Meet Do Something Awards Semi-Finalist Tyler Spencer

Tyler Spencer

In Washington, DC, 1 out of every 20 residents is HIV-positive. Tyler decided to take action against this problem, founding The Grassroot Project, the first not-for-profit to use NCAA college athletes as HIV educators. The project uses sports to educate at-risk youth about HIV, helping them living healthier lives. Thanks to Tyler, 227 college athletes have taught HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention to 3,000 students in Washington, DC. caught up with Tyler to ask him what motivated him to start his project, what keeps him going, and what his advice is for other young people. did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

Tyler Spencer:Shocked, embarrassed, and angry, in that order. I was shocked because I had no idea how bad the problem was in DC. I was embarrassed because I had spent 3 years traveling halfway around the world to fight HIV/AIDS, and the whole time I was completely oblivious to the fact that AIDS was also tearing apart families and communities right in my backyard. And angry when I started to see how little was being done about it.

DS:How do you feel about it now?

TS:All of those feelings are now tempered by a sense of empowerment to do something about the problem. I know that Grassroots is having a real impact – I can see it both in numbers and in the stories of kids, parents, and community members who have become involved. It also feels great to have a team of peers who are always challenging each other to grow our program and our impact.

DS:What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?

TS:I’ll never forget sitting in my dorm room on a Friday afternoon during my final year of college. I had finished my senior thesis and was bored, so I took on a really simple volunteer project–create a fact sheet to teach kids in DC about HIV/AIDS. I started googling HIV stats, and a few hours later I found myself in utter disbelief that the numbers I was reading could possibly be accurate…the AIDS rates in DC were higher than those in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, and Senegal? That night I decided I had to do something.

A lot of my friends were frantically trying to figure out what they were going to do after graduation. I had thought about going to grad school or getting a job, but in that moment I knew that I could and would do something about AIDS in DC. My idea was that the HIV education model I had seen work in Africa could be effective in DC, and I thought college athletes were a completely untapped resource who could make this program work.

I think a lot of young people are told (as I was then), ‘you can make a bigger difference when you have a graduate degree, or a job, or once you’ve made money,’ but I didn’t completely agree. I realized that this was one time in my life when I didn’t have a million responsibilities, I had the energy and some of the tools to make a difference, and I could actually devote myself fully to the cause.

DS:Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?

TS:I’m inspired and motivated by a lot of people, but one of my biggest inspirations is a friend I’ve worked with in South Africa, Clipz. I met Clipz in 2008 when he was in his last year of high school. He had tragically lost his uncle to AIDS, and we crossed paths because he wanted to educate himself about the disease. I helped to train him as an HIV/AIDS educator, and since then we have practically become brothers. I’ve never met a person more committed to helping his community than Clipz. In three years, we have stayed in touch and shared in the challenges and successes of fighting AIDS in our respective communities. Whenever he tells me about his work, I feel like he is overcoming eight obstacles for every one that I encounter, and still doing an amazing job. His determination is infectious, and the impact he is having inspires me to do the same in my community.

DS:Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?

TS:Within the first five minutes of the first program of the Grassroot Project, a 12-year-old girl named Brittany sat in the corner of the gym and refused to participate—she crossed her arms, stomped off to the corner of the gym, and sulked. She told me she thought talking about HIV/AIDS was stupid. It was a terrifying moment, and I wondered if our program was going to fail. I was puzzled about what we were doing wrong.

Five weeks later, Brittany had begun to participate, and one day she asked me to take her in the hallway to get a drink of water. On our walk, she told me that she really appreciated us for coming to her school. She told me that she was shy because her aunt had died of AIDS and that her sister was HIV positive, and she had never really been able to share this with anyone. Brittany said that for the first time she felt comfortable supporting her family and talking about the issue, and she was grateful to have finally learned the facts about HIV. At the end of our program, she gave a speech in front of 60 of her peers, her teachers, her principals, and other athletes. She spoke with confidence about how she had overcome the disease that had once made her silent and scared. Brittany’s story definitely drives me to make Grassroots grow.

DS:What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?

TS:When I was starting, one of the biggest hang-ups was that I was adapting an African community program to be used in the United States. Even though the program had been proven to work across several countries in Africa—and many of the risk factors were the same---some potential project supporters in DC were turned off by the idea that we were bringing something from the developing world to the US. DC was supposed to be creating aid programs for Africa…not the other way around. It took a lot of convincing (and a few months of demonstrating success through our first program) to show people that an African program could work in the US, that kids could get really into it, and that we could make a measurable difference.

As I have been growing the program, the biggest challenge has been convincing donors that a youth-managed organizational model is OK. Unlike a school club, the Grassroot Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, which means we have a lot of additional responsibilities. We are unique as a 501c3 organization because people 25 and younger are involved in every level of organizational management. We’ve had to get creative about building partnerships and teaching ourselves how to do things like plan new programs, evaluate our results, write grants, and manage our money. Even though our primary goal is to prevent HIV/AIDS in DC, it’s rewarding to see the impact that running the organization is also having on the volunteers.

DS:What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?

TS:You don’t necessarily have to travel to a developing country to make a difference. Sometimes you can have the biggest impact right in your own community.

DS:What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

TS:How much people want to volunteer, and how engaged they can get. I initially expected 10-12 athletes to be a part of our first program. 40 showed up on Day 1 (and Day 2, and 3, and 4), and now we’ve trained more than 200. The same goes for the kids. Once we break the ice and they begin to build relationships with the athletes and the other kids in their classes, they get engaged. It’s awesome to see them stand up and share their stories with others. I don’t know if I would have had the guts when I was 12 to say and do some of the amazing things our kids have.

DS:What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?

TS:Don’t give up. Someone told me this a long time ago, and it still sticks – if the need to address your problem is big, and your ideas are truly bold and innovative, you will face challenges. Don’t be discouraged—sometimes a challenge just means you are on the right track.

DS:If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?

TS:I would have made more effort to build a website and get media attention right off the bat. When I was trying to get our programs running, I sent these really long and detailed proposals to almost everyone I knew (and even more people I didn’t know). They explained why I cared so much about the issue and why I hoped that that person would support me in making a difference. Most people either didn’t respond or didn’t feel like they could help.

A few weeks later, I found a class of graphic design students who offered to help design a website, and a few weeks after that a local news station aired a story about our pilot program. I sent the same people a really short email with a link to the website and the news clip, and almost every single person responded. Some people offered personal checks to support the program, and others set up meetings, connected me to their friends etc. Media might seem like an afterthought when you are just trying to do all you can to make your project run, but it really can be a huge help.

DS:What’s next for your project?

My ultimate goal is that the Grassroot Project can lead youth in creating an AIDS-free generation in DC. And I believe that the first step is empowering kids with information about HIV/AIDS, with role models, and with a comfortable setting to speak openly about the disease. To date, we’ve reached 3,000 kids through our programs. Next year I want to double that number, and by 2015 I’d like to involve 15,000 kids in our programs.

Next year, I also plan to launch a really good evaluation study. I think it’s incredibly important for programs like ours to know exactly what impact they are having at each level of the program. Our study will be the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) in the whole field of “sports for HIV prevention,” which is exciting. We will be able to see not only what changes are occurring in our kids over the long term, but also why these changes are happening and how we can maximize our impact as we grow.

A few athletes and I are also planning a special project (building on the success of a pilot program we did last year) that will address HIV/AIDS stigma, and will be centered around the International AIDS Conference in DC in July 2012. We are matching our kids with peers in South Africa to work together to design and implement their own community-based stigma reduction projects. Their work will culminate in a media outreach campaign that will launch at the conference.

BONUS Q: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?

TS:Magic Johnson. If I had a dollar for every time someone in Southeast DC has asked me a question about HIV/AIDS and referenced Magic, I could fund our program myself. He has lived a healthy life for a long time with HIV, and he has adhered to ARV drugs, but a lot of people wrongly assume that he has been cured. He already does so much to give back, but I think a targeted PSA for DC could really abolish some myths and open up an important dialogue in our city. He’s a great speaker, an advocate for HIV prevention and stigma reduction, and a recognizable and respected figure in all of the communities involved with Grassroots.

Read up on all of the Do Something Awards Finalists now!