Ask & Tell
BY Neal Broverman
July 01 2010 12:00 AM ET
Lisa Dukes knows the power of a good idea. A counselor at the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, Dukes wanted to make one of her programs -- Sisters Informing Sisters About Topics on AIDS -- more effective. The SISTA gatherings were two-hour formal sessions, and Dukes believed she could reach more women if she made them fun. Soon the Girlfriends Project was born. Inspired by Tupperware parties, the project invites a group of women to the home of a friend. Dukes uses the relaxed setting -- food and drinks are served -- to speak frankly about safer sex and offer HIV tests to attendees. The Girlfriends Project has been so successful that Dukes has presented it at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National HIV Prevention Conference.
Tell us about a typical event.
If someone comes in contact with one of my brochures or has attended another house party, it's usually a domino effect -- I'll get a call and a woman will want to schedule a party. I meet with the hostess and talk about what kind of food she wants. Anytime a hostess caters a party, she's given a $50 gift card, and guests who get tested receive a $20 gift card. I'll find out from the hostess who will be at the meeting so that I can tweak the information for the group I'm working with. For instance, if the women are more conservative, I won't be as graphic.
What happens at the party?
I usually have 10 to 15 women, but I've had a party with 22. At the event I give women basic information on risk and sexually transmitted diseases. I've added to the curriculum some domestic-violence information too. I do a lot of hands-on demonstration; I take my [synthetic] penis and vagina to demonstrate how to put on condoms. Everyone gets her own party pack of lubricant and condom cases, which are very cute for your purse.
Would men be amenable to attending parties similar to the Girlfriend Project?
I think that's something we need to look at, because if I go to a party and a woman's son is upstairs, the mother usually asks, 'Miss Lisa, can you please talk to my son?' and 'Why don't you have programs like these for men?' Brothers need to know too. I think we need to do something for the heterosexual population of men. Nothing against gay men, but we still have a population of heterosexual men not being reached. If we're going to be in this sector of prevention, we need to be teaching prevention across the board. Gay, straight -- it doesn't matter; we need to create curricula designed for every population, not just women.
Are people shy at the parties?
Honestly, I haven't come across any women who don't want to get involved.
I've had women say, 'Oh, my goodness. This makes things easier to talk about.' Another lady said, 'If you didn't have a program like this, I doubt I'd try to get information about HIV -- or even have a conversation about being tested.' That's why it's important to meet people in their comfort zones -- it breaks down a lot of barriers in communication.
What was it like presenting the project at the national HIV prevention leadership conference?
A bit overwhelming, because so many women there said, 'We need this in our community.' It took my breath away because I thought it was easier for women to get tested than it really is.