national gay mens hiv/aids awareness day – sept. 27, 2020

September 27th is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  HIV in the United States continues to disproportionately affect gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.  In 2018, nearly 25,000 gay, bisexual of other MSM were diagnosed with HIV.  In Texas, 70% of newly diagnosed people living with HIV in 2018 were gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men.  The number of new diagnoses for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men has not changed significantly in more than a decade in Texas.

To achieve our goal and end the HIV epidemic in Texas, more must be done to stop the continued transmission of HIV among gay men, while also recognizing the real lived experience of those men.  Strategies must continue to be developed to empower gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men to live full and complete lives while reducing the chance of acquiring HIV. 

A key strategy to ending the HIV epidemic in Texas and among gay/bi/MSM is wider use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).  Taken daily, PrEP prevents sexually active HIV negative men from contracting HIV if they are exposed.  While PrEP use continues to increase each year, according to AIDSVU, only roughly 14,000 people in Texas were utilizing PrEP in 2018.  Wider and easier access to PrEP will increase use, but we must also address the stigma and sexual shaming that exists in communities, and among gay/bi/MSM men in order to fully realize the benefits of PrEP. 

For more information visit the CDC’s page highlighting HIV among gay/bisexual and other men who have sex with men

Rapid Start: A Critical Component of Ending the HIV Epidemic

Prescribing antiretroviral therapy (ART) soon after an HIV diagnosis is referred to as rapid initiation, or rapid start. Research indicates that rapid ART initiation can improve program outcomes, especially by reducing loss to care in the period before ART. Achieving Together sat down with Dr. Gene Voskuhl, Medical Director at the Resource Center’s LGBTQ Health Clinic in Dallas, Texas, to learn more about his experience with rapid start.

“Rapid start is a critical component of ending the HIV epidemic,” says Dr.Voskuhl, who has created and implemented several rapid start initiatives and believes it is an important aspect of HIV medical practice. “I had to be slapped in the face with this one, I’m afraid.” He admits that he initially needed to be convinced that this was the right direction to be moving. “Rapid start is a good idea for two reasons 1) to make the health of individual better and 2) to decrease viral load in community and to decrease transmissions.”

“I came from a time where we did it systematically and in pieces. Unless people were sick and in the hospital, it was usually months before people with HIV were prescribed medications. We lost a fair number of people to follow-up,” Dr. Voskuhl says. “We had a structural system that wanted to educate first, that wanted to explain what a CD4 is, what a viral load is, so we intentionally developed an education process before people started medication. We also had a system that demanded that the provider see lab results before initiating medications. Rapid start does not need either of those. We still educate and we still assess readiness, we just do it a lot faster. Just not fully at the start. You don’t have to be fully educated before you start a medication, you just have to be eventually educated so you can protect yourself.”

Get Everyone on Board

When asked what it takes to start a rapid start program, he said, “Talking, listening, working on attitudes and being ready.” This is true for organizations, prescribers and clients. Within an organization, it is critical to make sure that all staff – nurses to case managers to frontline staff – understand what rapid start is and what it isn’t. Dr. Voskuhl says communicating the basic ideas to everyone in the clinic of why rapid start is important and why we do certain things as soon as someone calls with a diagnosis is particularly important. “We have become pretty aggressive within our practice. Once we become notified that someone is living with HIV, we have 48 hours to connect them to care.” Dr. Voskuhl notes that there is not a consensus on the specific timing of rapid start. Some say a within a week of the diagnosis, some say 48 hours, and some say the same day. “It depends on your system as to how you can set this up. If someone is in a different county you may not be able to get them started the same day but if they are in the same building, we will work with them on that day.”

Prescribers need to understand the science behind rapid start to be comfortable moving forward. One person can make a big difference. If the physician is uncomfortable starting therapy without seeing the lab results, they might not do it. “For me, I have learned that most of the labs are fairly normal, so I feel comfortable starting someone on a regimen, getting the labs a few days later and making adjustments, if needed. With today’s medications you generally don’t even have to make adjustments once you are able to see the labs, the single tablet regimes are highly effective. It is important to pay attention and get your lab results back pretty quickly,” he says. He adds that while he can prescribe medication based on a confirmatory test, the labs must be at least drawn before someone is put on medication. This is an overall safety issue as well.  He also notes that some lab results don’t come back in a timely manner, based on the analysis needed, so rapid start might not be the best for that individual that day.

Patient Responses

While it took some time for Dr. Voskuhl to adopt a new procedure, patients responded positively. “People want the medication that will make them healthier …people want to talk about their options. If you have diabetes you want to get treatment, if you have an infection you want to get it treated, you don’t want to wait two weeks to get started on treatment in those circumstances.”

Dr. Voskuhl can now prescribe a medication for a patient in the clinic at the time he is interviewing them so that the patient can leave the clinic with a medication in hand. He said that this has been a pretty powerful moment for both himself and the patient. “Not everyone does this, but I show them the medication if they are ready and we dose them in the clinic and people can suddenly be in charge of their health care. It’s a subtle shift sometimes but a powerful one.” He reports that people who have started their medication in the clinic come back and he has not seen any dropouts from this. None.

Some people want to wait before they get started, they want to think about it, they want to read a little more or bring someone in with them and he says this is fine. He goes with the patient decision. “Most people are ready to act early on and since the medications are so well tolerated, they take them and go, and they tell me, ‘I didn’t have any side effects so I just keep taking them’.”

Challenges

Dr. Voskuhl acknowledges that there can be challenges to implementing rapid start programs. Some organizations might need detailed protocols or guidance from the state before getting started. He says it’s important to look at how your patients will be accessing their medications – do they have insurance, are they unfunded or will they be on Ryan White? Different authorizations and paperwork can be involved. Another issue is being prepared for having to adjust for health insurance. “If you rush things, sometimes you don’t know what the insurance formulary is and we may give them a sample medication that their insurance is not going to pay for. Then you may have to change the medication down the road which can be problematic.” He is hopeful that moving forward, insurance companies will come on board and that most of the medications will be on their formularies. “There is no reason that we should not be able to access medications quickly for a population that really needs it.”

The Science is Strong

There is strong science behind rapid start, and it is available for those who want to learn more about it. “If you want to serve your patients well, you need to have rapid start as an option. No doubt.” He says there is science that shows that viral load goes down fast with rapid start and there is science that shows retention in care is better with rapid start – all the science is there. “People get to undetectable faster and they’re retained in care better if rapid start is part of your process.”

Dr. Voskuhl ends with, “This is important. If we are talking about ending the epidemic, we have to talk about rapid start as well. You gotta try it. It’s not that complicated and it’s not that hard and it’s definitely for the health of your patients and the health of our community. I just hope people will try.”

Resources

Dr. Voskuhl’s suggests these resources and guidelines for more information on implementing rapid start:

IAS-USA: https://www.iasusa.org/guidelines
DHHS: http://aidsinfo.nih.gov/guidelines
WHO: http://www.who.int/hiv/pub/guidelines/advanced-HIV-Disease/en

For more perspectives on rapid initiation, see these previous Achieving Together posts: Rapid Initiation of HIV Treatment: One Physician’s Perspective and How One Organization Uses Rapid Initiation to Link People from HIV Testing to Care.


Dr. Gene Voskuhl graduated from the University of Oklahoma, where he specialized in infectious diseases and eventually helped launch the University’s HIV Clinic. He later worked at Gilead (the manufacturer of PrEP medication Truvada) as a medical scientist, instructing fellow physicians on how to safely treat LGBTQ patients and prescribe appropriate pharmaceuticals. Volunteering for Resource Center gave him an even deeper insight into the needs of the LGBTQ and HIV populations in North Texas, and further fanned the flames of his passion towards equity in healthcare. He is currently the Medical Director at the Center’s LGBTQ Health facility, which provides affirming and compassionate care in a stigma-free environment.

Covering Texans’ Condom Needs: Texas Wears Condoms and The Condom Distribution Network

When used correctly and consistently, condoms are an effective way to prevent the transmission of HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The Achieving Together team interviewed two organizations in Texas that distribute free mail order condoms online: Texas Wears Condoms and the Condom Distribution Network. The aim of both programs is to reduce the transmission of HIV and other STIs by making condoms more accessible. By creating access to free condoms available online, Texans are able to obtain condoms regardless of their geographical location. Both programs also work to educate communities and de-stigmatize sexual health.

Texas Wears Condoms

“So far, the program has partnered and collaborated with over 150 community organizations/businesses across the state and distributed 1,913,377 condoms (2019).”

Tell us about Texas Wears Condoms.

This project originally began in 2013 at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, now known as UT Health. The grant was originally funded only for services in San Antonio, but in 2017 the program received funds from the Texas Department of State Health Services (TX DSHS) to expand its services to all Texas residents.

What are your goals?

The project has three objectives to meet every year, as set by TX DSHS:

  1. Distribute 2,000,000 condoms
  2. Collaborate with 100 community partners (i.e. retail, civic, faith-based, etc.) to include 50 local (in San Antonio) and 50 statewide.
  3. Have 80 distribution sites including non-conventional businesses, clinics/CBOs/ASOs, and community events. 

Aside from the goals listed above, the purpose of the program is to educate the community and help reduce the spread of HIV and STIs in Texas by expanding free condoms access, improving condom knowledge and destigmatizing condoms/condom use. The program focuses heavily on destigmatizing and normalizing conversations around sex.

What will success look like?

Individuals will have access to sexual health supplies, regardless of their location and income.

Condoms and other sexual health supplies will be destigmatized and not associated with any specific risk behaviors (i.e. you use condoms, so you must sleep around).

We want to serve individuals from every zip code and county in Texas, reduce the numbers of STIs and HIV in Texas, and improve condom variety, brand awareness and delivery time for packages.

We also want to further the conversation about PrEP and PEP.

How does the Achieving Together plan/movement relate to this work?

Several of the guiding principles of the Achieving Together Plan are focus areas of the program: social justice, equity, empowerment, advocacy, and community. The program leverages technology, partnerships and community action to deliver a multi-layered prevention framework to address deficiencies in prevention, care, and treatment. Re-purposing an e-commerce website to provide condoms and sexual health supplies to order and mail directly to consumers has minimized the barriers to access and provided communities with an equitable platform. The program has also empowered individuals living in marginalized, under-served, and geographically isolated areas by making condoms accessible and available with unrestricted access.

What have you learned?

Through client surveys, we have identified barriers to condom use, such as cost, embarrassment, or not knowing what kind to purchase.We’ve also learned that individuals want to learn more about sexual health and how they can protect themselves from STIs/HIV, without the sanctimonious aspect. Individuals want to use safe sex supplies (condoms, lubricants, dental dams), they just don’t always know where to access them, or how to bring up the conversation with their partners.

Social media is a great avenue to connect with your audience and disseminate factual, sex positive information. It can help grow your program’s following organically and with little to no cost.

Finally, we’ve learned that not a lot of people know about PrEP and its benefits.

Condom Distribution Network

“We have decided to focus our efforts in 2020 toward getting younger MSM of color to access our CDNStore this year. This year, our goal is to send at least 65% of our condom orders to 12-35 year-old MSM of color.”

Tell us about the Condom Distribution Network.

The Condom Distribution Network was started in 2014 by AIDS Services of Austin (now Vivent Health) as a way to reach more people through condom distribution. The online store (CDNStore.org) opened around 2016. AIDS Services of Austin (ASA) realized that with so many people of color moving out of central Austin, we needed a way to make it easier for people to get free condoms from ASA without having to come to our locations. We ship free condoms to people in Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays counties.

We changed our ordering process to make it easier for people to order from us as well as made changes to the way our website looks to give our store a new look. We will be adding videos in both English and Spanish so that people can learn how to put on a condom.

What are your goals?

Our goal is to help more people get access to condoms by removing access as a barrier. We have decided to focus our efforts in 2020 toward getting younger MSM of color to access our CDNStore this year. This year, our goal is to send at least 65% of our condom orders to 12-35 year-old MSM of color.

How does the Achieving Together plan/movement relate to this work?

By normalizing condom use, we believe we can address the stigma around sexual health and testing.

What have you learned?

At ASA, we know that our data can be a great ally to understand what people need. In July, we rolled out our new survey, which captures sexual health information. Within the first month we found that 64% of people who ordered condoms in July had never been tested for syphilis. In response, ASA created a quick one-page infographic with syphilis information, testing recommendations, and locations that were sent out with every condoms order. We were able to see that percentage drop within three months.

ASA has learned that there is still very much a need for condoms in the community and that most people, if given information about this resource, will use it. What we have to do now is make sure this program is getting into the communities that need it and would benefit the most from this program. 

You’re An Activist, Too!

By Ian Haddock, Houston

Wow! Over a year ago, I had the privilege of submitting a piece to Achieving Together about our project, “Outcry the Docu-Series”. It is now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video along with the mini-documentary and we are thrilled. Even with all of that, I never expected The Normal Anomaly Initiative to be in the place in which we are today.

It took me a long time to figure out how the work that I was passionate about fit into this work in public health, specifically ending the HIV epidemic. Many of my colleagues were leading the movement as researchers on innovative ways to take PrEP, working for national philanthropic organizations, creating behavioral interventions and working for pharmaceutical companies. I, myself, just wanted to create programming and tell people’s stories. Without any clear plan at the beginning, over the last 5 years, that’s what we’ve done.

Since then, people have begun calling me an activist; I never considered myself an activist. Approximately 8 years ago, I was at the most difficult time of my life following my mother’s passing. I found myself in group counseling for grief followed by seeing a therapist since then. I found that my vulnerability and story was important to create the world that I desired for myself.  Through initiating this healing with myself and following my own path of passion and purpose, I ended up just being a part of a reflection of what healing is in our community. The people who have joined us on this journey have triumphed through their process of healing and now we create programs and curriculum to facilitate other’s journeys for the communities we intersect. It is still a wonder that I am around such visionaries and power.

In August 2019, The Normal Anomaly Initiative was accepted into our first shared learning experience with the Gilead Compass Initiative with a 4-month course in Healing Justice while also being in a cohort for cultivating our organizational infrastructure. This created a space for us to really decide how to not just create projects but pay special attention to what we had to offer to end the HIV epidemic. Since then, we have been taking leadership development training, harm reduction training, enrolled one of our members in Project LEAP, and focused on developing curricula such as cultural humility trainings for faith-based organizations and marketing and branding trainings for emerging Black queer leaders in the South to meet the needs of the communities we are a part of.

Additionally, we have begun to bring some innovative methods that we created based on evidence-based work from advocates across the state. For example, years ago we worked with one of the fearless leaders of Positive Women’s Network, Ms. Venita Ray, on some cultural humility trainings for providers and have now transformed that training into cultural humility trainings for faith-based organizations called “Outcry the Community Project.” We also mixed our healing justice and harm reduction lens and helped to create the Transgender Ally Collective in Houston; this collective is committed to actionable items that will work to protect the lives of transgender people with a current focus on Black transwomen.

With the help of funding sources that are open to our grassroots methods, we are able to make impact that moved from hundreds of thousands of impressions on digital media to hundreds of thousands of in-person impressions in our city over the next few weeks with our billboard in Houston’s 5th Ward.

I love talking about the journey of our grassroots organization, but not just out of pride; it is with the intent to reach each and every community member that desires to do the work to end the HIV epidemic. Many times, we have such a strict focus on those in public health that we miss the people who are doing their part in this work in the community at-large; this work is evident even in the most non-specific spaces. Over the years working in this field, I have found myself working with club owners and promoters and never really understanding the impact that those relationships have on lowering the risk of transmission of HIV; however, these gatekeepers are integral parts of the movement to end the epidemic. For marginalized communities, we have historically had spaces in which we went to escape from the world; for Black people, for instance, it has been the church. For Black queer people, many times, it is the club or a bar. This place of escape translates to one of the places that community shows up both the most vulnerable and the most wholly themselves. For this reason, they are a necessary aspect of outreach, mobilization and community. I also come from a community of sex workers where our conversations helped us figure out how to negotiate sexual encounters even before we knew the proper terminology. Titan Capri, one of the leaders of our programs, teaches people how to talk through their issues through a podcast; additionally, Kimberly Thomas, one of our other leaders, does the work through styling where she builds self-esteem and confidence. Many of our transwomen do the work by simply choosing to step over the threshold of their door every morning into a society that often doesn’t understand their lives and experiences.

From sending people to the Capitol to advocate for better policies to work on OnlyFans advocating sex positivity and accepting responsibility for their own bodies with PrEP, we salute the work that must be done in all spheres to make statements. Long before we had any idea on how to go about erecting a billboard, we were using our small DSLR camera to create impact; we didn’t recognize it then, but we were a part of changing the narrative of what this work looks like. The answer to ending the HIV epidemic will be found at the grassroots level when we recognize that everyone—no matter what they bring to the table—is and can be a part of ending this epidemic; this means you’re an activist, too—even if no one has ever told you and you’ve never worked in public health.

Ending Racism

How to Change the World in One Generation

Note from Achieving Together: Today we are bringing you this special piece by Justin Michael Williams. This post is shared with permission from the author. You can read the original here.

Almost every piece of work or literature that I’ve read on racism is built on one assumption: that it cannot end.

Or at best, that it will be a “lifelong fight.” That ending racism will be something that “will probably never happen in our generation.”

Most of the quotes you hear about the fight against racism sound something like this:

“We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”
~ John Lewis, late civil rights leader and former U.S. Representative

But, if we all continue to say, “racism is something that can never end in our generation.” Then who the hell ever gets to take responsibility for ending it?

Enter: us.

We still have a dream. But we are the vessel for the dreams our ancestors were unable to dream.  

The current work and research on anti-racism is phenomenal, and so is the tireless work that has been done by our ancestors for generations. But much of this work has one fatal flaw—it’s created from the automatic assumption (whether subconscious or conscious) that racism is unlikely to ever end. And if that’s our starting point, —if that’s the plateau from which we’re writing our books, creating our podcasts, and doing our activism and anti-racism work—then we’re missing a big opportunity here.

I’m not saying becoming an anti-racist or dismantling white supremacy isn’t important work. The current anti-racist and equality work has real impact—it’s saving lives. It’s creating systemic change. It’s bringing us together. And that matters—tremendously. I’m also not minimizing the centuries of incredible work done by civil rights leaders like John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Patrisse Cullors, and the countless names we’ll never know. Without them, we would never have the opportunity to even consider ending racism.

What I am saying is this: Imagine how much more important our work becomes if it were done in a different context. If it were done not just as some sort of bootcamp “to be in a lifelong fight,” but with a common, united goal of actually ending racism in this generation.

Here’s what fighting against something looks like:

Here’s what moving toward something looks like:

Congressman John Lewis was right. Our generation does have the opportunity to do something incredible. We have the opportunity to end racism. And to do it within this generation.  

Notice what comes up for you when I say, “end racism.”

Notice what you feel when we put a timeline on it.

Hopeful?
Skeptical?
Cynical?

Are you thinking to yourself, “Who does this guy think he is?” Are you wishing I would define race and racism? Hoping for a plan?

Good. That’s all part of our pathway forward.

But before we can begin to look at how to end racism—both systemic and internalized—I think it’s important that we understand what makes racism persist. Because once you’ve been stuck in a condition—once you’ve been working on the same recurring problem over and over to no end—it becomes important to shift the question from, “What is the problem?” to, “Why does the problem continue to persist in the first place?”

And in part, racism persists because of these five shared, yet individual assumptions:

  1. Racism is unavoidable.
  2. Race matters.
  3. “Those people” will never change.
  4. Real change takes a long time.
  5. We don’t know how to end it.

What do I mean by “shared, yet individual assumptions”?

Before we can even get into breaking down any concepts about ending racism, we have to first explore what I mean by “shared, yet individual assumptions.” We must own and acknowledge that we, as individuals and as a collective, see things through a certain lens, or perspective. And if enough people agree on a certain perspective, then that perspective becomes our collective reality and belief. And I’m not talking about the woo-woo “law of attraction” stuff here (even though I love that stuff), I’m talking about perception and belief in the most tangible way.

For example, throughout much of ancient history, it was widely believed that the Earth was flat. People literally thought if they travelled far enough, they might fall off the edge of the Earth into an abyss of nothingness. Ancient civilizations from Greece and Egypt to Asia all believed this to be true, so they created a reality based upon that belief. We see it depicted in art, stories, religion, and ultimately, their shared beliefs about the world.

Now, I know you might be thinking, “We’ve evolved beyond that sort of foolery,” but let’s look at another untrue, yet harmless shared perspective that we all maintain today: our belief that the sun “sets.”

There’s a shared perspective that the sun sets, but the sun doesn’t really set. Think about it. Would the sun appear to set from the perspective of an astronaut who is far away from the Earth’s orbit? No. The Earth would be turning on its axis as it circles around the sun.

But from our shared perspective here on the planet, there’s an agreed-upon belief that the sun sets. On the foundation of this belief we’ve created our reality, the structure of our lives, and our world.

This leads me to an important point: Our world is created upon shared beliefs, even if those beliefs aren’t necessarily true.

So, to end racism, we must first own and acknowledge that we, as individuals and as a collective, see things through a sometimes-faulty lens. And if enough people choose to see through the same faulty lens (for example: Black people should be slaves, women are inferior), then that chosen perspective becomes the context through which we live our lives. In essence, if enough people share the same socially perceived illusions, those illusions cause a certain “way of life” to persist.  

Now, with that in mind, let’s dismantle the five faulty perspectives that might be causing racism to persist.

#1 Racism is unavoidable

Here’s the thing: It’s been proven by neuroscientists and psychologists that racism is learned—it’s not some automatic human condition that we’re born with. It’s not something that “just happens” as a result of putting a bunch of diverse people on a planet together. And I’m not sharing this with you as an idea or opinion. It is widely respected and proven by science that racism itself is not “a given.” It’s not unavoidable.

What is likely unavoidable, however, is the fact that we create what’s called “in-groups” and “out-groups” to keep ourselves safe. And terror management studies show that we have a tendency to treat people in our “in-group” more kindly and people in our “out group” more harshly. Yet, even with this scientific knowledge, the idea of using race as a way of defining our “in-group” and “out-group” is something we can eliminate—if we try.  

But we the people are funny creatures. When we can’t figure out a quick solution to something, most of us label it as “unavoidable.” Inevitable. Unfortunate, but unlikely to change.

Yet, the idea that racism is “unavoidable” would be like saying the Holocaust was “unavoidable” or that American slavery was “unavoidable” or that refusing the LGBTQIA+ community the right to marry was “unavoidable.”

There’s a real danger in saying something is unavoidable, because we immediately absolve ourselves of taking responsibility to change it. We throw our hands up in the air and say, “Welp, can’t do anything about that.”

Can’t do anything about slavery…
Can’t do anything about gay marriage…
Can’t do anything about the spread of HIV…
Can’t do anything about women’s rights…

Can’t do anything about racism…

Until somebody does. 

#2 Race matters

I’m going to say something that’s sometimes hard for people to face, especially for my fellow people of color: Race is a complete fabrication of the human mind that’s used for power and control. It’s a social construct. A delusion. An imaginary truth (or alternative fact, if you will) that we’ve all continued to build our lives and civilizations upon.

“There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race—scientifically, anthropologically.”
~ Toni Morrison, novelist and professor

Now, I want to be very clear here: I don’t want for you to think for one second that I’m saying the effects of racism aren’t real. The trauma, the deaths, the lives lost, and the impact of racism—and the persistent collective belief in the idea of “race”—has had very real consequences. It has created wars, dismantled countries, pitted religions against one another, and taken innocent Black and Brown lives for generations. Racism has caused incredible harm and trauma, which cannot be minimized.

I’m also not suggesting we put our cultures, values, and traditions into a Vitamix to make some vegan “we are all one” race-less smoothie. We don’t need to give up our culture, values, and traditions or become one big “melting pot” in order to end racism.

No.

What we have the opportunity to do is far greater than that.

So, while this can be triggering or hard to stomach: The concept of race is literally IMAGINARY. Someone created it to gain and maintain power and control. And now we use it to control ourselves.

Race is not real.

Heritage is real.
Culture is real.
Tradition is real.
Appropriation is real.

Skin color is real.
Trauma is real.

But race—not real.

Or… it’s as real as we make it.

For comparison, and to understand this more clearly, let’s consider the concept of gender. While sex is a biological fact of nature (we are born with different anatomy), gender is a cultural/historical interpretation. Gender is not a fact.

Skin color is a biological fact. Race is a cultural/historical interpretation.

Race is not a fact.

The thing is, I don’t think most of us actually care that much about race. Sure, we care about our traditions, cultures, ancestors, customs, languages, and especially our foods and religious landmarks—but race? REALLY?

Take a moment to think about it. If you could keep all of your traditions, customs, and practices, and the beauty of who we all are as differentiated unique humans with our own rituals and historical contexts; if you could continue assembling with like-minded individuals and celebrating your values and diversity; if you could keep all that and be treated equally with the humanity and dignity that is your birthright… how important would the individual concept of “race” be? What’s it for? What’s its function?

I gotta give it to the person who came up with the concept of “race” as a means to enforce power and control, because if their mission was to separate us—well, it worked. 

Racism created race, not the other way around.

We were taught to care about race, so we did.Now, here we are—all of us—holding onto this “thing” that we don’t even really care about, but that’s causing us harm and pain and war and genocide and trauma over and over and over, and then saying…

“Even though we don’t care about this…
Even though it’s not real…
Even though it’s causing us harm…
It’s unlikely to ever end.”

Why?

#3 “Those people” will never change

There is a commonly held belief that “those people” will never change, yet all throughout life, we can point to and tell stories of people who have changed. And not just “people out there,” but people in your life and family line.

I think about my buddy Greg, a white guy who grew up in Tennessee with a bunch of racist friends and family members who believed “Black people were stupid and lazy.” He said, “I used to believe that if Black people were making 20% less than whites, it’s because Black people must be working 20% less hard or weren’t as smart or capable… that something must be wrong with them genetically. Especially because I had always thought everyone had the same equal access to opportunity.”

Greg went on to say, “If I hadn’t dramatically fucked up my life… if I would’ve still been working in finance, with a house on a lake and a bunch of ‘toys’ like many of the people I grew up with, I would probably still be a white supremacist with a Confederate flag hanging from my truck.”

But that’s not the Greg I know. The Greg I know went through a massive change 15 years ago. And the reason we met was because I gave a talk at his company about ending racism and he came up to me afterward asking for resources to help his 5-year-old son grow up on the right side of history. Greg is committed to making sure his young white son doesn’t grow up racist—and even though Greg is doing his own anti-racist work, he was afraid he wasn’t equipped to teach his son properly. (I referred him to Layla Saad’s upcoming youth book and A Kids Book about Racism by Jelani Memory.)

Greg, a man who used to be a racist white supremacist, is now someone who cares deeply about social justice. And the change didn’t happen when he was 12. It happened when he was 35.

We all know a Greg. They’re not rare. Point to your once-racist family members, your formerly tone-deaf coworkers, your used-to-be homophobic relatives, and the ways in which you’ve personally grown over the years.

People change all the time.

Racists are not exempt.  

So, to me, the question becomes: What causes people to change?

Is it always for selfish reasons?
For financial gain?
Does it take a personal relationship?
A direct experience?
Do they need to “fuck up their life” like Greg did?

Fine. Instead of arguing over what are the “right” and “wrong” reasons for change, let’s use them to our advantage and create a model for racial healing where those conditions can be met, and met quickly.

#4 Real change takes a long time

Okay, so let’s assume we’re in agreement here. But even if we all agree racism is avoidable, that we don’t really care about the concept of race, and that people can change, ending racism in our generation is still unrealistic, because real change takes a long time. Right?

You already know what’s coming…

But before I say it, let’s look at some of the most massive changes in recent human history. The “start” and “end” dates below represent unmistakable widespread shifts. Keep in mind, a generation is typically considered to be 20-25 years.

  • (1973) The first phone call made on a handheld cellular phone → (1995) Widespread global use of mobile phones = 22 years
  • (1991) Creation of the World Wide Web → (2001) Total widespread use of the internet = 10 years
  • (1981) First documented case of HIV in the U.S.→ (1995) Ability to detect, treat, and live with HIV = 14 years
  • (2004) First U.S. state legalizes same-sex marriage → (2015) National legalization of same-sex marriage = 11 year
  • (1831) First knowledge of slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad and the start of abolitionism → (1865) End of the Civil War = 34 years
  • (1903) Wright brothers take first flight → (1920) Widespread commercial airline travel begins = 17 years
  • (1929) Start of the Great Depression → (1945) End of the Great Depression = 16 years
  • (1933) Hitler’s first position of leadership and the formation of the Nazi Party → (1945) End of the Holocaust = 12 years
  • (1957) First satellite launched into space → (1969) Man lands on the moon = 12 years

So, I ask the question again: Does real change take a “long time”?

No.

In almost all of these cases, it took less than one generation (20-25 years) to make widespread global change.

Does every change in human history fall into this timeline? Of course not. Were there years of unrewarded labor that came before the cited “start” dates. Absolutely. My intention is not to minimize the generations of work that have come before us, but to help you notice that once the ground has been prepared—which it is now—real change can happen. And it can happen fast.

So, let’s clean that smudge off of our dirty lens of perception and move on to the final point.

#5 We don’t know how to end it

If we knew how to end racism, we would’ve already ended it…right?

(…do I even need to say it?)

The assumption that we “don’t know” how to end racism assumes there are no solutions. But that’s not true.

There are plenty of not just good, but excellent solutions for ending racism that were created by researchers, anti-racist scholars, universities, and entire college campuses dedicated to the cause. For generations, people have created models, systems, structures, and written The New York Times bestselling books—any of which could easily solve this problem. And not just hypothetically—there’s proof: We’ve seen the problem solved in micro but significant ways all throughout time—in our organizations, communities, and families.  

We aren’t waiting for “better solutions”—just like we weren’t waiting for “better solutions” to end slavery and we didn’t need “better solutions” to end the Holocaust.

As a society, as individuals, and as a collective—we needed to be willing and ready.

And the same thing stands today.

We need to be willing and ready for our solutions to work.

“Are we so bound to our pain that we are not ready for liberation?”
~ Nico Cary, writer and mindfulness teacher

Ending racism

So… if none of these things are causing racism to persist:

  1. If “Racism is unavoidable” is an inaccurate perspective, and
  2. “Race matters” is an inaccurate perspective, and
  3. “’Those people’ will never change” is an inaccurate perspective, and
  4. “Real change takes a long time” is an inaccurate perspective, and
  5. “We don’t know how to end it” is an inaccurate perspective…  

…then what do we need to do to get racism to end? 

Well, the same thing you do to get racism to persist—you change the shared perspective.

The purpose of this article was not to give you better solutions to end racism or a step-by-step plan on how to do it, it was to get you to consider that ending racism in this generation may not just be possible, but realistic—if we’re willing and ready.  

One of my dear mentors, Jim Selman, always says, “There are lots of conversations ‘about’ change, but that’s different than conversations that actually change something.”

The key to any major shift in the world has always been the same: getting enough people to not just believe a cause “matters,” but to believe that change is possible. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London discovered in a 2018 study that it takes the support of just 25% of people to make a major social shift in the world.

You might be thinking, “Well, aren’t there already 25% of people who believe racism can end in this generation?”

I don’t think so.

I think more than 25% of people want racism to end.
I think more than 25% of people believe racism is wrong.
I think more than 25% of people think the fight against racism matters.

But I don’t think 25% of people have actually considered that they could be personally responsible for ending racism in this generation. I don’t think 25% of people think it can start with us. And it’s time to change that.

Our call now is simple—it’s to get people to believe.

We can’t fight to “end police brutality” just for the sake of “ending police brutality,” we need to fight against police brutality for the sake of ending racism. We shouldn’t be “dismantling white supremacy” just for the sake of “creating more diversity in the workplace” or “becoming nice white people,” we need to dismantle white supremacy with the intention of ending racism.

We cannot continue to fight for the liberation of our people just to have them encaged again; we must continue to fight for the liberation of our people to end racism in this generation.

If we want to have a breakthrough in ending racism, then we need to realize that it’s not going to happen unless we agree on a timeline for ending it. Saying it’s going to end “someday” is not a commitment. But if we put a stake in the ground and say we are going to end it in our generation, possibilities open up. A new reality emerges.

Racism can end—and it can end in this generation—if we believe it can. Because if we believe it can, we shift the context of the world.

What do we do next?
The goal now is to get as many people as possible to consider that racism can and should end in this generation.

And like any meaningful change, we start by doing the work both internally and with our families, friends, colleagues, and communities. And ultimately, on a global scale—each of us spreading seeds of possibility to the corners of the earth that only we can reach.

You see, this is not about stopping the work that we’re already doing, this is about doing it with a new purpose, a new intention, a new meaning, and a realizable goal. This is about using every means available to us now and every means that becomes available to us in the future to move beyond resignation and fulfill our new, shared and individual perspective that racism can—and will—end in this generation.

Here are five ways that you can help right now:

  1. Sign the pledge. We’ve created a Pledge to End Racism with a goal of getting 25% of the population to sign it. If we get 1.9 billion people to sign the pledge, we have enough power to end racism not just in the U.S., but throughout the world.
  2. Donate. We launched the Ending Racism Grant & Scholarship Fund to support vetted individuals and grassroots organizations who have taken the Pledge to End Racism. Donate or apply here.
  3. Stream this song as much as you can. All proceeds go straight to our mission to end racism. 
  4. Show your support. Display the Pledge to End Racism graphic on your website, social media, or on the bumper of your car. Remember, this is about spreading an idea.
  5. Share. This article is a free resource. Copy it, paste it, post it, debate it, and share it in your newsletters. Do whatever you want with it—but do it with the goal of ending racism.

And when an opportunity arises for you to end racism, you will. I can’t tell you exactly what you will do, because I don’t know exactly what opportunity will arise for you next, but when it comes—you will know. And you’ll have a choice to either end racism, or not. And you will.

I leave you with this…

My sister Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love, once said something so dear to me that I want to pass it along to you. She said, “There are two types of people in this world. The what if’s and the why not’s… don’t be a what if. They are paralyzed in their analysis. Be a why not. Why not me? Why not now? Why not us? Why not believe… and then see what happens next?”

So, the next time someone says racism can’t end, lovingly reply with: Why not? Then, send them this article.

We the people… we still have a dream. It’s a new dream.

We are the vessel for the dreams our ancestors were unable to dream.

We are exactly who was meant to be alive at this time.

We are enough.

And we rise—together.


About the Author

Justin Michael Williams works at the intersection of music, mindfulness, and social justice. With his groundbreaking book, Stay Woke, and over a decade of teaching experience, Justin has become a pioneering voice for diversity and inclusion in wellness. Learn more at www.justinmichaelwilliams.com