America’s schizophrenic about sex. Images and hookups abound, yet in this information age many folks don’t know, follow or discuss safe practices. That incongruity explains why sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels and why things never slow down for Sherri Nared-Brooks in her role as Douglas County Health Department STD-HIV Prevention Specialist.
Her main focus is North Omaha, where the epidemic’s acute among African-Americans. Her deep ties there, along with her straight talk and personal mission, give her street cred making the rounds at barber shops and clubs.
“I believe in keeping it real, so I talk in the vernacular they understand,” she says of young men and women she encounters at her office or out and about.
She knows urban sex slang and doesn’t make moral judgments.
“It’s about accepting people where they’re at and reminding them the things they’re doing are putting them at risk, so whether it’s at the jail or at a barbershop or I’m walking down 24th Street, I pass out condoms. They may not know my name, but they know me as the Condom Lady or the STD Lady.”
She addresses the topic, too, at prisons, hospitals, schools, churches, community centers, health fairs. Always looking for nontraditional sites, she has eight public libraries holding screenings.
In her experience young people are cool talkng sex but what kids get at school, home, worship center or doctor’s office is often woefully inadequate. That leaves teens gleaning often wrong or insufficient info where they can. Denial and magical thinking – “it happens to other people, not me” – run rampant. She fills gaps, dispels myths and emphasizes anyone not using protection or practicing abstinence is at risk, period. It’s about education and testing, but it starts with self-worth.
“It’s just about loving them and wanting them to love themselves. It’s getting people to understand they’re important and they need to take responsibility for their own health. I teach women they’re the prize. When you know you’re the prize you’re not going to just give yourself to anybody, because once he gets it from you he wants it from your friend, your cousin. If you keep yourself, he doesn’t have a choice but to respect you because you’re respecting you.
“The things I teach I had to learn over my own lifetime,” she says.
Raising five kids helped prepare her.
Then there’s the fellas.
“I tell guys, if she’s having sex with you that easy, you need to be afraid because she’s giving it to everybody else, too, and if she’s saying she doesn’t want to use a condom you really need to be afraid.”
When you have sex with someone, she stresses, you essentially have sex with everyone they’ve been with. It’s all about exposure. She imparts the same message to folks engaging in same-sex relations.
She enlists business owners as foot soldiers in the fight to reduce STDs. Alesia Lester at Gossip Salon, 5625 Ames Ave., is glad to help the cause. “Sherri comes in and educates us and that allows us to educate the client. She makes people aware. She’s very passionate about it and it’s so needed. I had a child at 15. I didn’t understand myself, so I definitely didn’t understand my body. I wish I’d had someone that could have sat me down and talked to me without me being afraid my mom would know. Sherri makes it plain and people respect her.”
“To me, they’re champions in helping get the word out to educate people,” Nared-Brooks says of community partners like Lester.
Nared-Brooks targets barbers, stylists, bartenders on the theory people open up about their sex lives to them. “You may not tell your doctor, but you’re going to tell your barber. They know who’s doing what.” She schools owners on the basics, leaving condoms, fact packs and kits for on-site testing. Lester welcomes it all. Both women say confidentiality is maintained throughout.
With so many places to hit and so many people at risk, Nared-Brooks ends up doing much work on her own time.
“It needs to be done.”
She calls her personal SUV “the STD truck” for all the supplies it carries. She trains others to do prevention-education work and she’d like to train more.”There’s only one of me,” she says.
She’s encouraged her strategy’s working when proprietors take the lead. For example, Lester and her salon colleagues all got tested and her customers often ask for kits.
Confirmation comes, too, when people seek the STD Lady’s advice about behaviors or symptoms and come in for testing.
“That makes me know I’ve done my job. Until we look at getting tested for STDs as a regular checkup and take away the stigma of it, the numbers are going to stay high. We need to give the message it’s OK to get tested and it’s kind of crazy to not get tested. You need to do it for yourself before you start sharing with someone else. And show each other your test results. Before my husband and I got married we showed each other our paperwork.
“It’s about loving me.”
Her husband, Walter Brooks, joins her on the front-lines of sexual health. They earned the Nebraska AIDS Project’s Shining Star Award for their awareness-prevention efforts. It wasn’t their first recognition. He covered prevention as a University of Nebraska Medical Center public relations specialist and still does for the Omaha Star. They met when he interviewed her. She accepted his invitation to speak at his church. They’ve been a team ever since.
“My husband is awesome. He’s like my biggest fan, my biggest advocate. We do this community service together. He knows it’s not just something I do as a job. Right now, it seems like for me it’s life.
“When I stand before God and give an account of my life I want to know I used all my talents.”
Sherri will be doing screenings at North High for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7. For details, visit www.northomahaccc.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.