Phill Wilson, the founder and president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) since its inception in 1999, has recently retired. The Institute is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the country that’s focused on African-Americans.
Diverse: Issues In Higher Education recently interviewed Wilson about his time at the Institute, and what’s next for him and the Institute.
Diverse: Why did you decide to start the Black AIDS Institute?
Wilson: I started working on the Black AIDS Institute in 1988 with my best friend at the time, Reggie Williams. He and I were at a International Aids Conference in Amsterdam, I believe. There were few Black Americans attending the International Aids Conferences back then. But even the African-Americans that were there in the sessions that dealt with science, almost no one was attending those sessions. So we would talk to people and they would say, ‘The reason that we don’t attend those sessions is because we don’t understand what they’re talking about’. At the same time though, African-Americans and Black people across the Diaspora, were being disproportionally impacted. So we thought, ‘well it’s going to be impossible for us to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our communities if people don’t understand the science of HIV’. It was also clear that in 1988, because of the way that HIV was first characterized in the United States and by extension across the globe, as a White, gay disease, that Black people were never going to take ownership of the epidemic. So we decided that it was important to create an organization that focused on engaging and mobilizing Black leaders, institutions and individuals in an effort to confront HIV and leading by increasing the HIV science and treatment literacy in Black communities. So we began by initially trying to create an African-American HIV university, that was our first plan. Initially, no one wanted that effort. Nobody wanted to fund it, nobody wanted to support it. So we worked on that for a number of years. Eventually, Reggie died and during that period of time I got very sick and my doctors thought that I was not going to live either. Then, from 1996 I actually was so sick that I had to stop working and by 1996 Reggie had moved to Amsterdam and we thought that we were not going to be able to make the idea happen. Also around that same time, protease and inhibitors came into play. I eventually got better and took up the idea again and eventually I was able to get support from a new group of friends, and we decided to create an organization instead of just the HIV university. Then, in 1998 we started it and then in 1999 we actually incorporated the AIDS Policy and Training Institute, which is the legal name for the Black AIDS Institute. The bottom line is that, the Institute was founded as a place that focused exclusively on addressing the HIV/AIDS needs in Black communities, so that’s why I started it.