Speaking up for others has always come naturally to HIV/AIDS activist Christopher K. Wilson-Smith. As the Black AIDS Institute’s new prevention and care manager and head of the Black Treatment Advocates Network Los Angeles (BTAN L.A.) initiative, Wilson-Smith will be giving voice to the needs of Black Angelenos and ensuring that those most at risk for HIV/AIDS are given the life-changing information they need.
For Wilson-Smith, HIV/AIDS advocacy is as personal as it is professional. His first foray into advocacy was for an organization called Know U1st Foundation in L.A. back in 2008, where he facilitated HIV awareness sessions and counseled individuals, families and groups. Then his life took an unexpected turn. “As I got older, I didn’t make some of the safest decisions, and my status changed,” he says. While one might have expected him to take some time to process his HIV diagnosis, “a week later I was on a panel on what it was like to be HIV positive and working in the field,” he says.
Over the next several years he held a number of positions in research and advocacy. His most recent job was at the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine, where he was a staff research associate responsible for recruiting study participants. He also served as a program coordinator for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and as a youth case manager at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he worked specifically with HIV-positive and homeless young people. Throughout his career he has counseled and advocated for those who are most vulnerable. “God has really blessed me and put me in places where I can speak for other people who may not have their voice heard other-wise,” he says.
Gearing Up for BTAN L.A.
Wilson-Smith’s next big challenge will be overseeing BTAN L.A. The effort, which is being funded through a five-year, $3.75 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is designed to create a more collaborative environment among Black PLWHA, service providers to high-risk HIV-negative people who are HIV negative, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Division of HIV and STD Programs, and key stakeholders. The Black AIDS Institute will be partnering with JWCH Institute and T.H.E. (To Help Everyone) Health and Wellness Centers to get BTAN L.A. off the ground.
It will utilize a system dubbed the seek, test, treat and retain, or STTR, model to reach out to Black PLWHA and Black high-risk people who are HIV negative, increasing their involvement in a range of culturally relevant services across the HIV prevention spectrum. The end goal: improving their health outcomes across the HIV treatment cascade.
One of the biggest obstacles to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community, Wilson-Smith says, is a failure to get information to people, whether it’s about the need for HIV testing, the power of biomedical prevention strategies such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or the availability of resources for receiving care. “We’re doing the work, but we’re still missing that target population,” Wilson-Smith says.
Creating a peer network is one way to reach that population. Wilson-Smith hopes that in his new role, he will be able to identify even more creative ways to get the message out to those who need to hear it the most. “I think a huge piece of why this position was created was to bridge that gap between organizations and the community,” he says.
A Life-Transforming Mission
Over the next five years, BTAN L.A. will conduct targeted HIV testing, link those who are diagnosed to care, and test them for other sexually transmitted infections and hepatitis C. BTAN L.A. will also refer HIV-positive and high-risk HIV-negative people to other services as needed. For example, it might provide someone with information about where he or she can get PrEP or steer another person to food, housing, mental-health or substance-abuse services.
BTAN L.A. has the power not only to transform the Los Angeles area but also to be a model that can be replicated across the country, says Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute. “On a local level this project will show the benefits of embedding people living with HIV and AIDS and high-risk negatives in the process of identifying undiagnosed cases,” Wilson says. Through the involvement of PLWHA and other stakeholders, there will be increased testing and more expedited linkage to care, according to Wilson. But perhaps more important, people will have the support and knowledge they need to stay in care.
Certain themes have been central to Wilson-Smith’s life, such as his strong sense of community, his insistence on speaking up for himself and others, and his belief in the power of transformation. “Organizations are doing the work in the community, but people are still getting lost in care,” he says. “We need to figure out why that happens, and BTAN L.A. will answer that call.”
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.