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Women HIV/AIDS Initiative on Collective Action and Community Change

CSI is many things – a coworking space, a non-profit organization, and a launchpad – but, first and foremost, we are a community. A community of innovators, of changemakers, of neighbours, of people putting people and planet first. And the awesome work that our members do, each and every day, never ceases to amaze us! So of course, we do our best to highlight our members whenever possible. Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Molly Bannerman, Director of Women HIV/Aids Initiative (WHAI), a community-based response to HIV and AIDS among cis and trans women in Ontario. Below is an edited summary of our chat, where we discussed the work of WHAI and their latest Collective Action Community Change report.

Colleen: So, Molly, what is WHAI?

A graphic depicting two people holding hands, in pink and orange.Molly: WHAI is a provincial initiative, doing community development with women living with HIV or who face structural risk factors related to HIV and other sexually transmitted blood borne infections (STBBIs). WHAI itself is a small team of three, and we have coordinators in 16 different regions across Ontario who provide support to all women (including trans, non-binary, and two spirit peoples) and community agencies that work with these populations. We are one of three networks that run a similar model; the other two are the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance and African and Caribbean Council on HIV / AIDS in Ontario. We work specifically on building capacity for populations disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS, as well as bringing focus to HIV related needs and prevention services.

Our work is situated in the middle ground between the micro and macro levels. We facilitate community spaces, helping communities identify problems, working with them to pinpoint strengths and solutions, and empowering them to find solutions – just like CSI does with its members! For example, our community coordinators may identify that there is a gap in knowledge around how HIV is transmitted. Then, the coordinator would set up training with a local agency, working with women to raise awareness. We also developed toolkits that can be used within communities to support women’s wellness.

Colleen: You recently released a report, Collective Action Community Change: A Report Amplifying Community Voices. Can you tell us about the report, including what some of the findings and follow up actions are?

Graphic which depicts populations most impacted and at risk for HIV

Molly: The report reflects the last year and a half of our work in consultation with communities across Ontario. Our coordinators worked with women living with, or facing structural risk factors for, HIV, and created accessible spaces for community dialogue. Overall, we spoke to about 500 women – focusing on women who face structural and systemic discrimination that translate to higher HIV risk, like Black and Indigenous women, those who are using drugs, those who are incarcerated, and trans, two spirit, and nonbinary peoples. It was important to us to center voices that are typically excluded.

After gathering information from the coordinators, we created an overview – looking at key themes and cross referencing with community agencies to see if these findings followed what they see at the ground level. I should note that all of this took place during COVID-19, and there was a lot of adaptation from everyone involved. Each community coordinator will also write up a local report. Those local reports, as well as our provincial one, will be used to inform our work for the next 3-4 years.

Graphic depicting the six themes identified in the report.We identified six key themes from the information our coordinators collected, which are outlined in the report as priority areas for collaboration: HIV Education, Prevention, Care and Support; Community Connection; Economic Autonomy; Women Centred Harm Reduction; Safety; and Wholistic Care. In the report, we also highlight how intersectional identities play a large role in this work, and the importance of recognizing and respecting them. In some instances, intersectional identities are clear; for example, over 40% of new HIV diagnoses amongst women in Ontario are amongst Black women, which is disproportionate to the overall population and reflects systemic racism. However, as we mentioned, it’s important to look holistically and at other identities and factors as well, like experiences of violence, realities that increase the likelihood for needle sharing, the deep impact of poverty, and sexual health and justice to determine risk levels. All of these realities deeply impact risk – and are important for us to consider in how we work in our communities across Ontario.

Colleen: Any takeaways for the CSI community?

A graphic depicting poppy flowers in deep pinkMolly: I’d love to highlight for readers our toolkit: Women and HIV in Ontario. It includes helpful basics, as well as a series of assessment tools to work through and ways to increase your capacity to work with HIV positive women. There are more than 4,000 women in Ontario living with HIV, and there are new diagnoses every year. It’s likely that you already know someone living with HIV. By increasing our understanding and knowledge, we can benefit our community connectedness and collective mental health.

We love being a part of CSI! The space is so warm and welcoming, which is not always the case when we’re dealing with things like HIV. AIDS service organizations typically face a lot of discrimination, so to be in an inclusive space where people are doing community oriented work is powerful. Being here has shifted our work dynamic substantially, and it’s so nice to be close to other organizations that we can collaborate with and learn from. Plus, who doesn’t love having a dog friendly space?

If you’re at CSI Annex, be sure to reach out to WHAI to say hello!

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