By Emily Blevins
To tell the story of Community Education Group (CEG), a 30-year-old nonprofit that works to eliminate disparities in health outcomes and improve public health in disadvantaged populations and underserved communities, you have to start at Stephen Clement.
Clement was unlike anyone CEG founder A. Toni Young had ever met before. When the pair met in the late ’80s,’ a friendship formed that would change the lives of countless people from Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. to Logan County and beyond.
As Young and Clement’s friendship deepened over the years, a single phone call changed it all. Clement called Young one afternoon and asked her to sit down.
“He said that the cold he thought he had wasn’t a cold. It was AIDS.”
This was the first of two conversations that would alter the course of Young’s life.
After that conversation, Young got a new job coordinating HIV/AIDS initiatives at a public health organization, the experience giving her a better sense of how the virus was affecting communities across the country.
“I kept thinking about how big of a problem it was that women were not getting any services, resources or attention for AIDS even though their rates of infection were steadily increasing,” Young said.
Young went to her supervisor to advocate that HIV/AIDS services for women be added to their programming but was told that the issue wasn’t “relevant” for the organization’s membership. She said her persistence in advocating for HIV/AIDS resources for women caused continued tension at that organization and, more broadly, in the activism space.
“I wasn’t the voice people wanted to see or hear when it came to the conversation about women and HIV,” she said.
Simultaneously, Clement’s condition was worsening.
One afternoon, he sat Young down for the second conversation.
“He said ‘if this was you, I’d be your only friend who’d have the resources to help with medication, doctors — anything,’” she recalled.
“He said, ‘if you look out in the living room, those are white men with access. It’s not that your other friends wouldn’t want to help — they wouldn’t have the means. One day, this disease will look more like you. More Black. More female. And you need to start working on that now.’”
After that conversation, Young started the National Women and HIV/AIDS Project (NWAP), which would eventually change its name to become Community Education Group in 1995.
CEG operates with a two-pronged approach: fund themselves and fund the community.
“It’s easy for us to shore up grants to fund ourselves so we can provide technical assistance and operate programs like CHAMPS to train community health workers,” Young said. “But if we can’t do anything to help financially sustain other organizations on the ground, we’ve failed. That’s why it’s our job to also secure investments for communities and organizations.”
With a robust 30-year CV of trailblazing harm reduction initiatives and leading programs devoted to mitigating HIV/AIDS, there’s a lot to cover when it comes to CEG’s history.
“We’re not stagnant,” Young said. “Everything we’ve done over the years has been in service to the changing needs of individuals and communities. We’ve evolved as the environment evolved, and that’s our same philosophy moving forward.”
There was a brief point in time where Young felt that CEG’s future was uncertain.
“I was trying to figure out what was next for CEG when a colleague sent me a report on the most vulnerable counties in America, and 28 of West Virginia’s 55 counties were on the list,” Young said.
After reviewing the report, Young described seeing the writing on the wall.
“There’s a connection between substance use disorder and hepatitis C, and it was only a matter of time before AIDS was going to be a part of the picture for Appalachia.”
It was time for CEG to move its homebase from Washington, D.C., to Lost River, West Virginia.
“The move came as a bit of surprise,” Marc Meachem, head of external affairs at ViiV Healthcare, said. ViiV Healthcare is an independent, global specialist HIV company.
“But something I’ve always admired about Toni is the way she can analyze a situation, figure out what is and isn’t working and intervene to create impact.”
Meachem, whose friendship and professional relationship with Young dates back more than a decade, said that throughout the years, he’s been continually inspired by Young’s leadership of CEG.
“I’ve watched that analytical mind of hers connect the dots in Appalachia, and I think the fact that she’s not from the region but has become a leader there and is doing meaningful work there is a real testament to who she is and her authenticity.”
In Appalachia, the nonprofit’s strong record of providing technical assistance and securing financial investments for other organizations would be put to the test in a region suffering from decades of underinvestment and underestimation.
“The region has 26 million people in it — and a lot of outsiders have preconceived notions about who exactly is here, and many barriers were built in service of those preconceived notions,” Young said.
CEG is breaking down those barriers, and doing so using culturally appropriate interventions and a litany of cutting-edge initiatives.
“The conversation around HIV and AIDS is different in Appalachia, and that’s why we’re focusing on the syndemic, which is the idea that not only is HIV connected to viral hepatitis and substance use disorder. And it’s why we’re having broader conversations about connections to workforce development, educational attainment, and other health outcomes.”
Darwin Thompson, director of public affairs and corporate giving at Gilead Sciences, Inc., a research-based biopharmaceutical company focused on innovative medicines, said that CEG is having conversations about HIV in Appalachia that defy many expectations.
“There’s this myth that HIV doesn’t exist in the region, but we know that’s not true,” Thompson said. “I think Toni has a great team working behind her to dispel this myth and to connect health departments and community organizations to effectively address the syndemic.”
During the early stages of the pandemic, CEG worked to secure funds to support their work and other organizations throughout the region, but the sum they were initially promised didn’t pan out. However, they kept their $1 million regranting commitment, which represented a third of the funds they ultimately received.
Over the last two years, the nonprofit has regranted more than $1.5 million to 37 organizations, and in the next two years is seeking to train more than 100 community health workers.
Young said there’s still work to be done, and that she and the CEG team are always looking at opportunities to scale, to ask for more and to aim high.
“I think people think we’re a bit strange, some may even say ‘crazy,’ because of our no-wrong-doors approach,” Young said. “But Appalachia needs people and organizations who are ambitious enough to try.”
Meachem has no doubt in his mind that it’s possible for CEG to achieve the impact they’re seeking.
“Toni is tenacious and has this uncanny ability to pull people in, and she’s created a great team at CEG,” he said. “If anyone can build a movement around health and recovery in Appalachia, it’s Toni and CEG.”
While Young and CEG still have transformative work ahead, Young said that what’s guiding her forward is Stephen Clement.
“There’ve been moments in the last 30 years where I’ve felt a tap on my shoulder that gave me guidance, or made me pump the brakes and think for a minute. I know in my heart that it’s Stephen, and it’s others who were placed in my life for a reason.”
She listed out their names like a prayer: Stephen Clement. Belinda Mason. Nolte. Pandora Singleton. “Thick-Glasses” Chuck.
“Some people wonder why God put them on this earth, but not me. I’m here because of them; CEG is here because of them. And I don’t want to let them down,” she said. “I’m here so that CEG can make a difference in peoples’ lives.”