By Elianna Novitch
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) case management and prevention work have always been a focus of Ebonee Johnson’s career and research.
Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation and Counselor Education at the University of Iowa College of Education, is partnering with Southern University and Agricultural & Mechanical College-Baton Rouge campus to develop and implement a culturally responsive HIV and Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) prevention program for African American young adults, between the ages of 18 to 25, in Louisiana.
Substance Use Disorders, or SUDS, also known as a drug use disorder, is the persistent use of drugs, including alcohol, despite substantial harm and adverse consequences.
The collaborative research project, called Project PEER (Prevent, Engage, Empower, Respond), was recently awarded a $998,865 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The grant funding runs from August 31, 2020, to August 30, 2025.
“It means a lot particularly because the services will be implemented in my home state and hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they have significant health disparities in terms of HIV prevalence and Substance Use Disorders,” Johnson says. “It's a high-risk area. There are a lot of excellent prevention-related services there, but there's always a need for more.”
Project PEER addresses the critical need to provide and scale-up sustainable prevention peer navigation services to African American young adults who are at high risk of developing HIV and SUDs. The primary implementation of the project will occur at Southern University, a Historically Black College/University, that serves the project’s target population and is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Over the course of five years, the project will directly serve 1,350 students through campus and community-wide educational sessions and testing events, and 5,000 African American young adults through the launch of the Project PEER mobile-health app.
Johnson will serve as co-director of the project alongside Clarence Merckerson, an assistant professor at Southern University in the Department of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies.
Johnson has a history with Southern University. She was previously an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at Southern University at Baton Rouge and received her Master of Science in rehabilitation counseling from Southern University at Baton Rouge.
“I kept those relationships intact, with both the university and community agencies in Baton Rouge and that helped foster this collaboration from a distance,” Johnson says. “Collaboration, health equity, and social justice are the heart of this project.”
Johnson says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant will help fund increased services and capacity building. Project PEER plans to implement campus-and community-wide HIV and SUDs prevention risk behavior and risk reduction public awareness campaigns.
They will also provide HIV and SUDs prevention and linkages to care services to African American young adults and support them along the care continuum journey, Johnson says.
The grant funding will fund a lead navigator position to work full time in Baton Rouge and a graduate research assistant to work with Johnson at the UI, where they will learn how to do community-based, participatory research.
“A significant part of the grant is training and by the end of the project we’ll have trained twelve prevention peer navigators from Southern University,” Johnson says. “They'll be undergraduates who major in fields like psychology or social work. We're going to bring them on the team so that they can learn from the ground up how to do this kind of work in the field.”
Project PEER aims to increase Southern University’s capacity to recruit, train, and maintain a task force of prevention peer navigators to disseminate and implement prevention interventions. Project PEER will also partner with and train community agencies on integrating HIV/AIDS testing and SUDs screening in service provision.
“There is this trickle-down effect between research and actually having it reach communities, particularly vulnerable communities,” Johnson says. “I want vulnerable communities to have access to the extensive research knowledge we already have on HIV and SUDs and also try to move it forward.”
Johnson hopes that Project PEER can serve as a bridge between current, cutting-edge research on HIV and SUDs treatment and prevention and community services.
"I see this research as bridging the gap between research and practice,” Johnson says. “As soon as there is new information out about HIV or substance use, we’re putting it straight into the community.”