By Brian Goins
photography by HN James
If there’s a word that sums up the demeanor of Brian Marshall, it’s blessed.
In his own words, he has a wonderful, loving family and an ongoing opportunity to help others in need.
Marshall, the CEO of MashUp! Nashville, met us at Cafe Coco to discuss his program and the work he’s doing to elevate the needs of the African American LGBT+ community in Nashville.
The MashUp! program, which began in February of 2017, has already made huge strides on a mission that Marshall is passionate about. It started as a way to connect other programs such as My House, Neighborhood Health, StreetWorks, Nashville CARES and various others to better serve the community.
But the program has evolved. Although not an HIV/AIDS organization, MashUp! hopes to address the contributing issues surrounding the epidemic.
“All of those issues tie in to the rising rates of HIV/AIDS,” he said. “You can look at research and show how there are different barriers that aren’t being addressed.”
Originally from Nashville, Marshall went to Tuskegee University in Alabama and studied political science. He later obtained a master’s degree in Civic Leadership from Lipscomb University.
After college, he spent some time at a media job as a production assistant in West Tennessee before he decided to move back home to Nashville.
“One day I got this random call from a good friend who worked at the First Response Center,” he said. That friend was Chris Goodwin, who told him about a new grant and an open case manager position for a program for the African American LGBT+ community.
Without hesitation, Marshall said yes, not knowing much about the field of work.
“I didn’t have any direction in my life,” he said, “and this opportunity came to me.”
The program became Project UNO (U. New Outstanding), and focused on empowerment, outreach, education and community involvement for black gay men dealing with HIV. It was a collaboration between Street Works and First Response Center, a center in Nashville that works primarily with people of color who are affected by HIV/AIDS, mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Over the course of four years, I learned so much about a community that I’m a part of but I didn’t really understand a lot of things … because I didn’t have the same story as some of these people,” Marshall said.
The job helped him face things about his own life that he hadn’t previously addressed. He wasn’t fully out when he first took the job, he said.
“Through meeting and helping different people in Project UNO, it actually helped me to come out to my parents at the age of 32,” he said. “It helped me to deal with issues that I never realized that I was dealing with — depression at one point. Substance abuse.”
And the work that he did with Project UNO brought clarity to the issues: It’s not as simple as one problem. HIV/AIDS may get the most attention, but there are many problems contributing to the epidemic that simply aren’t being addressed. He realized that many of the people he was working with weren’t as blessed as him — they didn’t have mentors or loving family around to guide them.
“They were getting kicked out of their homes. They couldn’t find housing. There were issues getting to a simple medical appointment — even to get tested for HIV,” he said. “They may be in situations where they’re being abused, so they engage in sexual activity that puts them at risk for HIV/AIDS. We need to talk about partner on partner violence. We need to talk about mental health and homelessness.”
Obviously, there was a lot of work left to be done. He took a position as program specialist for the More to Me (MIIM) program, a group for LGBT+ high school students of color, at Oasis Center.
“I’m connected to about four or five different high schools,” he said. “I help their gay/straight alliance programs and their LGBT+ group programs. Some just need help getting (the groups) started, so I help direct the programs or I allow them to see my curriculum that they can use it if they choose to.”
His work has led to the realization that it’s OK — even desperately needed — for him to be a liaison to help others understand what men of color are going through on a day-to-day basis. But his voice isn’t the only voice that matters.
“My goal is to bring young people in our community to the forefront to speak for themselves — to advocate for themselves. To let people know that their lives matter,” he said. “And to empower them to go to their healthcare providers and say what they need and how they need to be treated.”
MashUp! is looking forward to some exciting opportunities this summer.
They’re partnering with Meharry Graduate School of Research, who created a needs assessment tool to collect data from the community. From there, he envisions MashUp! becoming a consultant to healthcare companies to help bridge a gap between what is needed and what is provided to the LGBT+ community.
They’re also expanding to include gender issues and the transgender community.
“We don’t have many programs that focus on our trans women of color,” he said.
A new program under MashUp! called VOCAL, an acronym that stands for Visibility Opportunity Community Access and Loving Relationships, is aimed at helping that community.
It’s a consortium for trans women of color using research to inform fresh ideas and strategic initiatives that intervene on complex issues faced by transgender women of color in Middle Tennessee.
He’s also been presented with opportunities to bring his research to many different committees. He was invited by Oasis Center to participate in Mayor Briley’s HIV task force. Brian Hale, CEO of Neighborhood Health, appointed Marshall to a special committee on their board.
And he’s honored that the program was selected to participate in the Saving Ourselves Symposium in Birmingham on June 6-10. It’s an annual conference by The Red Door Foundation designed to provide cutting edge research, promising practices and HIV/AIDS behavior change techniques in an effort to educate, encourage and empower the black LGBT+ community. Started in 2013, the conference provides first-hand information to service providers and service users within and throughout the black LGBT+ community.
It’s a first-time opportunity to raise the visibility of the MashUp! program outside of Nashville. And, true to his mission, he’s using that as an opportunity to bring two guests to participate in the discussions.
“I never see people who don’t work in this field at the conferences. They need to be there,” he said. “Real people who are the ones we’re trying to help. I want them there to experience it.”
He has the ability to step back and see the bigger picture of what’s at stake for the community.
“MashUp! has allowed me to be at different tables (of discussion),” he said. “But if I’m at that table, I want to bring my community to that table as well. I can’t speak for everybody.”
He’s clear about what his calling requires him to do.
“God put me in a position to be a voice for the voiceless,” he said. “And that’s the work that I do.”
Founded in 2017, the nonprofit MashUp! Nashville is committed to elevating HIV prevention resource allocation through research, trainings, and evidence-based solutions that improve and strengthen the lives of African American gay and bisexual men in Middle Tennessee.
MashUp! Nashville was chartered as a nonprofit corporation in the State of Tennessee on September 13, 2017, and is comprised of individual advocates, allies, community activists and healthcare professionals. Brian Marshall is the Founder & CEO. Justin Lofton is the COO.
MashUp! has a constant need for funding and volunteers. You can donate to the organization online by visiting MashUpNashville.com and clicking the donate button on the top righthand side.
You can also volunteer to be on the community advisory board. They meet once a month, and it is open to any and everybody — whether you’re an ally or a part of the community. Or, you can volunteer at an event.
Find MashUp! Nashville on Instagram and Facebook @MashUpNashville