Kalima Young’s work is all about making connections. Whether in her former role as director of an adolescent AIDS program, or in her current ones as filmmaker, college professor, and education advocate, Young delights in connecting people and causes that typically haven’t been brought together before.
Young herself puts it more succinctly: “I love getting people together to make fun shit happen,” she says cheerfully.
Young grew up on Baltimore’s West Side. A self-described “Pratt brat,” she has fond memories of the hours she spent in the neighborhood branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, immersed in books. She loved the library so much, in fact, that she got her first job there, as a book shelver. She was 11 years old.
That love of learning combined with service led Young to concentrate in women’s studies in college, and it has fueled her activism ever since. In 2000 she received an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellowship to create YUHIP, a project which used the internet to teach teens about health issues.
“At that point in my life, I had been doing freelance video production and canvassing for Clean Water Action, which was fun,” she recalls.
One of the things she enjoyed about canvassing was the opportunity to erase stereotypes. “People think that black people don’t care about the environment,” she says, rolling her eyes.
YUHIP was so successful under Young’s leadership that the University of Maryland developed it into a multi-year pilot program called Connect to Protect (C2P), which aimed to reduce the risks and consequences associated with HIV/AIDS among young people.
“The idea [behind C2P] was to bring group of people together to look at different systems and sectors and look at how to change them in order to reduce HIV,” Young explains. “It was all about mobilizing people to change in a sustainable way, not just, ‘Hey, it’s World AIDS Day!’”
Young evinces frustration when talking about the fragmented ways in which human services and other social supports are delivered to children and youth. “Young people have been falling into this river and we’ve been throwing them life jackets. We haven’t been going up to the bridge and seeing where it’s broken,” she remarks.
Asked how one diagnoses the cracks in the system, Young offers specifics from her C2P work. “Look at the increase in concentration of HIV/AIDS in one community. Look at high risk young people hanging out with low-risk young people. There are logical links. You need to look at young people from a whole perspective."
For Young, involving young people themselves in that process is an essential component of a holistic approach.
“Young people don’t know what’s going on in their own neighborhoods,” she says. “I used to work part-time as an abortion counselor at a clinic. I saw girls who didn’t want to get an abortion, but their parents forced them. They didn’t even know where to get a free pregnancy test!”
“Peer to peer recruitment is important,” she continues. "A lot of young people need psychosocial services, such as financial services, emergency assistance, health education. Through peer support groups, young people can see themselves reflected in everybody else’s face. It’s really easy to be isolated as a young person, especially when you’re trying to be drug- and sex-free."
As an African-American woman, an artist, and a longtime LGBTQ activist, Young knows something about feeling that sense of isolation.
“A lot of the stuff I do is queer focused, so there is a disconnect in the black community, issues that [African-Americans] don’t want to see or talk about,” she says. I get a lot more openings in the queer world than in the black world, but the queer community is very white. There’s no space for black queer women.”
Breaking down those barriers involves a willingness to take risks, says Young. “People need to be willing to leave their neighborhoods. If you have privilege, acknowledge it and then do something about it. Educate yourself. Work with the community to improve it. Vote. Live by the principles you say you love!”
Young has the opportunity to impart these lessons to college students at Towson University, where she teaches classes on LGBTQ issues. “I love watching my kids’ brains explode” with new information and ideas, she jokes. She brings that sensibility to her rose as a filmmaker, producing pieces that explore the nuances of race and gender.
And while the C2P pilot program ended in 2010, Young continues to work on behalf of children and youth. This year she started a new job as an education reform advocate with the ACLU of Maryland, fighting to preserve funding for public schools.
“Mobilizing people for joy and justice are what feeds my soul,” she says, smiling.