Storytelling is a critical skill for public health workers. We can’t improve our communities without solid communication. And it’s up to us as public health practitioners to make sure the stories of our most vulnerable community members are told and heard.

Film is a particularly effective medium for conveying those public health stories, which is what makes the APHA Global Public Health Film Festival such a moving experience. At a Tuesday morning film festival session, attendees watched a variety of footage that put real faces and stories to the 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV. Considering that not so long ago, HIV was considered a death sentence, it was incredibly inspiring to see so many HIV-positive people not just living, but thriving.

Take Dominique, Andrew and “Maria” (not her real name). The three young adults are part of the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Cohort Study, which is funded through the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and featured in the documentary “Faces of PHACS.” All three were diagnosed with HIV as children and faced obstacles throughout their lives. But as they grappled with the deaths of loved ones and being HIV-positive, they also learned how to create happy, healthy lives.

Andrew’s story went viral when he posted a family photo on Facebook with the message “Having a NEGATIVE family can be the most POSITIVE thing in your life.” In the photo, he’s holding an “HIV+” sign, as his wife and children hold “HIV-” signs. Love, family and joy are all possible even with HIV, he said. Dominique and Maria have also found peace — Dominique says he’s become closer to God and Maria is going strong with her boyfriend, who she says accepts her for who she is.

Session attendees saw just how cathartic storytelling can be in the documentary “Staying Positive — Women Living With HIV Speak Out Against Stigma.” The group StoryCenter partnered with the Empowerment Program and Positive Women’s Network to facilitate two workshops with HIV-positive women. Through the workshops, women of all ages and backgrounds gathered to tell their stories of life with HIV and support one another.

“I was amazed and profoundly touched by the trauma that we all carry, that was a part of all of our stories,” said workshop participant Barb Cardell. “That caused me to change my story deeply and to go to that place of my own trauma and to share it in a way that I think I had not perhaps shared it in the past.”

Public health practitioners can look to the documentary “Breaking the Silence Through Storytelling: Confronting Medical Mistrust to Advance HIV Prevention” for lessons on communicating with groups who are skeptical of the medical establishment. For example, the exploitation of black bodies in medical research, from the Tuskegee experiment to the profiting off of Henrietta Lacks’ cell line, means many black people are understandably wary of medical research. It’s a critical issue to understand in Baltimore, which is home to a large African-American community.

According to the documentary, the Baltimore City Health Department is working to right some of these wrongs through programs that help marginalized residents engage in conversations about their health. In partnership with community-based organizations, the health department created Baltimore in Conversation, which brings people together in informal settings to discuss health care access, with a focus on HIV prevention. There’s also Project Presence, which uses photography to showcase the LGBTQ community in Baltimore.

“If we can create conversations, if we can make people talk more about the problems, then maybe we can break the barrier of silence,” said Kehinde Bademosi, social innovation coordinator for the Baltimore City Health Department. “Then we can begin to address all these issues about HIV, about (prevention), about treatment.”

Baltimore’s use of storytelling serves as an important reminder for public health workers — a reminder that these are real people who deserve our empathy and understanding.

“For every HIV infection, there is a story behind it,” Bademosi said.