My Brothers Keeper: Denouncers of Health Disparities – May 14, 2018

“MBK’s mission is to reduce health disparities throughout the United States by addressing the health and well-being of minority and marginalized populations through leadership and collaboration with the public and with community healthcare practices.” –

Through the past few decades a silent epidemic has been bubbling up throughout the Bible-Belt, HIV. In 2016, Mississippi was ranked 4th in the nation for new HIV diagnoses.  Though local health institutions and agencies are able to combat this disease through mitigating its effects on residents through treatment, challenges in funding and personnel to direct initiatives have left gaps in preventative treatments and programming. In the Jackson area, where My Brother’s Keeper focuses much of its work, an alarming 4 out of every 10 men who have sex with men(MSM) in the Jackson area have tested positive for HIV, the highest rate in the nation. If these men had their own country they would have the highest HIV infection rate in the world. In addition, to complicate the problem further the overwhelming majority of those infected are African American men–an all too common health disparity across our nation.

For more information on the HIV epidemic in the Deep South, check out this New York Times Magazine article:

Team Blazin’, along with the rest of the Blazing the Trail team, had the opportunity this afternoon to visit My Brother’s Keeper. Having completing pre-trip presentations about the topic at hand, our group was not prepared for the level of enthusiasm that we encountered. One might expect that working in the field of HIV in Jackson, MS would be tiring, disheartening, and lead to significant burn-out. However, we were greeted with exuberance. The staff is dedicated, caring, and compassionate. They act like a family because they believe that we are all family, all people deserving of love and respect. 

After noticing that many of their clientele felt uncomfortable seeking healthcare due to a fear of judgment, stigma, My Brother’s Keeper decided it would open its own clinic. And just as they learned the needs of the community from the community, the name of their clinic was determined justly. Though My Brother’s Keeper has been functioning to meet the needs of underserved populations since 1999, one of their many amazing programs has only been operating since 2013. The Open Arms Healthcare Center –the name of which was crowdsourced from the community members who would utilize that care–is rightly named. To me, open arms are the symbol of an impending hug, and I love hugs. They make me feel cared for, loved, trusted, and above all like I belong. As we met with the staff, one member told us that individuals access spaces, in this case, health care centers, where they feel like they belong. Open arms, hugging, belonging, you get the idea. Open Arms cares for an impressive 4,000 clients a year and that number is likely to grow (with over 520 new diagnoses every year of HIV in MS). 

It is a sense of belonging, a sense of validation that appears to be one of the core tenets of MBK. They strive to serve the whole individual and the whole community, through what we might call a whole-person view of health, to eliminate health disparities and promote health equity for all Mississippians.

One program run by the MBK staff was called Man-Date. On a typical Man-Date, ten to twelve men would come together and be invited to write down whatever it was they wanted to talk about and place it in a fishbowl in the middle of the circle. Topics would be drawn out one by one and discussed with no judgment or shame involved. The goal of this fishbowl exercise was to engage with the whole person, not just their HIV status, their sexual orientation, gender identity, other health status, just a person with feelings, fears, desires, and aspirations. A person who belongs. And as we have seen, once belonging is established, healthcare can be accessed.

Though they still do tremendous work in both preventing and treating HIV, MBK has also taken the initiative to reach adolescents with programs such as Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) and Future Ready which focuses on sexual and reproductive health. TPP is an evidence based intervention that focuses on using a full-scale approach to ensure a safe and supportive environment and partnering with youth oriented organizations to reach large diverse groups of the public. Future Ready provides sex education by establishing relationships within the community and incentivizing participants. 

My Brother’s Keeper prides themselves on creating a better quality of life for their patients. The organization is multifaceted with a focus on health disparities in the community. It is gratifying to know there is a group committed to fighting the HIV epidemic in the region with the level of enthusiasm and love of the MBK staff!  

Team 2 – Kachina, Dekennon, and Tessa

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