By Imani Williams
DETROIT – Tucked away in a loft located in Detroit’s Greektown is a social service agency that empowers young gay and bisexual men to take control of their personal needs and concerns as it relates to HIV/AIDS, safer sex, prevention and awareness. Mpowerment Detroit offers a clean, safe place for youth ages 14-24 to hang out and meet new people while garnering support and resources to remain healthy.
At first, the civility of the young men there may take you for a loop. It is something you don’t see nearly enough of these days: well-mannered African-American young men who are stepping to the plate to make a difference in their community.
Program Director Jonathon Davis has been on the Detroit scene for several years doing advocacy work to reduce the rise of HIV/AIDS in the black LGBT community.
“The program is funded by the Michigan Aids Fund and we’re in our third year,” Davis said. “We sponsor social groups and events, public forums, and provide up to date approaches to HIV/AIDS and other STD prevention.”
A Youth Community Advisory Board stemmed from Mpowerment Detroit in February 2004. Developed to outreach to the 16-24-year-old LGBT community, they are appropriately named ‘Young Brothers United.’ These young men are prime examples of positive self-esteem and youth leadership at work.
James Mathews, 23, a Wayne State University student, serves as president for YBU. “Thirteen people make up the Advisory Board,” Mathews said. “We have interns that are coming in within the next week.”
Qualifying to become a YBU member is a six-month process that includes various trainings. The trainings serve to weed out persons that may think this is all fun and games. There is an open application process, interested individuals ages 18-24 receive outreach and facilitation training. To gain practice experience, they are requested to pick and present a topic, and to plan and conduct a social event.
YBU members have volunteered and ushered at community events like Detroit’s annual Gospel and Soul Concert, Detroit Black Gay Prides, a recent screening of “Noah’s Arc” and the historical town hall meetings on homophobia in Detroit.
In addition, these young men also serve as a think tank for the community. Agencies call on YBU to get opinions on the needs and wants of this particular age group and population. They are the only entity in the black LGBT community providing outreach at balls and private parties. You can catch them gathering information and passing out resources and safer sex materials at the Woodward bar and at local Strong Arm parties where there are upwards of 700 people in attendance.
Not only do all YBU members hold jobs, they are also college students. They take their jobs as youth leaders seriously.
Detroiter Michael, 19, has been involved with YBU for one year. A student at Henry Ford Community College, YBU has made a difference in his life. “I have gained a lot of self confidence,” Matthews said, “and my speaking and public relation skills have improved.”
Matthews said that when he first became involved with YBU he was out to family members but had never been around more than two or three gay people at a time. “Seeing gay people who seem to have goals and aspirations and who carry themselves with class made me want to learn more about this ‘gay’ thing,” Matthews said. “With YBU, I have been able to experience the positive side of gay life. YBU is amazing!”
Davis says Mpowerment Detroit will work with five Detroit Public High Schools to implement a new prevention program this winter. Students at Cass Tech, Denby, Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, Life Skills Academy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School will be eligible to participate.
Fifty ‘Ambassadors of Knowledge’ will be selected from students who complete the application process and attend the six-hour interactive presentations conducted by YBU and the Mpowerment program. These students will receive outreach and leadership training, and STD presentation facilitation; a resource center will be developed in each of the schools with the selected ambassadors. On Fridays, ambassadors will wear t-shirts and distribute resource information to their peers. The program length is one year. Mpowerment Detroit hopes to implement the program into ten Detroit high schools per year.
“Principals have been very receptive to the idea,” Davis said. He believes the only time prevention is discussed is generally within the context of a health class. According to Davis, prevention is all encompassing and includes more than STD information – it should touch other things that can affect life negatively including teen pregnancy and substance abuse.
“The program serves to help young people make more positive life choices,” he said.