We welcome Alberto Barragan as our New Director of Prevention. Recently, I spent a few minutes getting to know Berto (as he prefers to be called), and wanted to share a bit of his story.
Alberto initially spent four years in the military with the U.S. Marine Corps, and also later returned there for a follow-up tour of duty in Afganistan. His time in the military involved serving as a telecommunications engineer; he also helped to run the military switchboard while in Afganistan.
When he left the Marine Corps in 2005, Berto returned to his home near Chicago, where for the first time, he began to seek out volunteer opportunities, specifically in the area of support groups for gay men.
Berto says he grew up not knowing anything about AIDS/HIV. He also sadly admits, “There was no discussion of safe sex practices in the military”. However, everything changed for him, when he was profoundly touched by a close friend in Chicago, who was newly diagnosed as HIV positive and shared that ominous news with him. This friend was only 21 years old at the time. Berto was very disappointed that he found himself “unable to help my friend in some meaningful way after he was diagnosed as positive”. That situation resonated with him to create a new personal priority for wanting to keep others negative and safe from HIV/AIDS, particularly those in their youth. He confesses to always being “deeply affected, when any young person is experiencing the news of becoming newly HIV positive”.
Having been inspired by the cause, he soon became a test counsellor at Project VIDA and eventually assumed the leadership role for support groups within the Chicago agency. In particular he highlights his work there as being focused on various target populations: one being individuals aged 13 to 24, another for those age 25 and above, and a third for high-risk heterosexual men having with a gang influence in their lives.
Being a young man, Berto has moved around quite a bit in recent years. He has spent several years each in Albuquerque and California, as well as more recently in San Antonio. He moved to San Antonio specifically with the idea of maximizing how his income could afford himself a more comfortable lifestyle in Texas versus other places he had lived. He also really wanted to retreat from a cold weather environment.
Berto comes to ASA from the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, where he served in a similar capacity as their Director of Testing. Berto chose to come to ASA because he viewed this as an opportunity for personal growth, in part because he managed a much smaller work team in San Antonio. He also highly values the expansiveness of ASA’s mission, when he says, “ASA’s approach to serving the community is much more holistic, than my previous assignment in San Antonio”.
Berto hopes that people will view him as “easily adaptable” as the new Director of Prevention here at ASA. He truly enjoys working with others and he expects to have success in his new role in large part because of that desire to help others.
One of the main reasons Berto took the Prevention Director position here is that he feels that unlike his previous assignment, ASA already has the mechanisms in place to be able to expand new and existing services within the community. For example, Berto considers ASA to be ahead of the curve when compared to other HIV/AIDS prevention agencies, in that there is a focus here on advocating for PReP as a key prevention strategy.
Three additional strengths of the ASA cultural environment that stand out to him include:
When looking towards an ideal future, Berto aspires, “to see all HIV/AIDS positive persons actively managing their health situations.” In addition, he feels that “Now more than ever, the tools exist to help make prevention much more successful than in the past.”
Berto also believes the time has finally come for success in addressing the obstacles posed within society by both cultural and religious influences. In that regard, he longs to see more comprehensive sex education in schools and would like all HIV negative members of society to choose to include annual testing for HIV, as part of their routine proactive health management plan.
Berto has only been in Austin for only two weeks now. As of yet, he says he does not have a feel for how easy or difficult the transition from San Antonio will be for him.
Berto shared that he feels, “Austin would be better suited to my personal desires, given the emphasis on living an active lifestyle is so prevalent here”. Outside of work at ASA, he is hoping to get involved in one or more of Austin’s gay sports associations. Currently, he is looking at the flag football league just now starting-up here. Berto admits to some recent back issues, but hopes his physical stature will make him a good candidate for an interior lineman on a prospective team. Berto predicts he can make an impression there by, “showing off some of my fancy moves”, and good-naturedly hopes that will compensate for any liability in “not being able to run very fast!” Berto says he might also consider Austin’s softball or volleyball leagues as well.
Continuing with our Open House, we move on to CDN and take a look at our testing van.
Each month, CDN distributes 3,300 volunteer-assembled safe sex kits to 81 sites in the city. Each kit contains condoms, lubricant packets, a prep chart, and a card with ASA testing sites and hours. CDN also takes a holistic,
community-based approach to prevention by providing personal hygiene kits to Austin’s homeless population (shaving supplies, dental products, soap, hand sanitizer, etc.) and risk reduction kits that reduce the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users.
CDN is always looking for volunteers and is a fantastic space for group volunteering; as Volunteer Manager Megan Satterfield put it, “Come relax, have snacks, make packs!”
The “mobile office” of ASA, the testing van recently received a paint job make-over from Marcus Sanchez for easy recognition around town. The van, which brings many new clients to ASA, has two testing areas with comfy seats where those wanting to be tested can receive one-on-one attention behind closed doors. Different tests are performed based on initial risk assessment, including syphilis and Hepatitis C tests for high-risk individuals. “The idea is to meet people where they are at,” said Testing Manager Camarion Anderson. “We are taking our services to the community in a sacred space. Whether we are directly affected by this or not, we are all educators. When we open our mouths and say something positive, we affirm that person can continue to thrive.”
The van goes out each week to 4 main sites in the city, including Austin’s popular downtown gay district. For days, times and locations, check the ASA website.
The HIV pandemic is far from over, but ASA is grassroots testament to the power of community and respect to fight the disease and support those in need. “Thirty years ago, all we could really offer HIV positive people was compassion and respite care,” said executive director Paul Scott. “Now, we’ve gone from holding people’s hands at their deathbed to holding them up with our hands, and letting them go to live their lives.”
Our Monthly Open House is open to the public. Register here.
“Free Your Mind, Know Your Status” is a call to action emended in the art wrapping the side of ASA’s testing van. The artwork was created by ASA staff member, Marcus Sanchez. In between ground-up community building at The Q and prepping for the upcoming sixteenth annual Art Erotica show, we sat down with Marcus to talk about the van art, community outreach, and how creativity plays a role in HIV/AIDS activism and support.
What was the concept behind the artwork?
Free Your Mind, Know Your Status came from the prevention team. We wanted something that really spoke to clients – when we took the van out to high risk neighborhoods, people had a lot of anxiety and stress over getting tested. It was the street outreach team that conceptualized the idea, and I stepped in with the art. I looked at other testing vans that had a lot of digital art, but I wanted something hand made with a DIY feel to reflect Austin’s unique art culture. But we also wanted something that spoke to all the communities we serve within Austin; after all, the skyline looks different depending on which side of the bridge you are on. I decided to go with a sort of tattoo flash art design, something colorful and inviting that is easy for everyone to relate to. There are also no red ribbons or symbols that are overtly associated with HIV/AIDS, to reduce fear of stigmatization.
What was the creation process like? What medium was used to create the art?
We talked to Q clients and worked closely with focus groups concerning women and people of color. We wanted to know, “What would make you more inclined to step in the van and get tested?” I made the initial artwork mostly from watercolor, ink, and colored pencil, and it was really interesting to see how my art translated onto the van.
Do you feel like the art has a positive affect on people getting tested?
It has definitely opened the conversation up for a lot of new people. Sometimes when we are parked downtown at the clubs, people approach us thinking it’s a party bus. Even if they don’t get tested that day, it piques their curiously and starts a dialogue about sexual health and safer sex. It’s a conversation piece, especially since the slogan is written in English and Spanish. Our goal is always communication and outreach with the community, and it is helping us do just that.
Do you believe there is a place for art in the work ASA does?
Absolutely! At The Q, for example, we have rotating art from community. It brings people to the space and reaches them in a relatable way.
Do you have any other artistically inclined projects in mind for ASA programs?
Right now at The Q, we’ve created a SXSW campaign where we are partnering with the City of Austin and other nonprofits to create bus ads and wrist bands to get the word out in the community. I’m also participating in Art Erotica for the Paul Kirby Emergency Fund. Specifically, I’m working with the Penis Project: I make plaster molds of penises and give to artists to decorate however they like. At the show, they will all be auctioned off. There’s a Vagina Project, too!
Nori Hubert contributed to this article.
You’ve probably heard us talk about the amazing volunteers we have at The Q and how vital they are to Mpowerment. We like to share the cool work and events happening in our space so I just have to tell you about last night!
Texas Department of State Health Services conducted a focus group with our Core Group of volunteers to talk about PrEP and get an idea of the knowledge and conversations young MSM are having. We had 19 dedicated volunteers in attendance and they were ready to have a real conversation about PrEP. We heard about their own experiences with accessing PrEP, stigma, and concerns as well as what they hear from their friends and other sources like social media and hook up apps. The facilitators were blown away by the amount of knowledge, humor, honesty, and dedication to sexual health promotion in the room. I myself was speechless at times to hear how much these guys are not only getting from the Mpowerment Project, but taking what they learn to their own social circles. We were the first of several focus groups to be held throughout the state and the facilitators were in agreement that our guys have set the bar pretty high. I also want to thank the staff who were there to participate and support!
– Marcus Sanchez, Mpowerment Coordinator
On behalf of the board, volunteers, staff and—most of all—our clients, thank you for seizing the moment and supporting of AIDS Services of Austin. The generous gifts donated through Amplify Austin are vital to the success of our 11 award winning and life changing programs and the more than 7,000 Central Texans who depend on them.
In total, our supporters raised more than $115,000 which will be amplified by a matching gift from the St. David’s Foundation. Over 600 non-profits participated this year, and because of your support, ASA was among the top ten for the second straight year. Your generosity will provide critical support services, as well as food, medicine, dental care, legal services, social support, and countless other day-to-day needs of Central Texans living with HIV and AIDS.
Gifts like yours helped us serve more than 1400 people living with HIV and AIDS and provided prevention education to over 7,600 in our community last year! Every day, your support goes to work in our community, touching the lives of countless individuals. Individuals like Denise.
When Denise found out she was HIV positive she says, “It was like a bucket of ice water had been pour over me. I felt numb.” But with the help of ASA, Denise moved from a place of confusion into a position of knowledge and power, building important skills and feeling better every day about her journey. The fulltime guardian of her granddaughter, Denise has important years ahead of her, thanks to her work with ASA she “knows I’ll be around to help her.”
We could not do this work without the commitment of supporters like you. Today is an awesome reminder of our communities commitment to the health and well-being of the community and people affected by HIV and AIDS.
For all of this, and so much more, we thank you for helping ASA support the people most in need.
The following is a letter from Paul Scot, Executive Director of ASA, published in the ASA UPDATE newsletter.
There are pivotal moments in our lives that send us in a new direction – sometimes by choice, sometimes by chance, and sometimes by fate. For our clients, those moments can cover a wide range of opportunities. AIDS Services of Austin’s staff and volunteers are here to help in those moments: the moment to educate how the use of a condom reduces HIV transmission, the moment you get an HIV test to know your status, the moment you accept the need for help accessing medical services, housing, dental care, food for you and your family, or a helping hand.
For many of our supporters, that pivotal moment was when they looked into the eyes of a loved one or friend and heard them say, “I am HIV positive.” That moment was a catalyst to become educated, to start volunteering, to provide financial support, or to hold that loved one or friend a little closer.
Right now, it is important to stop and realize how much HIV is still impacting our lives and community. On February 24, 2016, the CDC reported from the 2016 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston: “…at current diagnosis rates, half of black gay men and a quarter of Latino gay men will be diagnosed with HIV within their lifetime.” Take a moment to think about what that could mean: If we don’t change strategies, expand healthcare and address health disparities, one-half of black gay man and one-quarter of Hispanic gay men will become positive.
AIDS Services of Austin is working to address health disparities with mobile testing and HIV education and outreach. The Q Austin is building new relationships in diverse communities to build social networks and to have sex-positive conversations. We continue to make the most of each moment to educate about the impact of HIV on a person’s life and on our community. Please take a moment to think about how you can help – volunteer with ASA, have a conversation with a friend about getting tested or getting on PrEP to prevent HIV transmission, or make a contribution through Amplify Austin. That moment can make a larger difference in the life of someone you care about.