by Mike Wilson
(former IRMA intern, IRMA advocate forever)
Hello IRMA! It feels like I have not said that greeting in ages. I may not be an intern with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, but I have certainly not left behind my engagement with (and love of) IRMA and other HIV prevention organizations.
Since leaving the IRMA internship I have been working as a Youth Advocate for a teen center in the greater Chicago area. While I will honestly attest to the fact that working with the teens at the center and local community has been a rewarding experience, it has not come without its fair share of awkwardness – most notably the “pearl clutching” that occurs when people ask me what I did before working at the teen center.
And to be fair, it hasn’t all been “pearl clutching.” The community in this area is absolutely fantastic, I have been surprised time and time again at how committed this community is to its teens and families. And as my husband and I move to upstate New York, we can only hope that we find ourselves in a community as dedicated to the concept of community. Particularly among the teens there has been a surprising interest in discussing HIV prevention methods – so hopefully the seeds of future activism are being planted.
Along with this surprising interest, there has been confusion and silence as I get the feeling that many of the teens (and members of the community) are ignorant of the HIV/AIDS battle being fought not even a mile away in the city of Chicago. Though the mostly white, fairly wealthy families of this area are privileged enough to not be the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago, but within that privilege they often find themselves shut off from understanding how real and close this epidemic is. Perhaps the best way to explain this is by discussing what happened last weekend.
In an effort to get teens involved in volunteer work, our center leads monthly trips into Chicago to a soup kitchen to let the teens learn about experiences other than their own and to learn the importance of community engagement and volunteerism. These trips involve meeting at the center and then piling into the cars of various staff members.
However, this time, as I was closing up the center doors, teens had began to make their way into the parking lot. A group of four teens happened to notice a small blue Neon that has a few (too many) bumper stickers on the back. Interestingly enough, these teens didn’t know that this was my car. As I approached the group to let them in my car, I could hear them laughing and one of them saying “And Lube? And Lube? What the hell?” To which, the group continued to laugh more than I thought someone could at the concept of lubricant.
Not sure how to proceed I walked through the group and unlocked the car. There was this awkward pause as the teens looked at me, in shock that they were making fun of bumper stickers on a car that they didn’t know was mine. I opened my door to get in and the teens still stood, seeming hesitant. To which I just said, “well lube matters” and quickly followed that with “ok, now come on. We’re going to be late”. And they hurried into the car.
Even with the radio on, there was an awkward silence in the car. The teens were clearly worried that I may have been upset and I was attempting to figure out how to best explain that I wasn’t upset with them, but still reinforce some message about GLAM (Global Lube Access Mobilization) and the “And Lube” campaign.
Suddenly, the silence was broken. “So, uh, Mike… yeah… we weren’t making fun of your car. It’s just, having a sticker about lube isn’t something you see everyday”.
To which I laughed a bit. “Oh please, I wouldn’t care if you made fun of this car. I’m a grad student, of course my car isn’t wonderful.”
To which a teen perked up in his seat. “So what? Do the stickers hold the car together?” The teens laughed, I couldn’t help but join in a bit.
“More or less,” I responded. “And really guys, don’t worry about it.”
“So I have to ask, what does ‘And Lube’ mean?”
“Well, the ‘And Lube’ campaign is exactly what it sounds like. It’s about advocating for proper lubricant along with condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
“Why would you need that?”
“Well, as I’m sure you’ve discussed in health classes. Condoms can break, or slip, or tear. And that can make them problematic for HIV/AIDS prevention. Having proper lubricant along with condoms helps prevent those issues and thus helps to prevent new HIV infections.”
And then the most wonderful reply came: “makes sense.”
There were many ways that I could have handled this situation. My first instinct, honestly, was to just say something along the lines of “lube access isn’t funny,” but I didn’t want to come across as overly judgmental. And in all honesty, before I worked with IRMA, I don’t think I would have thought any differently than this group of teens that I already know are well-engaged.
Yes, this situation may have been awkward at first. But it was a great opportunity to explore that awkwardness and get in some activism. It is surprising how much a sticker can get someone talking and it is even more surprising to see someone engage with that humor and to then be reminded that activism is about education and engagement after all.
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