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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



TaskForce Chicago's ED talks organization, AIDS stigma and queerness
by Andrew Davis

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Among the many organizations helping Chicago youths is TaskForce Prevention & Community Services.

The West Side-based organization helps hundreds of youths each year by addressing the HIV/STI-related needs of adolescents and young adults living in disenfranchised communities with limited resources, and providing HIV/STI prevention education, testing, treatment and care services as well. TaskForce furthermore offers its clients programs that cover violence prevention, mental health, professional development and legal services, among other areas.

Windy City Times recently talked with Executive Director Chris Balthazar about TaskForce's myriad programs as well as activism and queerness.

Windy City Times: Please tell our readers about what TaskForce offers.

Chris Balthazar: Sure. We are a grassroots, community-based organization that serves LGBTQ youth on the West Side of Chicago. Our goal is to promote the health and wellness of our young people; after all, we want them not to just exist, but to thrive.

We provide those necessary resources to address housing and food insecurities; we have a food pantry, a clothing closet. We also do HIV/STI testing and connect young people to culturally-responsive care providers—and we help them talk with those providers so they feel comfortable asking them questions.

We also connect [youths] to other resources. If they need legal services or workforce development, we help them. But a lot of them may not have the confidence to emerge into this world of work, so we provide soft-skills training [as well as] workforce-development case management, which is like coaching. Our young people will say, for example, "I want to work in the health field." So we help them figure out what they want to do in the health field, because there are so many things you can do in it. It's about helping them to plan for the future.

Then we have our violence-prevention work. And one of the things we do that I think is so important is our safe space/homeschool. It's where young people can be themselves and freely express themselves; they don't have to deal with homophobia or transphobia in this space. It's so important for promoting happiness in their lives. I say that's the most important thing that we do.

WCT: Are the youths you help from one specific area of Chicago or all over Chicago?

CB: Many of them live on the West Side—some from Austin and some from West Garfield Park, but we also see people from the South Side. I think the fact that people come [that far] speaks to: a) the lack of services that are available to address their needs, and b) our connection and reach to the community.

Think about all the neighborhoods they go through to come here. I often say, "Community knows us." But the other stakeholders, like the vendors, don't know us so well. We're just trying to get ourselves out there.

WCT: When I talked with you earlier this year [for another publication], you mentioned that you were having trouble connecting with your alderman [Jason Ervin]. Were you able to connect with him?

CB: So I was able to connect with him and we had an initial meeting, and I think it was positive. What's happening now is that we need a follow-up, as we're about to get a new space and about to launch a social-marketing campaign for teens—and I'd like to get his support. So this time he replied to me, telling his team to schedule a meeting. So we're just waiting for that to happen. The verdict is still out as we're trying to build this relationship.

WCT: And I imagine you're hopeful about Chicago's new mayor.

CB: Very much so! One of our staff was one of [Brandon Johnson's] students, so we're trying to get him over to TaskForce as well.

WCT: Regarding HIV/AIDS, do you feel that there's still a stigma around that disease?

CB: Absolutely. Especially among young people of color, there's a lot of shame and stigma. I think that's one of the reasons why getting young people into treatment and staying there is so challenging. Also, I think, unfortunately, there is stigma about taking PrEP; they don't want people to think that they're positive.

There are other barriers, too, like stable housing. But we've found that people feel they have to keep [having AIDS] a secret, so they don't acknowledge it.

WCT: How do you battle that?

CB: A lot of it is planning. I'll be very honest: It's challenging. But we've [found ways]: We've used our address for young people. We tell them to send their meds to TaskForce and we'll set up a locker for you.

It's about talking things through with them so we can debunk a lot of myths and address stigma. And we're even hosting a ball around promoting positivity; it's happening this summer. We recently did one about spirituality. There's a lot of reconstructing relationships with God or whatever higher being you believe in.

WCT: As you know, there's no HIV/AIDS vaccine yet. Does this surprise you?

CB: You know, it doesn't. Viruses can be very tricky, so coming up with a vaccine that's completely preventative presents unique challenges. However, I think medications have come so far in terms of reducing HIV-transmission rates, and there are even injection options for people who don't like taking a pill every day.

There's so much that medicine has to offer, and I think we (as connectors and providers) can do a better job educating folks about those services. Granted, there are other issues—like insurance—[but] I think a lot of people don't know about injection treatments, for example.

WCT: What does the violence-prevention program cover—police violence, intimate-partner violence?

CB: It was originally designed to focus on intracommunity violence, which we did with violence interrupters—leaders in the community who have social influence in different circles. A lot of our young people are from the house/ball community and there's a lot of infighting. Just last year, there was that incident just outside of Jeffery Pub; our community was devastated by it [On Aug. 23, 2022, a man drove his automobile into a group of people outside Jeffery Pub, killing three and injuring one other].

Through that work, we've discovered that trauma often leads to trauma. So we're building more support around those who are survivors of violence, as well as their loved ones. That's a new piece of our program that we're building now.

The part that has the interrupters is called "chop violence." I didn't name it—the community did. [Laughs] It comes from that ball-competition move where you're chopped if you don't do well.

Domestic violence is also very prevalent in our community—to the point where I think a lot of young people are just desensitized to it. They see it as love, not violence. There's a lot of educating that needs to take place about domestic violence.

And we're starting to do more advocacy work. So we're engaging our LGBTQ+ liaisons through the police department, but there have been some challenges there, too. They're doing this in addition to working full-time, so it's a lot.

WCT: For you, what is it like to be Black and LGBTQ+ in today's America?

CB: Wow—that's a good question. It's certainly challenging.

A lot of times, I have different experiences or encounters involving discrimination, and I wonder if it's because I'm gay, Black or both.

There are so many levels, you know? You look at the workforce and the challenges of being Black and gay, like not being paid equally and constantly being scrutinized. I feel all of that, even as a leader of TaskForce, even though I'm supported by a lot of people. It's good to hold people accountable, but I feel like there are people who are just waiting [for you to slip up].

And then there's what I experience personally—not being able to go. There are countries I can't go to because I'm gay, and there are countries I can't go to because I'm Black. And now there are all of these anti-LGBTQ+ laws; it feels like we're going backward. There are times when that feels very discouraging, disheartening and overwhelming, but I try to remain positive and stay in the fight. But, yeah, we have a lot of challenges.

WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?

CB: One of the things a lot of people ask me is, "I know TaskForce is a Black-led organization and you serve Black community members, but how do you center diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI]?" I have thought a lot about this question.

For me, diversity, equity and inclusion aren't necessarily about race. We predominantly serve Black community members, and we're in a Black neighborhood. However, we also serve individuals from Latine communities because we have Belmont-Cragin to the north of us and Berwyn to the south of us.

But for us, it's also about investing in the community and investing in the future—and the future leadership, so we hire from the communities that we serve. We value lived experience over education, and this is a very conscious choice. We also invest in the professional development of our staff, so someone doesn't have to have a doctorate to be in a leadership position at TaskForce—and we train them.

For more about TaskForce Prevention & Community Services, 9 N. Cicero St., visit . People can also call/text 773-413-0003.

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