It’s been more than 30 years since the first cases of HIV/AIDS were identified; yet we still have an epidemic. Although the disease is treatable and people living with HIV/AIDS are enjoying longer, more productive lives, there is still no cure. With so much knowledge about the disease and so many ways to educate people on the importance of using condoms, why does this disease remain such a problem?
"Most people feel like that little piece of rubber makes it less fun, or it’s hard to figure out how to use the technology, or they don’t always have it when they need it," said David Gere, a professor of world arts and cultures/dance (WAC/D) who also leads the UCLA Art & Global Health Center.
The excuses for not using condoms are varied, but the consequences are not. Every 9.5 minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. More new cases are diagnosed among 13 to 29 year-olds than any other age group. Of this cohort, African American and Latino youth are particularly hit hard.
"It matters to have these conversations now — and early — because it’s going to impact the rest of their lives," said Gere, noting that 40 percent of high school students in Los Angeles County are sexually active.
Professor David Gere, left, and members of the UCLA Sex Squad.
To help empower this group with the knowledge and confidence it needs to protect itself, Gere has developed an informative, high-energy, entertainment-packed program called AMP!. His efforts have been funded by the David and Linda Shaheen Foundation, the Dillon Dunwalke Trust, the UCLA AIDS Institute and UCLA’s Transdisciplinary Seed Grant program, to name a few.
The program, which uses arts-based, multiple-intervention peer education, was developed in collaboration with the HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program has three distinct components: the UCLA Sex Squad, a troupe of undergraduate students who write and develop their own material based on common issues and personal experiences; joint presentations with individuals from the LAUSD-run Positively Speaking Speakers Bureau; and interactive workshops with UCLA students, members of the AIDS Ambassador Group.
This week, the 2013 UCLA Sex Squad, students enrolled in AMP! assistant director Bobby Gordon's "Performing Sexual Health" class, are putting the final touches on their show, "48 Hours to Action," which will be staged at eight high schools in East and South Los Angeles during the winter quarter. The students will debut their work on Dec. 1, which marks the 24th annual World AIDS Day, at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater at 7 p.m. Tickets are $6 and available online or at the Central Ticket Office on the UCLA campus. A fundraiser and reception will precede the show.
"Our show is unlike any I have ever seen," said Gabby Bonder, a second-year WAC/D student. "Not only is it hilarious, but it also is deeply personal and incredibly relatable."
She says that her involvement with the sex squad has taught her to trust herself and has been instrumental in validating her questions, doubts and fears as they relate to sexuality and sexual health. "I have the conviction now to cause change," she said. "I feel so empowered as a human being and as an educator. I was so lucky to have been a part of this program and hope to continue to be a part of it, strengthening both my performance and my person."
Members of the UCLA Sex Squad, who are also students in Bobby Gordon's "Performing Sexual Health" class, rehearse for "48 Hours to Action," which runs Dec. 1 at Kaufman Hall.
AMP! is the latest in a series of HIV/AIDS education and outreach programs created by Gere, Gordon and their team. MAKE ART/STOP AIDS, Through Positive Eyes and Dress Up Against AIDS: Condom Couture by Adriana Bertiniare among their notable efforts.
"We think there is some power in arts-based communication," said Gere, who is headed to Mumbai, India, on Dec. 8 to work on photographic essays featuring people there, as part of Through Positive Eyes. "We think there is memorability and interpretive power that unleashes something in a viewer that a brochure or a white-coat presentation might not."
The magic of AMP! lies in the storytelling, Gere said. "When my students come to the stage, they aren’t just sharing facts and information. They are baring their souls and discussing the things they wish they had known and had been told about as high schoolers. Their vulnerability and transparency, some of it wrapped in awkwardness and humor, are what connects them with their audience, and that’s what makes the difference.
"There’s an immediacy there, and there’s an urgency, a generosity and an openness on the part of the college students to want to give. And that’s received beautifully by the high school students," Gere said.
The UCLA student-produced material is created during an intensive 48-hour period of brainstorming, writing, performing and rehearsing. They enter the space as students and leave as teachers. "It’s very much like summer camp," said Gordon. "They’re bonding with new friends, sharing and really opening up with their stories. And from that process comes the piece … Because we’ve all had this experience and had this opportunity to talk about this taboo, … we can really dive in and share the hard-to-share and hard-to-hear stories. And those are the moments that feel really powerful."
This year’s show will also feature performances by Taft High School students who participated in AMP! The program inspired students at Taft to start their own sex squad, said Gordon, who recently led a workshop to prepare them for their big night.
The group at Taft is only one of several outcomes produced by Gere’s thought-provoking program. In September 2010, a preliminary study conducted at King Drew Magnet High School in Watts found that students who participated in AMP! demonstrated significant improvement in information retention. There was a 21 percent increase in students who reported feeling compassion toward people with HIV/AIDS and a 38 percent increase in those who knew where to get a local HIV test — and got themselves tested.
Sexually active students were four times more likely to go get tested after completing the program, Gordon said. "It kind of took us back. We weren’t expecting those numbers in our first year."
The success of this program is not only fueling open dialogue, broadening attitudes and changing behavior. It’s also turning heads in other parts of the country that are experiencing a rise in the number of HIV/AIDS cases among youth. Thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation, Gordon will be heading to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and to Emory College in Atlanta, Georgia, in January to work with students and faculty who are eager to bring the AMP! model to high schools there. The students at these colleges will start touring their own AMP! programs in February.
Gordon stands at the entrance to Through Positive Eyes, a photo exhibit located on the first floor of Kaufman Hall.
The expansion of AMP! isn’t just limited to the American South. It is also taking root in Africa, with the work of Galia Boneh, who earned a Ph.D. in culture and performance at UCLA and is now a Fulbright fellow at Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi. Boneh is adding the AMP! framework to a rural theater initiative she pioneered in Ghana as part of her doctoral degree. Her show integrates, in part, people living with HIV who share their stories in an effort to raise awareness of the realities they face and reduce stigma.
"The power of the project is that it is made by the students in the place where the project happens," said Gordon. "Anywhere you take it, the principles and the questions are the same … The content is based on … the urgent sexual health issues facing the community and … the line between what people are talking about and not talking about. Right at that line is the place to be."