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Convening to Co-Create a Sex-Positive Narrative about HIV Centering Black Women: A Change Is Gonna Come

Jessie Landerman, Senior Consultant, Integrated Initiatives

Jennifer Stephens, Associate Director, Integrated Initiatives

A hallmark of a good convening is that it reflects the group’s culture and takes an energizing, inspiring approach that shares the aspirations of the convening itself. TCC used song titles from Black artists from across genres and generations to frame the co-creation of sessions of the inaugural Black Women’s Working Group to Reframe Risk (BWWG)—a group of 12 cisgender and transgender women living with and working in HIV convened to help chart a new narrative for HIV prevention. Let’s Talk About Sex. Feeling Good As Hell. Shout. Each song helped set the stage for the purpose of each session and connect to the group.

Formed in 2021, the BWWG helped our client, a major healthcare funder, launch a new narrative for HIV prevention, rooted in values and centering the needs and experiences of Black cisgender and transgender women. The narrative movement has reached more than 28,000 people and continues to gain momentum, and at its heart was bringing people together to create and disseminate sex- positive narratives.

Why Convene?

For years, we have worked with funders, nonprofits and community leaders to address racial/ethnic health disparities, particularly when it comes to HIV. Community advisors and partners had long emphasized the need to “reframe risk” when it comes to HIV and women, particularly in ways that would resonate for women of color. Our client invited us to design and facilitate a narrative change process that would form the foundation of a multi-year initiative and national movement to improve women of color’s access to HIV prevention and care.

To shift the narrative away from “risk,” we had to get the right people in the “room” to guide and shape the work, facilitate using multiple modalities and an authentic presence and create a space for all voices.

Who to Convene?

To ensure we could authentically and effectively serve the audience, we recommended our client focus on addressing the prevention needs of Black cisgender and transgender women instead of more broadly working to reach women of color. How come? Black women face unique stigma, threats and danger in relation to their race, gender, sexuality, sexual pleasure, motherhood and social determinants of health. Further, the disparities in HIV rates for Black cisgender and transgender women compared to other racial/ethnic groups and a historic focus on gay men when it comes to HIV has left women’s needs overlooked and ignored.

To succeed in reaching Black women, we knew that we needed to center the voices and experiences of community members. Leveraging our team’s deep history and experience working in HIV—and largely driven by the well-connected Black female community organizer with lived and professional HIV experience on the team—helped us to connect, interview potential members, and invite a final group of 12 women to join the BWWG. The inaugural BWWG were paid as consultants for their time and included women who are advocates, frontline providers, communication experts and researchers, ranging in age and geography. (See the Risk to Reasons Guide for more on the BWWG)

How to Convene?

The goal was to bring together Black women living with and working in HIV to better understand the circumstances, challenges and motivations that impact Black women’s awareness, knowledge and use of prevention and care strategies, and to create a new framework and narrative for HIV and Black women. Over eight months, we used a trauma-informed, design-thinking process to collaboratively explore problems and solutions.

Each 90-120 minute virtual session had a specific focus and objective. Topics included sex education, mass media representation, public health interventions, social determinants of health, wellness, intersectional feminism and Black womanhood. Activities took place during and outside of scheduled sessions and included readings, video viewings, polls, discussions, brainstorms, writing exercises, creative production, research and presentations—all designed to distill and clarify the barriers and opportunities related to Black women’s access and uptake of HIV prevention and care strategies. Working group members helped set goals, articulate values, craft messages and prioritize audiences and actions deemed essential to building and amplifying a more empowering narrative that reflects the diverse and complex experiences of Black women. Over the course of the sessions, we witnessed the group coalesce into champions and ambassadors committed to carrying this work forward in the long term.

What Was Created

Stories from the BWWG envisioned the world they want to see: where Black women’s multi-faceted identities are seen and respected, bodily autonomy is fostered alongside self-love and self-care, and open dialogues about sex promote freedom, pleasure and desire. The core values of these stories formed the foundation of a new paradigm for HIV prevention.

We synthesized insights and top recommendations from the co-design process into a narrative guide for broad dissemination. A community activation strategy launched in Spring 2022 supported BWWG and other leaders in reaching more than 28,000 Black women, allies and providers through workshops, presentations, cultural events and more. Starting in fall 2022, a $5M grants portfolio will fund 17 projects that reimagine HIV prevention for Black women at housing and homelessness centers, domestic violence organizations, medical training institutions, and other critical spaces.

Lessons Learned

Co-creation required time, trust, and leaning into discomfort. Sharing power and working collectively to reach decisions goes against many dominant cultural norms. Because we began this journey with the BWWG knowing we were working towards improving the HIV prevention narrative for Black women but without clarity on what the final products would be, it required the group to embrace the ambiguity of the process. Ensuring meaningful contributions from all members of the BWWG required an openness to new ideas and critiques, providing multiple pathways for contributions, and at times slowing down to be responsive when people’s lives got complicated. We also took space to address important challenges, including ongoing debates about the intersecting needs of women of cis and trans experience. Being willing to take on these conflicts and allow feelings and emotions space to occur strengthened relationships and allowed us to access depths of knowledge and feeling that landed us with a breakthrough set of insights.

Black women-owned and -led spaces were essential. Our team was intentional in balancing the presence of allies in the work who have important roles to play but are not Black women. The primary facilitator identified as a Black woman and set guidelines for how and when the voices of allies came forward in balance with those of the BWWG. We used multimodal methods of engagement that included verbal and written forms and large and small group work. This allowed the BWWG to bring more of themselves into the room, more comfortably share stories and find understanding, contribute profound solutions, and help create a movement culture that is by and for Black women. Following Black women’s leadership has also been essential to sustaining momentum and long-term engagement.

The narrative of “Reasons for HIV prevention” resonated well beyond Black women. When we introduced the Risk to Reasons Initiative to providers, youth, BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, we were struck by the magnitude and diversity of people who came forward to share how much this narrative resonated with their needs, desires, and experiences. This community response demonstrates that our approach of convening for co-creation generated genuine, empowering narrative that engaged individuals from all walks of life on an emotional level.

There is a rich range of social change that convenings can accelerate. TCC goes beyond facilitation, convening in partnership with our clients to co-create and produce results that naturally generate audience buy-in and relatable narrative. To learn more about how we can help develop and implement your next convening or narrative change work, contact us here.

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