According to a 2013 City of Chicago study, HIV-infection rates among the city's Black community are triple that of the white population. That rate is even starker considering, as the website ThinkProgress reported in March, Black women are 19 times more likely to contract HIV than their white counterparts.
Project Elevate, an initiative of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ), is dedicated to addressing this disparity.
Project Elevate aims to "[take] its lead from its target audience" and "prevent and reduce the spread of STIs through a youth-led, citywide social marketing campaign," according to AFC's website. That audience includes young Black cis and trans women between the ages of 13 and 24, a demographic that forms its Youth Expert Advisory Board, which AFC hopes will focus its outreach to and impact on young women of color. Funded by a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is a partnership between AFC, Planned Parenthood, Chicago Public Schools and several other organizations.
At the center of this is Beverly Ross, a young Black trans woman serving as the facilitator for the advisory board. A native of Englewood who once attended Harper High School, Ross knows the community to which she speaks. Though she moved to Indianapolis after her freshman year, she came back to Chicago.
"Growing up trans in this city, and [being] homeless, it was a struggle," she said. "I didn't know where to get tested. I was told there was no money, I had to pay."
This lack of information is something Project Elevate hopes to address. "We came up with an app … so people can know where to get tested and know what an STI is, and different STIs and things like that," Ross said, adding that this was a decision of the girls and women on the Youth Expert Advisory Board. She said that AFC is currently working with a developer to build the mobile application. The board has also suggested using billboards to reach trans women of color, while Ross herself has taken to social media to spread the message.
"The girls are awesome," Ross said. "They rock. It's their group; it's their project. They're so authentic, and so legit, coming up with different ways to prevent HIV in our community. And they have a voice." They come from different walks of life, Ross said. "Some have degrees, some don't."
No matter their background, though, encouraging them to use that voice is important to Ross, who feels a kinship with the girls and women with whom she works. "I talk to girls because I grew up in the community not knowing and having the resources I have today as far as hormone therapy, HIV prevention, housing, you know, things to get you where you need to be," she said. "To know that I am here to help young trans women of color is the best thing. Not only do I facilitate, but I'm helping."
That help goes beyond simply providing resources on HIV and STIs. They're "coming up with mechanisms to keep discrimination down, and [help the girls] get good jobs and housing. We're teaching girls how to build resumes and job readiness. … We feed them. We give them bus cards to get to where they need to go. And we talk to them, we let their voices be heard.
"A lot of girls do a lot of sex work because they don't know the way," she says. "I was almost one of those girls that went down that path of sex work because I didn't have the mechanisms to survive. And so we're trying to make it less stressful for them to get jobs in the community."
While Ross aims to make the lives of young women of color easier, she turns squarely on Governor Bruce Rauner, whom she feels is eliminating services vital to the community. "We're dealing with a governor that wants to cut HIV Prevention," Ross says, echoing a blog written by the AFC in April which was critical of the governor's cuts to Pre-exposure Prophylaxis ( PrEP ) access and other HIV prevention programs.
Project Elevate, however, remains dedicated to raising awareness. "Right now it's [about] directing [women] to the correct resources and getting them help," Ross said.
"I want to keep Project Elevate for not only three years, but I want to keep growing. There's going to be more girls that need help. Who need us," she said.
"It's about saving lives."