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Jamal Hailey: Being a Frontline Soldier in the War on HIV is Personal, Part Three

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Jamal Hailey has his own personal stake in the war on HIV he's helping to wage: Two of his family members have succumbed to the virus.

Mr. Hailey is quite accomplished: a native of suburban Maryland, he's a HIV expert, social/behavioral researcher and advocate for marginalized groups. He has spent more than a decade working to improve the lives of adolescents and young adults in Baltimore City, with a major focus on ensuring that youth have access to healthcare.

Hailey has a dual Bachelor's of Science in Psychology and Sociology (with a minor in LGBT studies) and Master of Arts in Psychology from Towson University. He's currently enrolled in Howard University's Counseling Psychology PhD Program. In this final part of my recent interview with Hailey, he discusses precisely why he's so committed in the battle against HIV -- and why it's so personal.

EVANS: In 2013, for, you wrote,

I have several family members who are affected by HIV, and two of them have died from the complications of AIDS. Seeing what HIV is all about from such a personal experience made me realize that this is a cause I always wanted to be associated with.

Very profound! During this experience, what was the exact defining moment that made you conclude that HIV advocacy was your calling?

HAILEY: Initially, what got me involved with HIV was finding out that my father passed away from HIV-related complications. I wanted to learn more about the disease, thereby educating others. To be honest, the "defining moment" was my experience at a transitional shelter in Baltimore City.

Aside from the passing of my parents, I lived a relatively sheltered and protected life. It was not until my first professional job in Baltimore City that I was able to see true poverty, illness, and despair. Here, I begin to examine the links between physical health, social conditions and mental health. I saw people thrive and have hope, despite their social marginalization and physical ailments. I learned to see beyond my own wants, needs, hurt, and biases in order to help others improve their lives. This experience signified a shift in my perspective of the world. Through my work at the transitional shelter, I began to think of myself as not only a service provider, but also as a social scientist.

What solidified my focus on HIV was the passing of 11 of my friends over a six-month period in 2007, all under the age of 30, due to complications of HIV. It was during that time that the United States began to see a significant increase in HIV among black gay men within my age group, particularly in Baltimore. The fear of living through a time in which HIV infection rates and deaths started to mirror that of the early 80s/late 90s had a crippling effect on me. It was through my community work and advocacy in the local gay community in Baltimore that I was able to work through this fear -- and ultimately heal.

EVANS: Jamal, thanks for such an insightful and compelling explanation. So, what makes your job the most fulfilling?

HAILEY: Knowing that the work I do now extends beyond just the one task that I complete. There is something rewarding about knowing that your work has the potential to help someone live to their potential. As well, there is something truly special about working on initiatives that may shape how future healthcare providers, case workers, and/or mental health professionals serve marginalized groups. Knowing that I am doing work to help those who are marginalized and/or oppressed is most rewarding.

EVANS: What part of your position is the most difficult -- and perhaps disheartening? Why, and in what way?

HAILEY: Coming in contact with a 22-year-old person who expects every person over the age 30 to sexually exploit them. This is one of the saddest things about doing this work. I have met countless young people who either have been offered employment, mentorship, etc. under the condition that they have sex with their mentor or be their employer. That is so sick to me. I feel that anytime you are in a position of power or authority and you have the opportunity to help a young person, you should consider that an honor. To taint that by attempting to use your position of power or authority as a bargaining tool for sex is just sad. It completely changes how youth see the world, and creates a certain level of general mistrust with anyone attempting to help that young person.

EVANS: To date, what accomplishment(s) are you must proud -- and why?

HAILEY: That's a hard one... I think again, in terms of my accomplishments I would have to say creating programs that help to create future leaders. The most rewarding part of my work is knowing that there are people who have come through the STAR TRACK program as staff members, and are now doing their thing in the world. It is fantastic to see people come into their own!

EVANS: Jamal, how can the nationwide HIV rate be curbed? And, should there be more specially-targeted programs directed to various subsets of the African-American population, for example the young (13-24) and MSMs?

HAILEY: If we ever expect to truly have an impact on HIV nationwide, we have to start addressing the systemic issues associated with HIV as opposed to looking for the quick fixes. It means addressing poverty and increasing opportunities for affordable housing; revamping our education system to include comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual health education; closing the loops in fragmented healthcare systems. It means integrating mental health services to a healthcare system that focuses on wellness. It means that we begin to address systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in all of our systems and institutions.

EVANS: How does your work sustain you, and is "food for the soul," if you will?

HAILEY: I think the part of my work that sustains me the most is the mentoring aspect. I have the honor of mentoring youth staff as a part of the work that I do, and seeing them grow and come into their own is the most rewarding part. It is the part of the work that keeps me grounded and keeps me going. To see the number of youth staff who have come through our program at STAR TRACK, and are now leading their own initiatives and doing amazing things at other organizations is truly rewarding.

EVANS: Mr. Hailey, thanks for educating us and providing your illuminating perspectives.

HAILEY: My pleasure, Wyatt.

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