Saron Selassie is very much aware of the social determinants that affect Black people’s physical and mental health. As part of the new generation of professionals at the Black AIDS Institute doing capacity-building, advocacy, mobilization and service-delivery work, she looks through an antidiscrimination lens, considering institutional racism as a fundamental cause of health disp
arities, including disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS.
Selassie earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with a concentration in physiology from San Francisco State University; she planned to go to medical school. But as her life unfolded, she found herself developing a passion for the prevention side, which led her toward public health. She attended UCLA, obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, concentrating in community health sciences. “I focused my research on the intersection of mental health, reproductive justice and sexual health,” Selassie says.
A shift in her thinking broadened her focus to consider how structural racism affects Black people’s physical and mental health in everyday life. “But also how, long term, that can cause worrying and stress, and how that affects our whole self and community,” she says. So instead of thinking about the issues from the level of individual behavioral change, “I started thinking on the macro level about how structure affects our lives, and specifically how structural racism affects Black communities, and how I can try to help mitigate those effects.”
As program coordinator with the Black AIDS Institute’s Prevention and Care Team—which offers direct clinical and support services, including HIV testing and counseling, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) services, referrals and linkage, support groups and peer mentorship—Selassie monitors and evaluates the programs in addition to supporting the team’s leaders.
She also supports the recently opened prevention clinic, a joint effort between BAI and the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center (SJWCFC), a federally qualified community health center. On Mondays from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., the St. John’s mobile clinic provides health services right outside BAI’s offices.
First, clients are HIV tested at the Institute, and then they’re walked down to the mobile unit, where they are linked to care or given prescriptions or referrals for PrEP or other biomedical interventions, as appropriate. As of mid-April, the clinic was averaging seven to 10 patients each week.
BAI continues to spread the word about the clinic through street and site-based outreach, community organizations and social service workers. “Every week we have people go out to populated areas, parks. We also sit outside of the Institute with music and information flyers,” Selassie says.
While the Institute has provided testing for several years, the partnership with SJWCFC creates a full-service experience. “We’ve been engaging the greater community around us. And what I really like is that, in addition to providing direct services, each week we are trying to do better in terms of how we serve our clients and work with St John’s to emphasize their strengths.”
Selassie joins the Institute on the eve of President and CEO Phill Wilson’s retirement. “I’m just happy to be a part of BAI while he is here,” Selassie says.
As for her own goals, Selassie says, “I hope to do antiracist public health work and contribute to ending the HIV epidemic.”
April Eugene is a Philadelphia-based writer.