As part of a new strategic plan to prepare for the next generation of Black HIV/AIDS response, the Black AIDS Institute is announcing several changes within the organization, including the retirement of its longtime president and CEO, Phill Wilson, later this year.
Wilson launched the Black AIDS Institute in 1999 with a clear mantra (“Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution”) and mission: to stop the AIDS pandemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black leaders, institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view.
“In order for a movement to endure, there must be a plan for the future,” said Wilson in a statement. “Stepping down as the president and CEO of the Institute, where I have had the privilege of serving for the last 19 years, is bittersweet for me. I have been involved in this fight for almost my entire adult life.
“In 1983, when I started doing this work, none of us could have imagined this mysterious new disease, first identified at UCLA Medical Center, would become the defining health issue of our generation. We are at a turning point. Are we going to build on the remarkable advances we have made over the last decade and continue to push forward and finally end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or are we going to go back to the dark days of despair and death?
“The Institute is committed to doing everything in its power to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially in Black communities. The time is right. The organization has the infrastructure and capacity to do the changes set forth by the board to prepare for a new generation of capacity building, advocacy, mobilization and service delivery. I am very proud of the work we have done over the last 19 years and of the organization’s commitment to new leadership. That commitment is more important now than ever before.”
Pursuing new executive leadership is part of a larger effort on the part of the Institute to prepare for the next generation of HIV/AIDS response in Black communities.
Ahead of the Curve
From the African American HIV University and Black Treatment Advocates Network to the groundbreaking “State of AIDS in Black America” reports and acknowledgments of Black excellence at the annual Heroes in the Struggle Gala Reception and Awards Celebration, the Institute has been relentless in its focus on Black communities.
The organization enlisted traditional Black institutions—such as the NAACP, Black fraternities and sororities, Black journalists in mainstream media and Black-owned publications—to commit to raising awareness, fighting stigma, increasing HIV/AIDS literacy and mobilizing Black people. It launched the Black Hollywood Task Force on HIV—currently co-chaired by Jussie Smollett, star of the Fox musical drama Empire, and veteran actress and humanitarian Vanessa Williams—to leverage the power of celebrity to amplify messages about prevention, testing, treatment and ending stigma.
“We have always been ahead of the curve in understanding HIV/AIDS and how it relates to the Black community,” says Institute board chair Grazell Howard. “This change is a continuation of that legacy. The search for new executive leadership is a part of a new strategic plan. We have brought on new board members like former Rep. Donna M. Christensen, Dr. David Cook, David Munar and Gina Brown to help us expand our policy work, expand our clinical services and add Black-women programs. We’ve also re-energized our Black Hollywood Task Force on AIDS with new ambassadors and supporters like Ledisi, Karamo Brown, Taraji P. Henson, Alfre Woodard and Van Jones.”
Munar, president and CEO of the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, says, “Almost every milestone in the fight against AIDS domestically and, in some cases, internationally has been paved by the Black AIDS Institute, and that’s a credit to the Institute and its many supporters and affiliates across the country.”
Codifying Wilson’s Vision
Wilson leaves the Institute well positioned to take on the challenges of future.
The organization is staffed by the next generation of HIV/AIDS activists and organizers, whose work embodies the Institute’s commitment to helping Black communities save themselves through their lived experience. “Every day is Black AIDS Awareness Day at the Black AIDS Institute,” says Raniyah Copeland, the Institute’s director of programs. “Our staff are of the communities we serve. We are Black men and women. We are Black people living with HIV/AIDS or at high risk of infection. We live, work, pray and play in the communities we serve. We don’t need to do ‘outreach’ because we are there 24-7.”
The Institute recently brought on new staff members to strengthen its capacity, like Maxx Boykin (previously with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago), to work on a new advocacy-and-policy initiative; Maya Merriweather, to work on mobilization; and Saron Selassie, to strengthen the Institute’s monitoring and evaluation work. On World AIDS Day 2017, the Institute launched a new website and a redesigned Black AIDS Weekly, the organization’s electronic newsletter, to more effectively reach people who use smartphones to access health information.
Jesse Milan Jr., president and CEO of AIDS United and chair emeritus of the Institute’s board, notes that the Institute has also been developing programs to help end the epidemic through its Los Angeles-based direct-service efforts. On this Feb. 7, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Institute, in partnership with St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, a federally qualified community-health center in Los Angeles, will launch the first Black PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) clinic in Los Angeles. Later this spring, the partnership will open a Black men’s primary care clinic in the Leimert Park area of L.A. A Black gay men’s drop-in center will launch in Compton during the fall. “The PrEP clinic, the men’s primary care clinic and the Black gay men’s drop-in center will help us achieve a new dimension of our mission,” says Milan.
“We are proud to build on Phill’s bold and unapologetic legacy through direct service, new policy, initiatives to address Black women and HIV, and other efforts that will codify Phill’s vision of ending AIDS,” Copeland says.
Rather than resting on past successes, the Black AIDS Institute is “going where the epidemic’s trajectory is calling it to go,” says Munar, who calls the new initiatives “excellent examples” of how the organization is transforming in ways that will allow it to thrive without Wilson at the helm. “It’s exactly what every community needs to be doing. The Institute wants to do it first in its own backyard, then help others across the country replicate similar strategies.”
“Such approaches are particularly important in the South,” National Capacity Building Manager Leisha McKinley-Beach says. “The Institute has become one of the driving force for ending the AIDS epidemic in America due in part to its work in Southern states, where most Blacks live, and awareness-raising about what’s happening there. We have been on the front line of training and capacity building in the South. I am particularly excited that we are going to be housing our policy and advocacy work in the South, and looking forward to having Max join me in Atlanta.”
“We can’t achieve our goals in the HIV/AIDS epidemic nationally unless we work harder in the South to reduce new infections, bring more people into care, and eliminate stigma and discrimination,” says Milan. “The statistics and reality in the South are dire, especially for African Americans, and we must focus on them now.”
Passing the Mantle
“For those of us who have been doing the work and standing with Phill shoulder to shoulder for many years, it will be hard to imagine this work without him,” Munar says. “But this transition is not about Phill Wilson; it’s really about a mission, a vision, a commitment to mobilize a community, to leverage influence wherever we can, to eliminate AIDS and make this world a better place for people who are affected by HIV.”
“It is with great pride and role modeling that the Black AIDS Institute shows that you can have an organization that can grow a budget; have a vibrant and fully engaged board of directors; and be founded by a brilliant, courageous, creative man who knows when it is time to pass the mantle,” Howard says.
“This is an important moment,” Munar says. “Phill is passing the baton on to a newer generation. He’s leaving the organization on a strong footing so that it can continue to march forward.”
Freddie Allen is editor-in-chief of the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Allen is also a frequent contributor to the Black AIDS Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter.