By David Mueller
Amanda Keller had been working with Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO) for several years when she began to see a disturbing change in the community she served: the highest rate of new infections in the state of Alabama was shifting drastically downward. New cases of HIV were now the highest among those just 13-24 years of age.
“We were seeing really young people show up at our agency who were HIV positive,” Keller said. “It was really difficult to reach them in schools to talk about safer sex, let alone safer queer sex, body positive sex, and all the things that have people clutching their pearls.”
BAO, which has provided AIDS services in Birmingham since 1985, was already a cultural hub in the LGBTQ community. Keller wanted leverage this vantage point to create a space that could be both a safe haven and a resource center for LGTBQ youth. Working under BAO’s auspices, she opened the Magic City Acceptance Center (MCAC) in 2014 and became its first executive director.
“The initial concept was just to open once a month to provide (HIV) testing and a movie night for youth ages 13-24,” Keller said. “But once we opened, people started arriving and saying ‘this is fantastic, but I also need a counselor and a support group, and I want to be able to talk about this specific issue with this group of people…’ and so it just grew into so much more than that. Now we’re here four-plus days a week. We provide over 20 programs and we’ve served 743 youth since we opened in 2014.”
In addition to her work with BAO, Keller had a background in youth services, and a personal stake in establishing the MCAC. She lost her father to HIV-related complications in 2013.
“He never had a safe space and he didn’t come out until six months before he died,” Keller said. “And because of that there was a huge stigma attached to his HIV status and to who he was at his core. I really wanted to create a space where young people could be themselves and be authentic.”
MCAC currently runs full a slate of programs and activities with a full-time staff of just two people (though they are in the process of hiring a third, a case manager). Keller’s primary support is outreach coordinator Lauren Jacobs, who runs the center’s drop-in hours. Jacobs grew up in Birmingham but didn’t feel secure in coming out as queer until she went away to college.
“Leaving school, I knew I wanted to be back in Birmingham and I happened to graduate right around the time the center was being developed,” Jacobs said. “I would’ve given anything to have a space like this when I was younger.”
Keller credits drop-in hours as the center’s biggest success. Twice a week, MCAC opens its doors for young people to stop by, ask questions, express concerns, or just hang out and relax. This unscripted, direct interaction with community members helps Keller and Lauren keep pace with their evolving needs. Attendance at drop-in hours has grown steadily since the center opened, from just a handful of young people to upwards of 30 attendees during each session, with an average of 14 new members arriving each month.
“It’s where all the magic happens,” Keller said. “It’s a space for them to hang out, get HIV testing and, while they’re here, tell us about their needs and concerns. So we can work on assessing and addressing their needs at the same time. We’re able directly connect with the youth in an intentional and significant way.”
Despite the biases and stigmas often associated with LGTBQ identities in the south, MACAC has found a welcoming and supportive home in Birmingham. Keller says she has seen a change in the culture in the city, with more traditional organizations, such as police departments, reaching out to the center for training and support in serving the LGTBQ community.
“I always like to argue against the narrative that the south is ignorant and filled with hatred and that it’s not a safe place for LGTBQ individuals,” Keller said. “While I don’t want to act like we don’t have problems and we don’t have bias, I also want to say that we do have a thriving progressive community that is doing amazing work.”
Thanks in part to that thriving community, MCAC will move to a new, larger location next year. The center is co-located with an LGBTQ health facility, The Magic City Wellness Center, and both organizations have outgrown their current home. Keller is working with planners and architects to design a space that is specially outfitted for the many services the center provides. And with the forthcoming addition of a full-time case manager to MCAC’s staff, there will soon be a designated point person to engage with the community on a range of issues, from workplace discrimination and housing insecurity to counseling services and basic healthcare.
According to Keller, the key factor in the center’s success and growth has been youth leadership. While she and her fellow staff have worked to create a safe, supportive environment for Birmingham’s LGBTQ youth, it’s the young people themselves who shape the direction and identity of MCAC.
“The number one thing that adults don’t realize when creating youth-specific programs is that it’s not going to be successful if it’s not youth-led, youth-driven and youth-voiced.” Keller said. “We have this huge honor of creating a space where they can tell us what it is that they need and then we do what we can to make it happen.”
Amanda Keller is a member of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, and serves on the board of the Children’s Policy Council. Amanda is the 2015 recipient of the Simpkins/Talley Spirit of Pride Award, 2015 B-Metro Fusion Award, 2017 Ben Rowell Community Service Award, an honoree of Al.com’s “2017 Women Who Shape the State,” the 2018 Sheila Hamilton Award for Service, 2018 Sylvia Rivera Game Changer Community Service Award, and a 2018 Birmingham Business Journal’s “Women to Watch” honoree.