In our previous blog post, we described the challenges of creating content that’s brief, educational, and entertaining. For our ACIOP project, community members asked for a variety of characters facing different situations, including some who are related, and agreed that the content could reference sexual situations but should not be explicit in showing them. They also wanted the option of choosing content that they felt was most relevant to them.
The creative team held several meetings to draft plot outlines, and decided on an approach we’ve come to refer to as a “circle of friends” story structure in which we have one main character who acts as a common thread among all the other characters. For these stories, that central link is Gabriel, a young man who’s questioning his sexuality. In this way, he reflects the experiences we’ve heard from many young men who have sex with both men and women but don’t consider themselves MSM or bisexual. We also hope his fluid sexuality will make him relatable to a wider audience. As main characters, the story also includes Gabriel’s cousin Angela, her mother Maria Elena, and his friend Mateo.
To keep content brief, we created five short episodes: the first four each focus on one of the four main characters, and a final episode wraps things up while also leaving open the opportunity for the story to continue in the future. The story moves sequentially through the 5 episodes, but each episode is also written in such a way that it can be watched alone and still achieve a learning objective.
Community groups convened to read the scripts aloud and provide feedback on the episodes, which are summarized below:
Episode 1: Mateo makes a new friend at the gym, Alejandro, and Mateo mentions that he’s heading to a nightclub later. That evening, Mateo chats with Isabel at the club, but she leaves with friends. Alejandro arrives, the two men drink more, and Alejandro goes to Mateo’s apartment with him. Mateo wakes up the next morning not sure what happened between them.
Community feedback: Some community members felt that Mateo was just using alcohol as an excuse to be with Alejandro and to claim that he didn’t remember what happened, rather than being honest about his sexuality, which was part of what made it realistic: “It’s written perfectly and the issue at hand is clearly understood. It also has action in it and it’s modeled after real life situations.”
Episode 2: Angela and Mateo are in her living room talking about Mateo’s problems, and Angela encourages Mateo to be more honest about his sexuality. Mateo leaves, and Angela’s boyfriend Esteban arrives. Angela needs to study, but Esteban pressures her to have sex. Angela struggles but eventually gives in. After Esteban leaves, Angela wonders if he’s being unfaithful to her, and whether women can use the HIV prevention pill PrEP that her cousin Gabriel is taking.
Community feedback: Many community members said they had been in this situation themselves on several occasions: “It’s very relatable”; “I also noticed that she has no one to openly talk to about this situation to educate herself and feel comfortable. She feels alone and abused in a sense…”
Episode 3: Gabriel is on the phone with Angela, talking about Esteban. Gabriel is interested in having a long-term boyfriend, but also uses hookup apps to find casual partners. He’s on PrEP but doesn’t use condoms, and starts to wonder whether he might have an STI. The next day he, Mateo and Angela are at Gabriel’s apartment and talk about going back to the clinic where Gabriel gets PrEP, but Gabriel is hesitant since he doesn’t want to admit he hasn’t been using condoms. Gabriel’s mother Maria Elena passes by and hears part of the conversation.
Community feedback: While many community members have medical providers they trust, Gabriel’s reluctance to visit the clinic was seen as very realistic: “[Going to the doctor means] suspense. A lot of people are nervous. A lot of fear.”; “[Doctor visits] are difficult.”; “[Doctor visits are] painful.”; “Even if you know your results are going to be negative there is always the fear of ‘what if I’m positive?’”
Episode 4: Maria Elena is worried about what she’s overheard and is concerned the young adults might be at risk. Wanting to google more information about HIV and STIs, she grabs Gabriel’s iPad and finds a photo of him at the Gay Pride parade. She’s long heard rumors that he might be gay, but for her this confirms it. She has mixed emotions but most of she all loves her son, and her concern for his safety increases. Maria Elena continues reading information online, and decides to try finding a local clinic to help everyone get the resources they need.
Community feedback: Maria Elena facing her son’s sexuality and the issues he and his friends are dealing with was seen positively, as was her trying to learn more and find ways to help and understand without directly confronting the youth: “First thing [a Latina mom] would do is be in a state of shock, then cry, then educate ourselves…”; “…I would prefer her to have an open mind because if I’m going to love my kids… I am going to love them any and every way that they are. I will take care of them and always teach them. Take care of yourself, protect yourself and educate yourself. I would keep in mind what’s best for them.”
Episode 5: Maria Elena takes Gabriel, Angela and Mateo out to lunch. She’s chosen a restaurant that will ensure the group walks past a clinic on their way there. She stops in front of the clinic and feigns ignorance, asking Gabriel to explain what services they might provide. Maria Elena is encouraging about how nice it is that there are places young people can go for help. Maria Elena leaves lunch early, claiming she has errands to run but in fact giving the young people some private time to talk. They take the hint, and decide to visit the clinic together after lunch.
Community feedback: Overall they approved of Maria Elena’s approach: “I think it was excellent that Maria Elena made that decision because Angela seemed alone in this situation. When she was brought to the clinic, Angela felt happy about it and felt supported.”; “The most important thing is that [Maria Elena] sent them to speak to someone and gave them their privacy. Her approach was: ‘We’re here. Go find out what you need and I’ll be over there.’”
However, in the first draft of this episode, Maria Elena’s actions regarding the clinic were much more direct, almost as if she pulled a bait-and-switch by inviting the young adults to lunch but then trying to get them to go to the clinic instead, which was seen negatively as being tricky and deceptive. The scene was rewritten to show Maria Elena linking the young people to resources and showing her support in a more subtle, caring way, with a respect for their privacy, and with the young people then making the choice together to accept the recommendation.
Other minor edits to wording and character interaction were also suggested and incorporated into our final drafts. For example, the initial greeting between Angela and Maria Elena was rewritten to be more familiar and affectionate, to reflect how the community described the family closeness would normally be expressed.
With our stories finalized and our artwork in development, our next big step is to choose a name for the project. We’ve opened voting to our community members and colleagues, so feel free to give us your input and to share this link with others!
All the El Centro blog entries were written by Christel Hyden.
Christel Hyden is a public health consultant with over 10 years of experience developing and evaluating health education programs and materials, with an emphasis on multimedia and technology based interventions. She also serves as Director of Research and Evaluation for the Harlem Health Promotion Center at Columbia University, and holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Family and Social Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Hyden has an MS in applied social research and an EdD in health education.