Editor’s note: In a recent post about teens using their rap music talents to raise awareness for their Planned Parenthood community center The Connection, we introduced you to the producer and activist, Kenny Neal Shults of Connected Health Solutions, Inc. (CHS). We found Shults and his work to be powerful and empowering and wanted to share more of his story via the author, Savas Abadsidis. We hope it inspires you.
When the annals of HIV and sexual health advocacy are written, Kenny Neal Shults may very well be at the intersection of having a huge, yet largely invisible fingerprint on the most important social causes in the early 21st Century. Invisible because like all auteurs, he allows the work to speak for itself.
It’s the last Sunday in June of 2015, Gay Pride in New York City— the largest pride event in the world — Shults is shooting a commercial at the popular East Village gay bar, The Phoenix. He and his team have spent hours this hot sunny summer day in Manhattan getting the lighting right, so that it feels like 3 a.m. rather than noon. The soon-to-be controversial advertisement is for the drug Truvada, also known as PrEP, the drug that prevents HIV transmission. It features gay porn star J.D. Phoenix but Shults is worried; Phoenix is known for his heavy crystal meth use and was hard to nail down, and now he’s three hours late. Shults is scanning his iPhone for Phoenix’s latest FB posts, now two days old. “Do you think he’s on a bender?” he asks one of the other producers. “Fuck! What the fuck!” he yells at no one in particular, “Is he even going to show up?” Just then a glassy-eyed and jittery Phoenix walks in the door. He is not the teen movie star he looks like in his porn movies.
“Where’s hair and make-up girl?” Phoenix asks Shults. “I need someone to make me not look like I’ve been up for two days.” Shults is frustrated, but ultimately just glad Phoenix showed up at all.
The ultimate result of the shoot is a series of sexy, slick videos called Time2PrEP, an educational campaign that raised eyebrows by tapping a porn star as a role model, but the effort is informed by behavioral science. Not to mention Kenny Shults’ childhood in New Orleans and years of real world efforts doing what Shults calls “getting into people’s heads.”
Despite his obstacles, Shults has always wanted to change the world. The young man who handed out condoms in gay bars and bathhouses grew up to become CEO of Connected Health Solutions, Inc., a public health media company that creates social marketing campaigns and public service announcements (PSAs) to help at-risk teens, the LGBTQ community, people living with HIV, and other disadvantaged groups.
Shults was 22 when he took a job as the Gay Community Educator at Texas’ AIDS Services of Austin.
“At that time HIV/AIDS was the overriding issue impacting our social advancement and acceptance, and there was still so much grave injustice surrounding the epidemic,” Shults said. In those pre-antiretroviral therapy days, Shults remembers people “dying in droves. I watched the case managers at ASA [AIDS Services of Austin] wither and grow bleary eyed by the sheer number of clients they lost each month.”
It was his job to do preventative HIV education, but Shults said there were mixed feelings about his role at ASA. “There was such a great need to provide support and services to people who had already contracted HIV,” he says. “Ironically, the effort to prevent future infections was unconsciously resented by much of the staff and I think they saw me and my work in the bars as frivolity.”
Shults preserved and launched one of Austin’s first support group for HIV-negative men, then conducted a series of retreats and presented workshops. Activists around the country were beginning to distribute condoms to prevent HIV from devastating the gay community, but Shults says he learned how “jarring” it could be for some of people in the trenches to “hear such a deliberate focus on HIV-negative men.” In fact, he says he was stunned at how “volatile” things got. “I got a few death threats,” he remembers. “The assertion that we should examine how the epidemic might be impacting negative men and structuring efforts to gain insight into how prevention efforts could be tailored to meet their particular needs was seen as an affront to people living with AIDS.”
Shults believes, “This is why the difference between primary and secondary prevention was ignored,” and he says, why prevention messages never got past broadly focused attempts to address everyone with the same campaigns. It was really that experience that propelled Shults down a career path helping organizations develop public education messaging that is “ethical, population informed, and highly tailored for a precise target audience.”
Although there can be enormous differences between various demographics, Shults believes that younger gay men have more in common with older gays than people might think.
“I just don’t think you can grow up in a time of AIDS and not be [dramatically impacted], regardless of when you were born into it,” he says. “I hear a lot of folks making comparisons between older and younger gay men, and they say a lot of the things adults love to say about young people in general: ‘they think they’re invulnerable, they have no respect for what their elders endured, they’re entitled.’”
Shults argues that those generalizations are “as dangerous as they are superficial… people cope with unimaginable tribulations in ways that seem strange to us, so we judge them, and make assumptions about the perspectives and feelings that motivate their behavior.”
But, Shults says, when researchers spend the time to really uncover why young gay men still put themselves at risk, “we see many of their behaviors are motivated by fear, shame, and counter-intuitive, unconscious beliefs. The internalization of the trauma associated with the epidemic did not cease at the introduction of ARTs, or PrEP.”
Still, Shults admits he’s disturbed by the rates of new infections among young gay men: “It’s even more alarming that black youth account for a hugely disproportionate number of new infections.” He says it’s critical to understand the “social determinants” that impact increased HIV risk (and negative health outcomes) among gay men of color. “Homelessness, substance use, inadequate education, feelings of isolation — these are all larger social problems that dramatically impact and influence incidence. We need programming and approaches that deal more holistically with the factors that influence HIV infection.”
And, he thinks better marketing is critical in the effort to end AIDS. “We’ve relied too long on prevention efforts that shame, judge, and instill fear.” Shults says that these approaches rarely work, but they have characterized the majority of prevention messaging, regardless of whether it originated inside or outside of the queer community. Shults has helped numerous organizations and individuals develop messaging that engages and inspires. One way he likes to shake up people’s thought processes is to ask what Shults says is a “trick question.” He asks, “Who’s more afraid of the river flooding? The people who live right on the river, or the people who live uphill?”
“You would think the people who stand to lose their homes would be more afraid, but in fact, they don’t have that luxury,” Shults argues. “When I was a kid growing up in [New Orleans] the weather guys during hurricane season would often tell us to ‘leave town and stay in a hotel.’ We literally laughed. Not only could we not afford to leave town or even afford a single night in a hotel, but because we knew we had no other options we put tape on our windows and made fun of the ‘alarmists.’” People at risk cope with fear, Shults says, by “downplaying the realities that surround them. It’s a very valuable tool, otherwise, we would live our lives in terror every moment. Hell, getting into a car would be petrifying if we didn’t believe on some level that we won’t be one of the statistics.” It’s this same “sophisticated denial mechanisms we are all so adept at maintaining,” that Shults thinks leads people to take unnecessary risks around HIV.
Originally “ambivalent” about PrEP, Shults says he could see the treatment as a “giant pharmaceutical company bent on getting all gay men on their chemicals [or] a method for men who won’t use condoms to remain negative and keep from spreading the virus,” but he also worried, “Is this going to decimate all our work promoting and branding condoms?” But then Shults thought back on work he did with a needle exchange program the 1990s. “It was a powerful experience for me,” Shults recalls. “It shaped my understanding of the potential for harm reduction. The people I met and gave needles to were drug users, and rather than trying to tell them that they shouldn’t use drugs, we helped them stay HIV negative until they figured out that other stuff. The people we helped stood a much greater chance of surviving the AIDS epidemic and their substance dependency than those not served by the exchange.” That’s why Shults says it’s now “very clear to me that PrEP is right for some people. There are some men who are not using condoms. It doesn’t matter if we think they should, they’re just not. It’s not our place to ice them out and abandon them. It’s our job to keep them negative until they can figure out that other stuff.” He’s not only thrown his support behind PrEP in the latest educational campaign, but he made the controversial choice to devote one of the three videos to someone like J.D. Phoenix and his, “I like to party, I like to be safe,” message.
Asked if he didn’t think that casting Phoenix was an inflammatory choice . . .
. . . Shults was adamant: “Yes, I absolutely do. That was the plan. There’s a lot of noise online, and when you’re relying on an organic social media distribution of web content you have to get people’s attention.”
In fact, he says, “We also wanted to find the ideal incarnation of Weinstein’s ‘Truvada Whore.’ J.D. is perfect! I say this with all respect, J.D. who has been on PrEP long before it was well-known and makes no apologies for his work in porn or love of sex.” That’s exactly the kind of spokesperson that can reach the younger demographic that Phoenix represents. It’s important, Shults says, that the message isn’t judging their lifestyles or choices. “Yes, using drugs and having unprotected sex is risky – everyone is clear on that. But it is our job to bring those men into the fold and meet them where they are, not kick them off the island and suggest that they get what they deserve.” Shults reiterates, “No one deserves to get a disease because of the way they experience intimacy. Our job is to supply people with the facts and let them make their own choices. They are much more likely to trust what we tell them when we don’t presuppose they will make what we consider to be the wrong ones.”
“You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.”
Shults heard a woman say that at an HIV Prevention workers conference in ’96. “It hit me square in the face and I started to cry. I always felt so much shame about my teen years. But the choices I made were largely defined by the choices I had. I chose to survive the best way I could, that is, the way that was best for me. I was drowning, and I had only enough energy to stay afloat. It made me realize that there was a staggering number of needs to be met before I could even imagine succeeding in the way high school glibly encourages. Those canned high school platitudes only alienated me further; You Can Do Anything with Math! Really? Will math give me a dollar for lunch?” Shults continues, “I wish I had been one of those kids who found solace in math, but I think those folks are few and far between. With the exception of a few savants, most people need to feel safe, fed, loved and supported to designate bandwidth for scholastics. Otherwise, young people have to allocate resources to survival, struggling for dignity and managing a cacophony of thoughts and feelings. Basic needs must be met in order to move beyond basic functioning. Far too many low-income and struggling kids don’t see their way above the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s pyramid (physiological needs and safety). To even want to move closer to self-actualization is a privilege many young people don’t enjoy.”
Shults’ most recent effort with Planned Parenthood has been the hysterical PSAs he produced with the kids of Nassau County. It’s called The Long Island Medium and is a play on the TV show. The college students we recruited in the Long Island area were tasked with determining the tone of the campaign. They were adamant that it needed to represent a millennial attitude – irreverent, honest and snarky. Planned Parenthood tries to avoid confrontation with the opposition. As such, their marketing efforts do not directly call out the absurdities that characterize their detractors’ efforts. These new campaigns do just the opposite, and in ways that appeal to other young adults. Their “So Much More” campaign offers social media consumers a host of messages that underscore that Planned Parenthood is so much more than people think, hear and believe. The content they produce is unapologetically direct and acerbic.
“You know, long before I got to this point in my life, I went on to do HIV/STI and unintended pregnancy prevention for many years.” He railed against messaging that reminded him so much of those high school clichés; half-baked attempts to layer unrealistic expectations over people’s unmet needs. “I knew that for people to really consider their health and well-being they needed several other foundational pieces first.” Homophobia was more than just an ignominy that young people endured; it was also a force that occluded sexual minorities’ ability to want to protect themselves. Asking someone to consider their future was a lofty goal for someone who wasn’t certain they’d have one. “Prevention messaging needed to inspire people to believe they could survive the epidemic, not just constantly remind them that they could die.”
His work exposed him to many group-level interventions designed to change attitudes and behaviors in adolescents. “Many of them touted the same banalities as my high school and those early prevention strategies, encouraging young people to “take responsibility” and “be proud,” as if words could alchemically alter the outlook of a young person struggling to survive.”
“The kids I work with have it far worse than I did. Many of them experience abuse, neglect, racism, fear of the police, addiction, sexual assault and more by the time they enter high school.” Shults ventures that without proper acknowledgment of these realities, “educators and prevention specialists are relegated to the same compartment as teachers: people who hurl directives and fear-based admonitions in order to motivate “healthy” behavior.”
In 2010 Shults decided to created his own group-level behavior-change program for “at risk” teens called MyMediaLife. [See video, below: “What is MyMediaLife”] The program takes adolescents and other “target populations” through the process of producing a digital film that speaks to issues most present in their lives. He has since implemented it in Planned Parenthood education departments around the country, transforming their existing outreach mechanisms into new and social media strategies that leverage population-produced digital content.
Shults had come full circle.
When creating MyMediaLife, “I thought about what helped me not only to survive but triumph – opportunities. The strengths-based program creates multiple opportunities for teens to succeed. They are entrusted with the conceptualization, preparation, and production of a short film that speaks to their specific struggles. As such, there are many roles a teen can carry out such as stylist, casting director, writer, set designer, music specialist, etc. This ensures everyone in the program is given an opportunity to do something that contributes to the process.” CHS shares the budget with the youth gives them the parameters they need to work within and guides them as they figure out how to work together to produce the film. By the end of the process, the youth have had multiple opportunities to showcase their talents, receive positive reinforcement, and take pride and ownership of their contributions. The experience, not a bunch of words, stimulates inspiration in the youth and builds their sense of self-efficacy.
“The teens I’ve worked with around the country have produced campaigns that address mental health, relationship abuse, digital disasters, racism, homophobia, and a host of public-health-related issues such as teen pregnancy and STD/HIV prevention. They learn how to use emotions that will produce the desired result in viewers. As a natural antidote to shame, humor is often extremely effective at allowing young people to more fully consider an issue without the gravity of fear or judgment to weigh them down.” Accordingly, many of the films are funny examinations of teens’ foibles as told by other teens, making such a depiction more palatable and respectful. “In the process of creating a film about a particular behavior they would like to see their peers adopt or modify, they adopt or modify their own. The process of unpacking an issue and developing a media message to help fix it results in greater behavior change simply because it was their ideas and insights that produced it. People are more inclined to follow a behavioral prescription when they develop it on their own.”
The campaigns are beautifully produced, compelling stories that take the form of music videos, narratives, parodies, and mini-documentaries. They inspire and highlight young people’s successes, but they also depict the reality of young people’s experiences. This more than anything engages youth who are struggling to cope by making viewers feel less alone. But they also demonstrate in a nonjudgmental way that obstacles can be overcome, honor the challenges that many marginalized people struggle to traverse and offer solutions that are achievable and genuine. “The youth-produced campaigns motivate young people to consider their options, and their futures, because they feel understood, which in turn allows them to re-route energy away from surviving and towards making constructive change.”
Watch Shults’ video “What is MyMediaLife” to see how Shults and team have inspired youth:
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Photo credit: Kenny Neal Shults