Charles Stephens: On the Deeper Love Project

This is how I often begin the story: The Deeper Love Project was founded in 1997 at AID Atlanta by Craig Washington. He needed a name for the program, which would reach African-American gay men across Atlanta. As he thought about it while driving his car, Aretha Franklin’s “A Deeper Love” came on the radio. And that was it: it was destiny. The program was born.

I started out with the Deeper Love Project as a volunteer. This was around 2003, when the program had been around for a few years. I had been reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the work of Eric Rofes. I had also just attended one of the Deeper Love workshops. And sometime during the course of this workshop, I became convinced that I could do it too; that I could be a facilitator. I was further inspired by the possibility of being able to talk to black gay men about sexual health and social justice.

I reached out to Malik Williams, the program coordinator at the time, and asked if I could facilitate Deeper Love. He agreed, just like that. At this time, Malik was in leadership at Second Sunday, ran Deeper Love, and was a part of The Adodi Muse: A Gay Negro Ensemble. These are the shoulders I stood upon.

Why Malik accepted my assistance, I don’t know. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life. It seemed like he was taking a risk, since until then my facilitation experience was limited. But he believed in me, and that was the beginning of my relationship with the program and in many ways a defining experience in my work as an activist and organizer.

A year or so later I was hired as an outreach worker at AID Atlanta in the Young African-American Gay Outreach (YAAGO) program. We called our office the Dreadlock Dynasty; both Naheema and Malik wore them, as did Allen Land, the outreach worker in the program before me. I never wore them myself, but they let me work there anyway. A year or two later I became the program coordinator for Deeper Love, the fifth in its history after Craig, then Anthony McWilliams, then Malik, then Nasheeda Bynes. I often say, reverently, that it’s important to stress a sense of lineage and legacy. Clinton Jolliffi is the current program coordinator.

One of my favorite memories of my time at Deeper Love is an early one, but it had implications for much that followed. Malik and Nasheeda, two of the former program coordinators, came back to participate in our first Deeper Love retreat. That was something I did a lot, bringing in former program coordinators back into the program. Also, Nasheeda and Malik were such amazing facilitators. Even to this day, they are some of the best I’ve ever seen, anywhere. But again, that’s the quality of leadership Deeper Love possessed. We believed in what we did.

I worked in that role for about 4 years. I learned a lot about myself and it shaped my worldview considerably. My commitment to community building and cultural restoration has always been tied to my vision for social change. As the clinical approach to HIV prevention continues to inform the landscape, we must not lessen our commitment to community building and place making for black gay men.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.