This post was written by Brittany Stares, Volunteer for Art for AIDS International


Building self-esteem was not always part of what Art for AIDS International does, Director Hendrikus Bervoets tells me one afternoon. It came up a few years ago when he was asked to give a keynote address in Botswana on the topic of bullying. At first, he says, he didn’t know what to talk about. Then, the more he thought about it, the more connections appeared between self-esteem and his work with Art for AIDS International.

Now, building self-esteem is a cornerstone of what the organization does. He explains to me the many links between self-esteem and the HIV and AIDS fight: individuals need strong self-esteem to get tested, learn their status, and pursue treatment in the face of widespread discrimination. Low self-esteem can contribute to the risky behaviours that spread HIV, such as IV drug use and unprotected sex. Building self-esteem, while perhaps not enough to end AIDS-related bullying based on psychologists’ new understanding of bullies, is still pivotal in creating healthy interpersonal relationships, healing the damaging legacy of bullying for victims, and challenging the HIV and AIDS stigma. The need for strong self-esteem even reaches educators if they are to share their experiences about self-worth, gender violence, and health with students – and building the capacity of educators is part of Art for AIDS International’s “Train the Trainer” program.

For young people, building positive self-esteem starts lifelong change. Art, Hendrikus says, is a great way to do this because it’s fun. “Because of what we ask students to do [to select images at random and not overthink], it makes it very easy to create beautiful artwork,” he explains. I can speak to that. Artistically challenged enough that even a straight line with a ruler seems hard, I have participated in an Art for AIDS International workshop and created collages that now hang on my wall with pride. For workshop participants, they create not only beautiful art, but art that is taken seriously and treated with respect – gorgeously displayed in showings around the world and sold on the Art for AIDS International website.

Hendrikus now starts every workshop with a talk, one that includes not only important, potentially lifesaving information about HIV and AIDS, but also his own experiences with low self-esteem. “It helps young people to become aware of the difference between low self-esteem and healthy self-respect,” he says, “[It brings an] awareness that they’re not the only ones with low self-esteem… many young people have it, but we seldom talk about that.”

At these workshops, Hendrikus says young people change in front of his eyes. “You find them becoming passionate and excited about what they’re doing,” he tells me. “That is really pretty universal, whether the workshop is in Canada or South Africa. Wherever we go, we see the same response.”

In the fight against AIDS, the role of self-esteem is often overlooked. This is where organizations like Art for AIDS International make such a difference: they deliver crucial information about HIV and AIDS to the community, but they also strengthen the foundations that will help individuals use this information for themselves and others. I know from reading workshop reviews by participants in Botswana and South Africa that the seeds planted in these sessions will go well beyond the HIV and AIDS fight: they will inspire community service, connect family members, and help individuals pursue their dreams. Self-esteem is what puts the roots in grassroots change.