Nairobi Shellow is a master of disguise. The 23-year-old Flatbush native certainly does not look like he’s been an organizer for nearly a decade. His tall, slender frame is draped with the trappings of youth: a trendy sleeveless shirt, baggy jeans and shell top sneakers. With a Discman in one hand and cellular phone in the other, he doesn’t seem to fit the part of executive director of Youth Organizers United, a growing nonprofit sexual and reproductive health organization.
His unconventional manner has helped shape the group, which he founded two winters ago. The naysayers told him, “I don’t have a college degree. I have no managerial skills. I’m too silly,” Shellow recalls. But, he adds, “With statistics that say young people make up more than 50 percent of all HIV infection, I cannot [give up]. I was set out to prove everybody wrong.”
Shellow’s penchant for being what he laughingly calls “a troublemaker” began at 15, when he became a youth advocate for the AIDS and Adolescents Network of New York. He wanted to learn more about the disease that was affecting his family and community.
In 1999, AANNY closed its doors. But Shellow refused to become just a little orphan of AANNY. For months, he and a corps of youth advocates held trainings on diversity and sexual health in parks and on the streets. In February 2000 they formalized the organization, and hired 26 advocates.
Now, Shellow hopes the group can retain what he calls “a youthy spirit.” The age limit for staff members is 25, giving him just a couple more years to spread the message about HIV and AIDS and its impact on young people. He certainly does not plan to waste any time. YOU’s schedule is packed with in-school public education forums about HIV and AIDS, sexuality and reproductive health. They distribute condoms and help organize big events like Youth Action Day, which brings hundreds of teens to Albany to meet with legislators.
YOU’s work has certainly drawn attention. Two years ago, Shellow became the youngest person (“and the only young person,” he says) elected to the New York City HIV Prevention Planning Group, a public body that allocates federal funds to AIDS organizations throughout the city. Although hit with obstacles like lack of space and displacement–their offices are two blocks from ground zero, which left them homeless for six months–YOU is emerging as an influential voice of youth within the HIV and ADS community.