May 5, 2010
Erica Douglas: Empowering Black Women in the Florida Panhandle
by James Wortman
Erica Douglas, the regional minority AIDS coordinator for the Escambia County Health Department in Pensacola, Florida, is working with Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS) to put together the region’s first Women’s Health and Empowerment Conference, which will be held May 15. POZ spoke with Douglas about this conference and the challenges of reaching African-American women in Florida.
What inspired you to become an HIV advocate?
I was introduced to HIV/AIDS in 2007 when I studied health care administration at the University of West Florida. Prior to that, I had a baseline knowledge of what HIV was and how it was transmitted. But it wasn’t until then that I realized just how disproportionately affected black women were. I really wanted to get involved and learn more. Lo and behold, a year or so later, I received an opportunity to work in the HIV/AIDS office of the Escambia County Health Department in Pensacola, Florida. I gladly accepted, and I’ve been in that position ever since.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in terms of promoting HIV prevention and education among black women specifically?
Well, the thing about it is that black, heterosexual women don’t realize how this disease is affecting their demographic. Some of them just aren’t taking the proper precautions in protecting themselves and their partners. What I’ve found is that there’s a stigma in the black women’s community. They think only white men can get this disease. So when you go and present the message, some black women are not taking it as seriously as they should because they think it won’t happen to them.
Also, I’ve found some of the establishments that black women frequent don’t find it fitting to have HIV education provided. They won’t allow us to leave HIV education materials. I think this is caused by a lack of education and some misconceptions about how this disease is transmitted and who’s affected by it.
In addition to being Escambia County’s regional minority AIDS coordinator (RMAC), you’re also the HIV/AIDS program’s early intervention consultant (EIC). What are your responsibilities in that role?
As the EIC, my primary responsibility is overseeing the registered testing sites. I supervise four counties. For each site registered through the state of Florida, I visit and do site evaluations to make sure they’re compliant with security and policy mandates. I also offer technical assistance when necessary and provide materials for those who express interest in becoming a registered site.
Also, at our health department, I’m the lead contact with our testing locations. For anything that has to do with testing, counseling, referral services or linkages in the four-county spread, I’m the go-to person.
Tell me about the upcoming Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS) Women’s Health and Empowerment Conference in Pensacola.
SOS is a grassroots mobilization of black women in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and I’m in the process of organizing our very first SOS conference. The objective [of SOS] is to educate women about the virus and empower them to take charge of their health. Another goal is to connect them to HIV resources in their communities and offer them tools that will further educate others where they live, work, play and worship.
I’ve been planning this for about three months, and the response has been great. For this conference, what I wanted to do was open it to all women. The lineup I have will definitely be geared to women of different nationalities, ages and economic statuses. There will definitely be something there for everyone. One of the things I’m really excited about is we were able to get Emmy Award–winning AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton to be our keynote speaker. She’s going to share her story of living with HIV/AIDS for more than 20 years and educate participants about the fact that AIDS is a nondiscriminatory disease. We also have several community and civic leaders from our state who are going to come to the Panhandle.
In addition, during these SOS conferences, you usually have a “We Take the Pledge” ceremony. That’s where women pledge to educate each other, empower each other and promise to serve as resources for each other. [We’re going to] incorporate that during the candlelight service at the end of the conference.
How is Florida’s HIV epidemic unique?
As is the case across the country, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects the black community. In Florida, AIDS is the leading cause of death for black males and females ages 25 to 44. What’s interesting is that Florida blacks account for 51 percent of all persons living with HIV/AIDS, but we make up 14 percent of the population. And specifically in Escambia County, 50 percent of the adult AIDS cases and 52 percent of the adult HIV cases are among blacks.
But in Florida, we have different things in place to address these issues and close that gap. We have RMACs placed in various demographic regions throughout the state. We are legislatively mandated to help promote and conduct HIV activities to reduce new infections. Also, we assist in increasing HIV testing and linkage to services as well as helping [people in] communities of color get into care. As a RMAC, I also go into communities to promote, coordinate and plan different activities around HIV awareness days, and we work with the media to broadcast HIV messages.
But Florida also has one of the largest funded testing programs there is. In 2009, our state conducted more than 378,000 HIV tests in those publicly funded sites, which was a 62 percent increase since 2000. So we have definitely been busy. A lot of that is attributed to the work and time given by the EICs. Throughout the state, there are about 14 EICs. We have been very busy going into those hard-to-reach areas. We have mobile units that actually go out and do testing in rural areas, and we do a lot of campaigning. We try to get the community involved via different events that offer testing.
You mentioned getting places of worship involved. Why is it so important to work with faith-based organizations to address HIV/AIDS in the black community?
People at the Florida Department of Health recognize that the church is the hub or the nucleus, especially in the black community. That’s where people go to worship, for fellowship, to seek advice and guidance and to get educated. We wanted to make sure we work with those religious leaders and with those health ministries in order to get our HIV message into the churches.
As a state, we’ve formed partnerships with various faith-based organizations. The first was with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. We’ve been asked by the AME bishop to work at local levels to have at least one testing location in an AME church in each county. And we have 67 counties. So with that, ideally, we will have 67 AME churches that will have a testing location within the congregation.
The second partnership that we have is with the General Baptist State Convention. We’re working with them to create HIV health ministries in each church in the association within a five-year span. And I believe we’re in the beginning of year three right now.
And then the third partnership is with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Basically, we offer them assistance to help strengthen the capacity of the organization to meet their HIV needs. They have certain goals within the SCLC that they have to meet. One is working with their HIV initiative, “Silence Is Sinful.” Last summer, we were able to work with the local chapter and put on a huge community health fair, where we offered HIV testing. So we’ve been working very closely with these partners and honing in on these faith-based organizations. That’s where the people go, and we want to be where the people are to get our HIV message in.
To learn more about Pensacola’s first annual SOS Women’s Health and Empowerment Conference, click here.
Search: Erica Douglas, Advocate of the Month, Escambia County Health Department, Women's Health and Empowerment Conference
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