The Grassroot Project (TGP) was founded in 2009 by Dr. Tyler Spencer, a Rhodes Scholar and former Georgetown University student-athlete, in response to Washington, DC’s severe and generalized HIV and AIDS epidemic. TGP’s mission is to advance health equity in cities by using sports to reimagine health education in middle schools and mobilizing NCAA athletes as health educators and role models for youth.
In 2009, after learning that 1 in 20 DC residents was living with HIV—a statistic that rivaled some Sub-Saharan African countries—Tyler and the founding athletes of The Grassroot Project would not be caught witnessing the epidemic from the sidelines…they wanted to support DC’s fight against HIV. Tyler had three years of experience working on HIV prevention with soccer players in South Africa, and he knew that sports could be used as an effective tool to engage youth in critical dialogue about HIV prevention. He also believed that student-athletes were an untapped but potentially powerful resource for addressing DC’s HIV crisis. Many of the strongest leaders in the HIV prevention movement were retiring, ‘aging out,’ or suffering from burnout, and Tyler saw the need for more boots on the ground. He mobilized a non-traditional group of public health workers (NCAA student-athletes) to be part of the solution.
In 2008, Tyler, then a student-athlete at Georgetown University, spent six months adapting the South African curriculum to be culturally appropriate for DC teens, and then he recruited and trained 40 of his teammates and other student-athletes to be the first facilitators of the program. During the first semester of The Grassroot Project, student-athletes from Georgetown University implemented HIV prevention programs in four DC middle schools.
Since TGP’s first programs in 2009, our reach has grown tremendously. We have delivered our interventions in 65 schools and community centers across DC, engaged nearly 1,500 student-athletes from five DC universities as sexual health educators, and reached more than 6,000 DC teens, parents, and caregivers with our programs. As we have grown, the rates of HIV have consistently declined, year after year. The citywide decrease in prevalence is in no way attributed solely to the work of TGP, but we are proud to be an important part of a collaborative city-wide effort to prevent new infections, decrease stigma, and improve testing and treatment adherence.
In 2017, we decided to create “Grassroots Fam” and “Grassroots Connect.” These supplementary programs aimed to improve parent/caregiver sexual health communication and to connect youth and families to clinical and social services. We saw exciting results from our preliminary evaluation of these new programs—teens and their parents and caregivers reported higher levels of sexual health literacy, more frequent and informed conversations about sexual health at home, and better access to sexual health-related clinical and social services providers. To date, hundreds of DC parents and caregivers have participated in our Grassroots Fam workshops, and thousands of youth and families have been connected to clinical services through our Grassroots Connect programs.
In addition to integrating Grassroots Fam and Grassroots Connect into our program model, over the past three years we have added curricula that cover mental health (10, one-hour sessions) and nutritional health (8, one-hour sessions). With the creation of these curricula, we are now able to reach youth for three consecutive years of middle school with comprehensive, wrap-around health promotion programs that are facilitated by NCAA college athlete role models.
In the coming three years, we are committed to taking our work to a larger scale, and we will be piloting new programs in at least one new city. Please stay tuned for the next chapter in our movement’s story, and do not hesitate to reach out if you would like to learn more, or donate to support us.