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The last week (oh it’s only wednesday) has been very interesting as I’m in the planning stages of a new production I’m working on (can’t wait to announce it), but after conversations with several people, I realise there are some very serious problems in prevention initiatives and no surprises that people are still getting infected.

Ok, I’m obviously simplifying the issues, but some of the things I see or hear really does make me think hmmmm.

I was looking at the messaging we’re focusing on for this show and it struck me that none of it is new. Not the messages of use a condom, or you can live long, healthy, productive lives if you test positive, or don’t have sex or don’t exchange sex for gifts blah blah blah. So my question to the people debriefing us was, why aren’t these messages working? I don’t want to flog a dead horse and make no impact by focussing on the same messages.

It made me think about the paper my sister wrote for her thesis (ok I didn’t read the whole paper – don’t hate me Tasha!), but I know it was along the lines of how our interpersonal relationships and emotions affect the risks we take. In other words, we know on a rational level the risks involved, but when you’re emotionally invested, you might do something stupid.

Yet rarely in HIV prevention campaigns do we talk about the emotional side of risk taking. I think there are other dynamics as well, such as low self-esteem, lack of personality personal identity and lack of a level of selfishness that puts ourselves first. Some of these are learnt as children and also developed as you mature (but usually post your early 20s). So if the foundation is weak, how can we try and rebuild from the middle of the structure?

And we can’t forget the environments we live in, if we can change the society then maybe we can find a way to get through these messages. But we also have to be honest and not judge people. For example, we need to be clear about the you can live a long and productive life if you test positive, as long as you take care of your health and have the healthcare infrastructure to support this, because let’s be honest, we’ve seen some people who have died within a few years of testing positive. Of course these can be explained, in most cases, but too often we want to gloss over any potentially uncomfortable or ‘sad’ information that might scare people or make them question what you’re telling them. But people aren’t stupid. If you give them all the information they can process it and make informed decisions or understand what happens when things don’t go as planned.

Or if you’re involved in multiple concurrent relationships, don’t tell people they are bad people for being in the relationship – make them safe, not ashamed.

If you tell them the nice, comfortable message and gloss over some of the facts, they don’t trust you – because it doesn’t add up. I’m losing my trail of thought here…

Anyway my point was that when it comes to HIV messaging, we’ve got to look beneath the layers and keep asking why until we get to the core. We need to stop jumping on the bandwagon of what the west powers that be in the HIV field say is the problem, or is the silver bullet. And there are some things that statistics can’t answer or capture – those are the issues of feelings and emotions that we need to learn to incorporate in everything we do. That is if we want to have impact and start making a difference in the HIV/AIDS response.

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I’ve been having some really interesting conversations, both based on my own experience and experiences of some other companies I know, when it comes to working with what i’m now calling the new generation of development organisations. This new generation that likes to take private sector strategies to make them more effective and efficient (I’m guesisng that’s the thinking behind it). Generally speaking I think this could be good for them, as long as they are selective in the strategies they choose and don’t forget their core purpose. A company’s core goal is to make money, a non-profit or development organisation should be to benefit the lives of the communties they serve.

But, now I’m beginning to wonder if some of these development organisations have not lost sight of that with their branding strategies. There is the one organisation that have been given an opportunity to reach 60million viewers across Africa with their message on concurrency and HIV transmission and are on the verge of losing the opportunity merely because they want to direct how their logo should appear.

Another project I know of that has been almost at a standstill over how it will be branded for several months now, yet the core message of the project hasn’t even been discussed.

Am I the only one concerned by this trend?

I definitely understand the importance of these organisations wanting their recognition, especially if they put in the core funding for the project in the first place, but it can’t outweigh the benefits of reaching your intended audience with critical information. And if you invested $150,000 to reach 2-3million people, then isn’t this a massive win to reach an additonal 60 odd million?

Let’s be honest in today’s world anyway, the user has so many ways to find the source of anything – isn’t that exactly why the internet was invented? Well maybe not, but it does it anyway. So if a user sees something on tv, it’s only an internet search engine away to find out all there is about the product, including who is behind it.

And why is your brand so important to the consumer anyway? Exactly what service or product are you selling anyway? If you’re selling a condom for example, then yes, you want your brand name and/or logo all over the project. But if you’re selling the ability to make informed, responsible choices…? Not really sure how your brand comes to play in that. Though I guess you could say ‘because of the US government I have decided to use condom every time I have sex’. Hmmm, who actually says that?

On the other hand, if it’s for other donors where you get money from then why not just include it in your annual report? What are the chances that your donors will see the project in action, with your logo on it?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while brands are important and definitely getting your brand out there is important, must it come at the expense of the social, health, economic development message you’re working to achieve?

You always hear about celebrities having to be responsible role models, but is that fair? If you have a talent and enjoy using that talent to entertain and make a living out of it, is it then fair to pass judgement if you don’t ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to being a role model? After all, does the fine print to celebrity status say that you have to be a positive influence and give back to your community?

This was the predicament I found myself in a couple of weeks ago when two popular, black, personalities refused to take an HIV test to support a testing campaign I’ve been helping on. At first I was really angry. Our community is disproportionally affected by HIV/AIDS and they wouldn’t take a test to encourage young black (males) people know their status. Knowing them personally I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see them and give them my opinion on their action, or lack of.

Once I calmed down, about a week later, I started questioning the responsibilities we place on celebrities to be role models and to promote good behaviour. Is this fair? Because you’re good at singing or acting, does that mean that you also need to be a perfect person, or indeed care about the community you live in, when so many others don’t?

My honest opinion on this is yes, you do. You have been blessed with an ability to reach people in ways no one else can. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’: where is your true relevance or value on earth if you do nothing more than sing and dance to enrich your personal bank account, and don’t leave the world in a better place than you found it?

I think that we all, celebrities and normal citizens alike, have a role in bettering our community. Call me foolish or naive but I do think that if you do nothing to help the world you live in, then you may as well be irrelevant. And if you think that talking about safe sex and promoting responsible sexual decision-making might negatively impact your reputation then you really are lame. You don’t deserve the platform you’ve been given. So yes, they might never speak to me again, but the next time I do see those two, I will explain how I feel about their decision.

Do look out for our World AIDS Day campaign, and spread the word in your community, taking an HIV test is just the start of taking control of your sexual health.

Peace

I have to admit, I don’t really watch animated programmes, maybe a few on adult swim, but otherwise, cartoons are for kids, right?

So the other day when my sister asked me to get her a copy of The Princess and the Frog so that she could host a screening for ‘the kids’, I thought, maybe I should watch the movie and see why she wants to show the kids. I only knew two things about the movie; 1) it’s was Disney’s first film with a black princess and 2; the controversy of the frog/prince being some ambiguous race.

With my very short attention span, I did not think I was going to be able to sit through the whole thing on Sunday afternoon. But I did. And I actually enjoyed it, didn’t even forward most of the songs.

It was great because I stupidly assumed that it would literally be a remake of the classical children’s story about kissing the frog who’s actually a prince and you become a princess. So I was surprised to see the twist to it.

However, the only thing that really made the ‘princess’ black – her skin colour and the fact that she thought kissing a frog was disgusting. I shouldn’t complain about the lack of ‘stereotypical’ black nuances that we enjoy joking about, but hate other races talking about, because the reality is all black people are different. As long as I can show my future daughter a cartoon character, a Princess, that looks like her, I should be happy.

And the message in the show is so good too – the things that matter, that makes are human is love. Or is that we need to find someone to love to be whole? Hmmm, there’s a thought.

Anyway, it struck me how as children, we get all these messages through programming that teaches us about love, humanity, respect, being ourselves etc. As we grow up those messages change to be about being all about self, money, sexual gratification and all sorts of messages that you have to wade through to find something that actually matters.

Yes it is that as adults – or even teenagers – we’re supposed to have a sense of decision making skills, we don’t need to be told, we have the ability to choose right from wrong and make the best decisions for ourselves. But I just don’t think that’s the reality. I think there are so many mixed messages that young people, who very rarely have the acumen for life-skills, just get confused. They’re childhood upbringing (for most of them) tells them one thing, and the media they now consume, tell them another. So they are no longer aligned with their soul.

You’d say that my line of work makes me partial to programme that gives positive messages, but it’s not that, it’s the choice that I made. I have two loves: making TV programming and fighting injustice. And I believe in the power of TV. The power it has to entertain, and the power it has to educate. And children’s programming does that brilliantly.

I hope as we develop our campaigns we get stronger and stronger at this. I know it’s working already, just look at Shuga. In case you missed it, here’s the piece CNN’s African Voices did on Shuga:

http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2010/10/25/av.shuga.kenya.mtv.bk.a.cnn

The last few months have been rather intense, both personally and professionally. Change is always a difficult thing to go through, but sometimes you just have to embrace it and hold on.

With less than a month to go before World AIDS Day, we’re full steam ahead to deliver one of our most integrated campaigns yet – if all goes according to plan. It’s also a new programming format for us, mixing reality style with documentary type story lines. I wish I could say it’s an obs-doc, but it’s not quite, not yet…

Coupled with this one hour special is a dedicated website, which we hope will be a one-stop destination for young people needing to find out all they need about testing and/or living with HIV.

I have to admit this format and indeed this website has been a goal of mine for awhile. When I first lost my brother in 2006, a change started in me, regarding the type of messages I thought we should be communicating to the audience, yes putting across the use the condom message was still important but it wasn’t enough (and I’m simplifying the messages we put across, it was more than just use a condom).

In 2009 when I lost my other brother, I knew it was time to change things up.

I still believe it’s important to put across the more positive, inclusive message of you can live a healthy, productive life with HIV, but I also think we can’t shy away from some of the more negative aspects of living with HIV. Like with any terminal illness there are good and bad days. And with the bad times, it affects everyone who loves you. Never before did the saying ‘if you’re not infected, you’re affected’ resonate with me than when I lost my brother. And even now, as I watch other relatives battling with the virus.

And so the process to tell the real stories of young people living with HIV began earlier this year. Do I think we’ve got it right? Well, I’ll let you guys be the judge of that, come December 1st.

I think there are so many stories to be told that what we’ve started is just the tip of the iceberg and it shouldn’t end here. Ultimately Me, Myself and HIV, should resonate with young people already living with the virus, but also give an opportunity for someone to walk in the shoes of one of these kids (they’re early 20s, hardly kids I suppose), for just one day. It’s not about pity, it’s not about differences, it’s much more about similarities, with that extra layer of HIV to complicate some things.

Look out for it – coming to a screen near you – on December 1st.

I actually mean the global south and north here. Over the last few months (for some reason I’ve been more mentally aware of my surrounds in this period) I’ve realised how different cultures can be and the impact this must have on young people split between them.

I was born in Zambia and spent my formative years split between London and Stockholm. I moved back to Zambia as a teenager and then relocated to London in my early twenties. So I’ve moved around a fair bit and I’ve always been grateful for this because it opened my mind. As a teenager, my sexual education was influenced by living in the liberal city of Stockholm, this actually made it easier for my sisters and I to launch the sexual educating magazine, Trendsetters, in Zambia.

But the respect and values I came with to the UK were from my Zambian culture. So sometimes I still recoil when I hear a child talking back to their parents (disrespectfully I mean). It also affects my perception of ‘appropriate attire’ – I was going to say covering your modesty, but hey who am I kidding, I used to love my mini-skirts! Though I was erm, ok not really 18, I may have had some suspect outfits at 16! Still, I find it disturbing to see some of the clothes people leave their houses in, during the day or even going to work in.

Though my point comes when I think about how some things are so much more acceptable here than they are for our cultures back home – or at least people make it seem like it is. One one hand young people are encouraged to embrace their sexuality and that it’s ok to sexually experiment. Hell, babies having babies are ok. When my other Zambian friends and I get together we do joke about how if this was Africa, such and such wouldn’t be happening – and brush it off.

The other day as I was recounting an incident where I thought a man was having a relationship with a very young girl because he was touching her, what my African upbringing would suggest inappropriately, turned out it was his daughter, I realised just how different these cultures are. Most of my western colleagues didn’t think there was anything wrong with a father putting his hand on his teenage daughter’s thigh while they were talking, whereas that would be a huge no no in Zambia.

All this got me thinking – how do teenagers, more specifically the African youth in the diaspora bridge these gaps? How do they manage to choose the good from their cultures back home – because let’s be honest, there are some parts of the African culture that really undervalue women and we don’t need that – with the good part of the western culture (back chat not included)?

My friend and I laugh at our different experiences of wearing shorts in front of our fathers – another no no after a certain age – hers was her aunt telling her off (though she pointed out that if her dad bought them in the first place, why shouldn’t she wear them), mine was my father actually telling me it was inappropriate – I always forgot though, I’m sure on some occasions he just walked out of the room (Lol). Then I think of a visit to my aunt’s house (here in the UK) and finding her son’s girlfriend sitting on his lap and kissing him in front of her – shock horror! And they shared a bedroom the whole weekend I was there. It sounds ridiculous when I write it – because I’m thinking of it from a Western perspective, but I’m not sure that even at my age I’m having my boyfriend sleep in my room at my parents house… maybe if we’re engaged it would be ok, maybe.

This is something we sometimes forget when we’re educating young people – how various cultures influence their lives. Be it because of where they go to school, where they live or even because of the TV programmes they watch. If you don’t speak to them with those cultural influences in mind, how can you expect the message to sink in? You may not agree with it, you may even want to mock it, but if you want to make a difference, try to understand where they’re coming from.

In the early days of HIV prevention messaging in Zambia, the US agencies came in pouring money into the ‘talk to your parents about sex’ message. Because they didn’t ask (or maybe they didn’t do the right research) it took them awhile to realise that the reason that message never worked was because in our culture, you don’t talk to your parents about sex, you talk to your aunt – as a girl, or your uncle, if you’re a boy.

People know this in commercial advertising, I have no idea why it’s taken so long in public health. Ok I know a lot of campaigns do do this now, but there are still a few that make me say hmmmm.

Still exhausted from Vienna, I boarded a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa to meet with the MTV Networks Africa team to start talking about Shuga 2 – some meetings you can’t do any other way, but face to face.

The idea was to go through the evaluation and lessons learnt to do even better – hard, but there’s always ways to do better. In true MTV style the meeting was done in less than three hours and we have a plan.

The evaluation results for Shuga were good – really good, actually they were good for all our programmes. So the problem became, how do you top something so good?

The results from the evaluation weren’t enough to answer this question, so we looked at the lessons learnt from the campaign – and boy were there lessons! And then we said if money wasn’t a factor, what would we do?

We had a great conversation about the digital side of it. One of the things that came out strong in the evaluation was the need to integrate social networking and mobile. Dina, the lead evaluation professor from Johns Hopkins threw out the idea of us capitalising on the ‘next’ big thing in technology – I tried not to laugh when Richard said that VOD was the next big thing for the continent. His point was that Africa is moving fast with digital media, but not that fast. What’s big in the west now, can still be adapted and be big for Africa. But realistically, for our audience, what’s bigger than facebook right now?

We discussed the parameters of our work. Dina and the Hopkins team had some great ideas on reaching rural areas, health workers and parents, but that’s not our primary work and I don’t believe we should be doing more than our core competence or we’ll be doing a disservice to our audience, the campaign and even our partners.

After the meeting Chris Torline (my go to man in the team) and I went to catch up and discuss work and life on a rooftop sushi bar in Hyde Park – it really was such a relaxing moment – why don’t I work in Africa, I thought to myself.

But as I boarded the plane back to London, I realised we’d forgotten the biggest part to all of this – what is it that our partners want? What are their objectives? We’re really good at making these programmes, but if our partners and others don’t use them, then what’s the point? There’s only so much a broadcaster can do, the rest is up to the implementing partners on the ground.

While I guess that will be figured out in planning meeting two in Nairobi. Unfortunately, or not, I’ll be sunning myself on a beach in Cancun, followed by some more sun in sin city!

Oh and I’m now on Twitter – finally caved, follow me @cathyphiri

After all of two hours sleep (if that), I landed in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference, where supposedly 25,000 people were going to be attending. Straight from the airport, I changed as I had to meet Bill Roedy, my chief exec to do a formal session on the New Generation Leadership with Michel Sidebe and the Crown Princess of Norway, and a bunch of other leaders, young and old.

He loved it – i was dreaming of my bed the whole time but had to stay. UNAIDS were launching this mentorship hub and programme to support youth leaders with established leaders (whatever that really means). And Bill does have a long history of supporting young people, and more so with the Staying Alive Foundation, so made sense for us to participate.

Luckily enough my dear friend Mark Connolly was also at the meeting, so we hung out and chilled – we got kicked out of the room because we weren’t on the list of established leaders, and i’m guessing I’m too old to pass as a youth leader (though some of the ages of those youth were questionable). By this point, I’m not only exhausted, I’m starving too. Lack of food and sleep deprivation is not a good combination for me, I’m seriously irritated.

By the time we’re invited back for the less formal session, I just want to go home (i.e. the hotel), but Bill wants a debrief, so I have to stay. About 90minutes later as I’m close to the end of my tether, I realise what was also irritating me about the meeting. I wasn’t hearing anything new.

I’ve been a ‘youth’ (love that term) in this field and the things I was hearing in the room was the same things I’ve heard years before – there was nothing new. Young people need to stop thinking that they can’t get anything done without the adult partnership in place – or they’ll be waiting for ever. But more than that, they have to act like young people and not adult clones in the UN system. Being young is what differentiates them from adults – this is their USP. I understand that it helps to talk their language, but if you try to behave like an adult (and i mean this in the HIV field) you won’t get very far, because the real adults have years of experience on you. Besides, why can’t the adults be the ones to adapt to young people’s way of thinking and behaviour?

They complained that they need jobs. Well I’ve seen enough youth consultants who aren’t youth, why not become a youth consultant – like a real life one? Sell your skills that way. And as for the whole money issue? That’s always going to be an issue, we’ve got to figure a way to be creative.

(shrug) I guess i just felt there were more excuses than solutions in that room. Though Paul Farmer did say something that made sense… If only I could remember what it was (it’s been a long week – and it’s only Tuesday).

After that Mark and I went for some Weiner Schnitzel (sp). I loved it! Even though it was deep fried…

That ended around 6pm and I still went on to have more dinner with my colleagues Julie and Siobhan! We got kicked off the terrace of our hotel for making too much noise… aaah that was a nice night.

Sunday was interesting. I had scheduled an hour long meeting between Bill and some young positives representing different parts of the world (strangely enough no one from Africa). My girl Jessica was there and she’s always cool – love her to bits.

Kenneth Cole joined the meeting with his daughter, which was cool. The conversation was really informal and it was just to get some insight into what it means to be young and HIV+ and what we should be doing more of and less of to support them. It was a really interesting conversation, it’s true what Michel Sidebe says, no one will know more about HIV/AIDS than a person living with the virus.

The rest of the team along with two cast members from Shuga arrived that day so the next part of my work began. Promoting Shuga. Because I’m getting tired again, I’ll summarise.

We had a press conference today with Bill, Ambassador Goosby and Jimmy Kolker, with Dr Dina Borzekowski presenting the results from the impact evaluation of the Ignite project. Shuga’s results were extradordinary. 60% of young people in Kenya had seen it! and over 80% of them had had their thinking affected by Shuga, with increased intentions to get tested, decreased intentions to have multiple concurrent partners and increased positive attitudes towards people living with HIV. You can get the full results from the staying alive site. Or i can send you a copy if you want.

So what does this all mean? We’re doing Shuga 2!

Ok I’m off, have to go and organise tonight’s screening and cocktail party. Catch me on twitter, I finally succumbed…. @cathyphiri

A year ago I tried everything to get out of going to the AIDS conference. I’ve been to every AIDS Conference since Durban (2000) bar Bangkok and I’ve just been feeling the AIDS fatigue bug myself. So when it was decided that I was leading our initiatives at this year’s conference in Vienna, I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.

Technically I should have been. I knew before we even saw the results, that we’d be announcing the impact evaluation results from our multi-country study of the Ignite project – which I led – and there was the Viacom initiatives as part of the HIV/AIDS sub-committe that I co-chair, so technically it made sense that I should lead our involvement. I still wasn’t jumping for joy.

The results from our programming are worth going to Vienna for. And in true MTV style we’ve made it a bit of an event (on a budget). Viacom isn’t scaling back either, we’re having our biggest booth, therefore presence, than ever before, and we’re aiming to top our Mexico party (hard to do, but I’m feeling our leadership in action theme). Today I saw the remaining artwork for the signage and I’m actually excited about going to Vienna.

I’m excited because we’re showing that we do care. As a company we could just pay lip-service, but with the presence of the senior executives attending as well as our investment in these events, I think we are saying, we care, we matter, and we want to keep being involved.

And somewhere along the line I hope to learn a lot, but not get information overload. I was actually looking at the new UNAIDS report and was glad to see that it was in an easy to digest format, and with a decent number of pages that didn’t make me have to put aside too much time to go through it. I like the fact that UNAIDS is prioritising youth leadership – as I’ve always had a problem with tokenism but also with youth thinking they’re entitled to Lord knows what – but to have them meaningfully engaged, that’s what matters. As long as they know that they too have to put the work in. Leadership is a huge responsibility. As I say, great leaders are born, but anyone can learn to be a leader, as long as they take up the challenge themselves.

But I’ll also be glad when the conference is over – so I can get some sleep. Going to bed at 2am two nights in a row is no fun. Today, I had to give in and attempt to go to bed early – I should hit my usual 11ish bed time. Though when I get back from Vienna, I’m in London for like two days before I jet off to Joburg for a planning meeting with the base Africa team. Happy days.

Anyway look out for my blogs while in Vienna, I’ll keep you posted.

I’m tired. I’m working hard and long hours, all in the run up to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, in a couple of weeks. But I’m excited too. Yes in the past Staying Alive has done major events at the conference – The Bill Clinton Forum in 2002, 48 Fest Toronto in 2006, Sex Uncovered in 2008 (though that wasn’t too major), but I actually feel like this is a major year for us. We announce the results of our multi-country evaluation (Trinidad & Tobago, Kenya and Zambia) for the Ignite campaign. I’ve heard them so I’m pretty stoked and can’t wait to make them public!

We’re having a massive booth where we’ll be doing some pretty cool stuff – can’t say what yet – not that it’s top secretive but the woman responsible for it, likes to think it is. And then there’s is the Viacom Leadership in Action party – can’t wait for that either! I don’t know how we can top the 2008 party in Mexico, which was held on the roof of a stunning boutique hotel – but hey, it was Mexico, can you really compete? We will have top leaders like Michel Sidebe and my girl Marvelyn Brown share their thoughts on leadership in the response to HIV/AIDS.

Because I’ve made it a personal challenge to make HIV more accessible to young people, I worked closely with Ben (a coordinator in the team), who I’ve made responsible for community engagement, to come up with a theme for our online space to bring the theme of the conference to our audience. So last Monday, we kicked off a campaign called ‘The Right to Be Me’, it’s a series of empowering articles from ordinary people who’ve overcome adversity. The idea is to formulate what rights mean to each person, but also to encourage, inspire and empower our audience as we campaign for universal access to prevention. Check out the site to see what’s up there. We’ll also be putting up celebrity interviews on their perspective of their right to be themselves.

So it’s busy times over at staying alive HQ but I’m really excited, as I’m leading the efforts on our presence at Vienna and so far it’s been good, even if there are a lot of late nights and stress – is it weird that I enjoy the pressure? Well it’s because I know it will be worth it in the end.

Though I have to admit, I’m very curious to see the impact of our evaluation – for years people have talked about the importance of result proven strategies (though I’m very much of the school of trust your instincts, as long as you know your audience), so let’s see how this will be received. I’m excited – who needs sleep?!

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