Written by Aubrey Weber, Technical Officer, FHI 360

Mobile clinic Thailand

A mobile clinic for HIV testing is set up adjacent to a secluded bar in northern Thailand where MSM and trans people socialize (Photo: Jirantanin Tanachoknantaphat, Mplus Foundation).

For the past two years, I have managed the social media presence of the largest global project dedicated to key populations (KPs) and HIV: the USAID– and PEPFAR-supported LINKAGES project. While I am not directly involved in implementing activities, my role has afforded me a unique opportunity to learn through observation and help tell the project’s stories, 100 of which now reside on this blog.

These stories reflect the project’s innovation and technical excellence, the wisdom and courage of the KP members we work beside and serve, and the dedication of countless partners who are devoted to controlling the HIV epidemic and developing lasting solutions. The importance of storytelling cannot be overstated. From the time we are children, much of what we learn comes from the stories we are told. For LINKAGES, this platform is one of the ways we share the stories of our work and those who have inspired us; the lessons we’ve learned; and the successful HIV prevention, care, and treatment practices we hope others will take up now and continue to implement beyond the life of the project.

Kikuyu Sasa Center, Nairobi, Kenya

A program officer conducts a support supervision meeting in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: FHI 360/LINKAGES).

In one of our earliest blog posts from June 2015, blog authors discussed the necessity of recognizing KPs as equal partners in the fight to end HIV. We have learned that KPs’ increased involvement in strategic information data collection, analysis, and dissemination is key to mutual learning and mutual success. It makes sense; the people who experience barriers to access, stigma and discrimination, and heightened HIV risk first-hand should be the very same people informing every aspect of our programs. In LINKAGES’ Key Population Heroes series, KP members themselves described the challenges they face and the strategies they’re using to overcome them. Finding efficient and effective solutions is possible when KPs are given opportunities to lead the way.

In a blog post from January 2016, a LINKAGES program manager reflected on the early days of the project. “I would wake up wondering, why did I agree to join LINKAGES? I had joined LINKAGES, I would tell myself, because of the challenge to improve HIV services for people.”

And challenging it has been.

LINKAGES works hard to meet these challenges. For example, in July 2016, we asked ourselves, does gender integration matter in KP programming? Out of this question, the LINKAGES Gender Strategy was born. In the ever-changing environment that is global public health, translating science into practice has also become increasingly important. As such, our focus on data-driven, strategic information approaches for quality improvement is constantly reenergized and reinvented. In the last three years, we have also taken notice of the relatively new yet tremendous role that social media can play in reaching KPs around the world and in remote locations who may otherwise not be reached. Next generation virtual outreach, consequently, has become our next frontier.

safer sex practices_India

A peer educator discusses safer sex practices with sex workers in India (Photo: Anita Khemka).

These are just a few of the myriad lessons learned from our first 100 stories. I am reminded of the LINKAGES mission and purpose as I reflect back on the words of Kevin Osborne, former LINKAGES Director and new Director of HIV Programmes and Advocacy at the International AIDS Society, from a December 2015 blog post: “But without struggle there will not be progress.”

“LINKAGES is big and it is bold but with this type of size, growth, and excitement comes great responsibility: a responsibility to leave a global legacy for key population work; to have wisely invested resources to create a sustainable, relevant impact; to have formed meaningful partnerships; and to have pioneered new strategies and opened doors for purposeful engagement of all key population groups in civil society, leaving a road map that will exist long after the 5 years of LINKAGES has ended.”

Here’s to the next 100 stories.