic.
The best pick-up line to date is: “Cinderella, Snow White, come let me be your fairy god-father”.
Love and best,
Also, my phone number is +1 (268) 723-8659 should you wish to say hey. Especially those of you with free/cheap international texting/calling, hello.