AIDS Activist Mobilizes Black Community to Combat the Disease

TORONTO

Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute, is enlisting a group of heavy-hitting Black entertainers, civil rights, media, religious, civic, political, community leaders and organizations to help release the deadly grip HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has on more than half of Blacks in America.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, entertainer/AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, filmmaker Bill Duke, Pernessa Seele, president of The Balm in Gilead, and U.S. Congresswomen Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and nonvoting delegate Donna M. Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, were among those who stepped forward during the 16th International AIDS Conference held earlier this month, to pledge their support and accept responsibility for ending the devastation of AIDS in the Black community.

“It is only by mobilizing all corners of Black America that AIDS can be overcome,” said Wilson, who spearheaded nearly all of the programs, campaigns and activities during the weeklong conference, aimed at calling attention to the Black struggle with AIDS. He used the global stage to launch a high-visibility, five-year National Black Mass AIDS Mobilization, which he hopes will drastically reduce the number of HIV infections among Black Americans by 2011.

Said Wilson: “We know now that attention will not end AIDS any more than a smoke alarm will put out a house fire.”

Grazell Howard, first vice president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, announced that the coalition is appointing a national AIDS coordinator. She said the move was a first among national Black women’s organizations.

“If we, as Black women in America do not decide today and every day that AIDS is our face and fight, in 2020 there’ll be no Black women in America,” she said.

Bond pledged to make AIDS the next chapter in his organization’s work on health care access for African-Americans. Other NAACP efforts will include outreach efforts focused on HIV/AIDS and education at its annual convention. The organization also plans to lobby Congress for increased funding for AIDS drugs.

“We call on leaders to lead,” said Bond, adding that the plight of AIDS in Black America, is “mostly one of a failure to lead.

“We have led successful responses to many other challenges in the past. Now is the time for us to face the fact that AIDS has become a Black disease,” he said. “It has invaded our house, and our leaders must accept ownership and fight it with everything we have.”

George Curry of the National Newspaper Publishers Association is currently running a 25-week op-ed series featuring Black leaders addressing varying aspects of the disease.

While stigma and reluctance to discuss HIV/AIDS is still the rule at many Black churches, Seele says at least 25,000 Black churches are preaching about AIDS, delivering prevention messages and doing outreach or testing. Seele, who has spent the past 18 years mobilizing Black churches to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis, also pointed to gains in the three mainline Black Episcopal denominations — AME, AME Zion and CME — which have recently appointed national HIV health coordinators. But still, Seele says, “It’s a critical time” and more needs to be done.

— By B. Denise Hawkins

 

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