NEWS

Leaders of eight African American organizations meet during the XVI International AIDS Conference where they collectively agreed and signed a joint declaration to reduce the rising rate of HIV in African Americans by 2011.
Photo Credit Duane Cramer

Mobilization

By Erv Dyer

For the first time in the history of the International AIDS Conference – and indeed in the larger community -- leaders from eight of black America’s most venerable institutions were openly talking about HIV/AIDS and agreeing to what they needed to do to move forward – together.

They created a Marshall Plan to reverse the high rates of infection among blacks by 2011. It is clearly ambitious, but leaders said to aim for anything less was immoral.

There was Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP; U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus’ AIDS Initiative; the Rev. Edwin Sanders, who runs a Nashville church active in HIV ministry; entertainer Sheryl Lee Ralph, who brings great passion and star-wattage to the fight against AIDS and representatives from national women’s groups.

“This is historic,” said Grazell Howard, program director of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. “Black people don’t talk to each other. This is the first time since the civil rights movement we’ve come together in America.”

Each of the groups will now go home and hammer out the specifics of integrating the declarations into their organizational agendas, but there are many common goals they share.

These include efforts to cut infection rates, increase the percentage of blacks who know their infection status, get more blacks into appropriate care and end the stigma.

Each of the organizations pledged to appoint a national AIDS director, set annual testing goals and spotlight HIV at their national conferences.

The news is significant and comes against the back drop of a conference where African and Caribbean HIV advocates recognizing that must work together to win the war against HIV.

With both frustration and resolve, a panel of HIV activists, community advocates, and legislators on Sunday opened the gates on a broad-ranging discussion of how the Diaspora of black and Caribbean peoples must move forward in the battling.

But just assembling the panel represented progress for the black community, which in the 25 years of the AIDS pandemic has been severely hampered by issues of stigma, homophobia, poverty and conflict on how best to educate a population that has often lived in denial. Lee, often a lone voice of black legislators at the international conferences, was optimistic about the coming together.

“It shows that the work of a few is having some success,” she said, “and that together we can break the silence. This shows that there are others in the struggle.”

The Black AIDS Institute and the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario were joint sponsors of the panel. Each group works to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and improve access to better treatment and prevention efforts.

The conference in Toronto is one of the few times the international event has come to North America and the two groups believed that – given the proximity to the United States and high number of black Americans being impacted – it was a good time to bring global attention to HIV/AIDS and people in the African and Caribbean Diaspora.

There has been a distance, said Cornelius Baker, an HIV advocate from Washington, D.C. and a former director of Whitman-Walker, a non-profit services group in the nation’s capital.

“Politically and socially, this is a good environment. There are a large number of blacks in Toronto and the enormity of the fact that AIDS has a black face can no longer be ignored. Now is the time to forge an agenda to move forward."

AIDS has not been kind to blacks. Across the globe, they suffer the highest incidences of the virus.

Whether talking about women in the Congo who acquire the virus through rape, or the drug-addicted who use tainted needles in Oakland, Calif., or the church wife who’s infected by her husband in Cleveland, the goal, the panelists said, was to unite.

There is strength in numbers, said Bond, who pledged to work with the NAACP to advocate for more funding, better treatment and push for testing for inmates entering and exiting prisons.

Erv Dyer is a reporter for the Pittsburgh, Post-Gazette.