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From Mississippi to San Francisco and Back: Bridging the Health Equity Gap

We are thrilled to relate that Antwan Matthews, a Phlebotomist and HIV Navigator on the GLIDE Harm Reduction Team, was recently awarded a prestigious fellowship from Rise Up, an Oakland-based organization advocating a better future for youth, women and girls globally. This year, Rise Up selected 22 winners out of 550 applicants who are using technology, innovation and advocacy to improve sexual and reproductive health, and advance rights and justice for women and girls in East Africa, South Asia, and the United States.

Antwan Matthews is a Phlebotomist and HIV Navigator at GLIDE.

In the United States, the committee only accepts applications from Mississippi and Louisiana. While Antwan lives and works in San Francisco, he grew up and attended university in Mississippi. Antwan had applied to Rise Up in 2017, and while he made the top 30, he was not selected as an awardee. This year, the organization called him and requested that he re-apply.

“I was thrilled that they were still interested in me, that they remembered my application and that I could still be funded even if I’m not living in Mississippi at the moment,” Antwan recalls.

“I want to help inform individuals about their bodies holistically.”
— Antwan Matthews

Antwan has the opportunity to receive up to $12,000 to help him conduct a year-long project.

“I’m planning on coordinating with some of the students at my alma mater in Mississippi, Tougaloo College, to create a curriculum that will be developed into a class about sexual and reproductive health that is taught every other semester,” says Antwan.

Antwan anticipates that his project will take significantly longer than one year, so he is already looking into additional funding.

“Developing a curriculum that can address sexual and reproductive health in the state of Mississippi is relevant because the HIV epidemic and other STIs are spiraling out of control, along with individuals not really knowing much about sexual and reproductive health,” Antwan explains, underscoring that the subject is relevant for everyone regardless of gender. “Most of the time when we think about reproductive health, we think about women. But men also have issues related to reproductive health. If they want to produce children, they don’t know what type of nutrition they need, how much water to drink, et cetera. I want to help inform individuals about their bodies holistically.”

When Antwan was an undergraduate, he started a public health organization at Tougaloo in which he and other participants worked with the goal of redefining the philosophy of health, a goal, he says, that is still reflected in his work at GLIDE.

“The program that I started as a student was always about training undergrads in certain skill sets to go into the professional world. We used to advocate to have HIV/Hep C testing, STI testing… Basically, what I’m doing on the fifth floor at GLIDE, I was trying to make it possible for students to do in Mississippi,” Antwan says.

According to Antwan, it is difficult to explore a career in public health with a focus on sexual and reproductive health in Mississippi because of the conservative-leaning culture and political class.

“It’s very Bible Belt—people think, my child isn’t having sex, your child isn’t having sex. The citizens are also very skeptical about introducing such a curriculum in middle and high schools because they just don’t believe their child is having sex! Actually, your child probably is. Not being informed about STIs [sexually transmitted infections] or PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] or not knowing about condom usage, or, if it’s a guy who likes guys, that you need lube—the system is not in place in Mississippi to effectively address social determinants related to STIs.”

Antwan plans to work with undergraduate students to develop the curriculum, who will then be able to teach it not only at Tougaloo College but also in public schools in Jackson. Ideally, he wants to bring the curriculum to the Mississippi State Education Board and have it approved to be taught in public schools throughout Mississippi.

“The Bay doesn’t currently have an exchange with southern institutions to address such issues, and that is something I want to focus on.”
— Antwan Matthews

“Overall, my project’s aim is to help people be more aware of sexual and reproductive health, to protect themselves at an early age,” says Antwan. “There is no way you can have a healthy pregnancy if you don’t have access to information about how to have a healthy pregnancy.”

Antwan calls his project “The South-West Exchange,” referring to the flow of public health research and resources from Western states, and how they are implemented in the South.

“The Bay doesn’t currently have an exchange with southern institutions to address such issues, and that is something I want to focus on,” he says.

Left to right: Rio Amor, Sarah Thomas, Mayor London Breed, Khaiya Croom and Antwan Matthews providing outreach services and testing at a Juneteenth event in the Filmore.

Beyond this much-needed project, Antwan sees a larger future in health and advocacy, one that draws directly on the knowledge and expertise he has gained while working at GLIDE. He plans to eventually apply for a dual-degree program in medicine and law at Stanford.

“GLIDE has helped me grow by sending me to phlebotomy school and getting me trained to be a Hep C and HIV tester,” he says. “Working directly with the homeless population, individuals who are using substances, HIV-positive people, rape victims, sex workers, trans individuals—everything that I would see in the clinic or a hospital, I see that directly here.”

“As a young African American living with HIV, [Antwan] brings energy and lived experience to the team and he has demonstrated maturity beyond his years.”
— Paul Harkin

As a navigator and phlebotomist at GLIDE, Antwan, who is HIV-positive himself, helps people navigate and alleviate obstacles they may be facing while living with HIV, providing them linkages to care, facilitating focus groups, assisting them with securing housing, and much more. As a licensed phlebotomist, he conducts rapid HIV/Hep C blood testing at community events and sends reactive tests to the Department of Public Health. If someone is found to be positive for either disease, they are referred back to Antwan and GLIDE Harm Reduction navigation services to ensure they get the support they need.

Meanwhile, Antwan also guest lectures at City College, conducting seminars with undergraduate students about HIV and Harm Reduction practices.

“We are delighted to have Antwan on the Harm Reduction Team,” says Paul Harkin, Director of GLIDE’s Harm Reduction Program. “As a young African American living with HIV, he brings energy and lived experience to the team and he has demonstrated maturity beyond his years. Alongside this, he has a history of providing leadership on the issue of HIV in the African American community. Antwan has set his goal to become an MD/JD, and this is a great venue for him to learn what it is like working with marginalized populations. I have no doubt he will fulfill his professional goals.”

“When I do become a physician and JD, I will know who to advocate for, and how to do it effectively,” affirms Antwan. “Honestly, I can’t see myself anywhere else for my first job.”