Where the people are

Recently I watched the Frontline documentary on AIDS in Black America and I had a moment of insight (Aha!) that I thought I would share.

In the documentary,  a social worker who runs a needle exchange program in Atlanta talks about why he thinks people respond positively to his HIV testing and harm reduction program. He says what we have all heard a million times (and I’m paraphrasing), “we meet them where they are”. Now he didn’t mean that he uses some slang and sex-positive jargon. No, he meant that he goes to the neighborhoods where people are using, coping and surviving. His program gives out food, clean syringes, rapid HIV tests, support and links to other resources. But it’s a bare bones operation. A minivan with a notebook paper sign taped to the window reading  “HIV testing”. It’s hotdogs and water bottles. It’s actually on the street, not a storefront. He doesn’t try to get people to stop using drugs, he just helps them be safer about it.

I’m getting to my point, please be patient.

And before we go there, let’s go back to my former post about connection, a.k.a. “be a human”. If you will recall (or just take five minutes and read it, I’ll wait here for you) the main point of that post was to remember that we all are human beings just trying to make it through the day. The key to making connection with the people we work with (and for) is to be ourselves. And you know what? That’s the Aha! I was talking about.

If we are going to “meet people where they are” we have to be willing to go where they are. I don’t just mean to the corner, I mean be present with people, listen to them, see them. We put a lot of stock in geography (and venues) and forget humanity. Go to where the people are and be human(e).  Care for them. Listen to their concerns and their fears. Figure out how to get them a little closer to the end goal: wellness. Don’t focus on the means to the end: treatment, testing, adherence, etc. Focus on the person in front of you and what they need. Sometimes it starts with a sandwich and leads to an HIV test which leads to talking about substance abuse treatment which leads to sobriety which leads to….

But sometimes it is just about the sandwich. And you have to be ok with that. Or else you are in the wrong line of work.

Because no matter what you want or think is best, people gonna do what people gonna do. Just like you do.  I do at least two things that I know for a fact are risky and unhealthy, but I do them anyway. And I KNOW BETTER. Knowing ain’t doing. Thinking ain’t doing. Doing is doing.

In order to make any behavior changes or even think about those changes, we need to have some basic things in our lives. Remember those needs Maslow was so concerned about? If someone is hungry or scared or cold or jonesing….they aren’t going to give two damns about an HIV test or a flu shot, but they might take that sandwich or a kind word. And it’s our job to work from there.

Even after we build some trust and share information, there will be people who will keep doing whatever it is they gonna do. That doesn’t make our work a failure. The failure is never showing up, or checking off the boxes without ever really considering the PUBLIC whose health we are supposed to be protecting and improving.

We don’t work for health departments or research institutions or non-profit organizations. We work for the public, our fellow humans. Don’t you ever forget it.

Now get out there and be human.

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