Jan 24
January 24, 2013

Bringing Change to Washington’s HIV Crisis


For Clinton Global Initiative University participant Tyler Spencer and a team of college athletes, Washington, D.C.’s most important battle is outside of Capitol Hill

All eyes have been on Washington D.C. as the close of the inauguration brings the inevitable return to political wrangling. But to Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) participant Tyler Spencer and a group of NCAA-Division I athletes, partisanship isn’t the capitol city’s only problem.

Alarmed that 13- to 24-year-olds reportedly account for 26 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S., Spencer has mobilized more than 400 varsity athletes from 30 teams at Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard universities to bring change to Washington, D.C., the city with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country.

“D.C. is often highlighted as a hub of international development or as the center of the federal government, but you rarely read about the people who were born and raised in our city,” said 26-year old Spencer. Brought to the nation’s capital for a volunteer opportunity in college, he was shocked to learn that the city has an HIV infection rate rivaling some nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Because so many of D.C.’s resources are focused outside of its borders, a lot of the local problems are ignored. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of work to be done right in our backyard.”

Spencer is determined to increase HIV screenings among youth, who have low rates of testing despite the demographic’s troubling number of new cases. The CDC reports that only 22 percent of high school students who’ve had sex have been tested for HIV, while 60 percent of those infected don’t realize their positive status.

Drawing from his summer outreach experience in South Africa, where he discovered soccer’s ability to start a dialogue on HIV/AIDS, Spencer founded The Grassroot Project in 2009 to address the epidemic on the domestic front in a language kids would understand. The initiative started on a “shoestring budget,” but received a boost when Spencer attended the 2011 meeting of CGI U.  Joining more than 1,000 students, youth organizations, topic experts, and celebrities engaged in efforts to address global challenges, he made a commitment to train college athletes in the D.C. area to teach an eight-week sports-based HIV prevention program for middle school students.

To build on his impact, Spencer returned to CGI U in 2012 and made another commitment, expanding The Grassroot Project to include voluntary, confidential HIV testing for the District’s high school students, as well. More than 500 high school students will be screened for HIV by college athletes by the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

Currently in his second year of a public health doctoral program at Oxford University, Spencer hopes that HIV education will transform how young people around the world – and in D.C. – address the epidemic.   “There is a taboo around the disease,” he said.  “Stigma and discrimination allow for myths to spread, leading to high rates of infections and often preventing HIV-positive community members from going to get treatment.”

A grant from the D.C. Department of Health is currently allowing The Grassroot Project to train dozens of college athletes as volunteer HIV testers and counselors. This month, the organization will prepare its first group of athletes from the University of Maryland.

For more on Spencer’s project to use college sports as a platform to engage D.C. youth about HIV, watch this video on the young entrepreneur’s CGI U commitment:

CGI U 2013 will be held April 5-7 at Washington University in St. Louis. The application deadline for students is January 30, 2013. To learn more or apply, visit