The Atlanta organization that helps black gay youth transition into adulthood is itself experiencing a maturation process. During a March 11 open house, organizers and participants of the Evolution Project celebrated a recent move that nearly tripled the non-profit organization’s space and relocated it into the heart of Midtown.
“We’re really in a phase of expansion and growth,” said Kevin Hatcher, activities and linkages coordinator for the Evolution Project.
Hatcher is one of a half-dozen new staff members at the Evolution Project, the most employees the organization has had since it was founded in November 2006.
Funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Evolution Project was created by AID Atlanta to provide HIV-prevention to young black gay men, one of the demographics most at-risk for the disease. Although HIV-prevention remains at the core of the Evolution Project’s mission, part of the organization’s growth is to ensure that people don’t view it as a clinic or social services organization.
“Though we offer services such as a psychologist you can meet with if you need mental health support, as well as HIV testing, treatment and referrals, we don’t have a social services model,” Hatcher said. “We’re all about empowerment here, and so it’s not just a place you come when you need something, it’s also a place for you to come when you want to grow, when you want to hang out, when you want to be involved in something.”
The Evolution Project moved from Auburn Avenue to a much larger space near the corner of Juniper Street and North Avenue, and has expanded its programs to create a holistic approach to improving the lives of its participants. The Physical Evolution program offers everything from yoga to education about anal health, and Evolution Project participants can express themselves in the monthly Creative Expressions writing group, or discuss readings in a book club known as The Evolution Salon.
The Evolution Project has programs such as KISS’ing sessions that help young black gay men navigate the dating scene while protecting themselves sexually and emotionally, as well as monthly support groups for HIV-positive and HIV-negative populations. A licensed counselor is also on-hand each week to facilitate Brother Speak, where Evolution members talk about coping with stress and other realities of young black gay life, and each year a group of 10 individuals is groomed to guide through The Evolution Leadership Institute.
“We want to make sure our programming reflects the diversity of the community,” Hatcher said.
Dean Caldwell learned about the Evolution Program from a friend in 2008, and visits about three times per week.
“I feel like it’s a place where I can go and relax, be myself, just chill and hang out,” said Caldwell, a 22-year-old student at Gordon College.
Robert Arnold experienced the same type of social affirmation when he began participating in the Evolution Project three years ago.
“It’s like being in an environment that’s more accepting to the way I am,” said Arnold, 20.
“It can teach you a lot of things about protecting yourself from STDs and things like that, and it’s a good place to come if you’re just coming out of the closet or something like that, because it shows you that it’s okay to be who you are, and gives you the support of your peers.”
Another aspect of the Evolution Project’s development is increasing outreach to various subsets of black gay men, including men in their twenties who might have considered the Evolution Project to be a teen or youth organization.
“One of the new things we have is a young professionals group that meets every Thursday, and most of us are graduate students, or finishing up our academic careers or are new to our respective fields,” Hatcher said. “It’s just a time for us to come together, chat and talk about different resources and different career opportunities.”
A 27-year-old Evolution Project participant who identified himself as Jeff said that having a safe space like the Evolution Project has been invaluable to him as a young professional.
“With my job and everything, it always feels like I have to be on, or have some wall up, and when I come here, I can be free to be who I am and say what I want to say,” Jeff said.
Top photo: Some attendees at the Evolution Project’s March 11 open house donned shirts that reflect the organization’s mission of empowering young black gay men. (via Facebook)