In the mid-1980s, then-U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop warned the country, and Black leaders in particular, about the alarmingly high rates of HIV infections among African Americans. At the time, HIV/AIDS was thought to be a malady that only afflicted gay white men. As Black leaders across the country attempted to grapple with the new and horrific challenges that the nation’s growing and shifting AIDS epidemic was presenting to communities of African descent, the New York Urban League turned to a young, emerging leader on their senior staff for advice and guidance. That leader was Debra Fraser-Howze.
At the time, Fraser-Howze was director of teenage services, specializing in the development and implementation of programs that benefited pregnant and parenting teens. She brought to this job her own experiences of rearing two daughters before the age of 17. On one fateful day, a young Black man with AIDS came to see her to ask for her guidance. He had fathered a child with a young woman and had another baby on the way by another.
“He was sick and I thought, ‘What is the implication of this disease for the Black family?’,” Frazer-Howze recalls. “I knew then and there that no one was talking to our young people about AIDS prevention, and that something had to be done to save their lives.”
With the support of the New York Urban League, Fraser-Howze called upon 40 African American leaders in New York City to attend a two-day workshop on how to respond to HIV/AIDS. She asked the group to develop five strategies to address HIV prevention in the African American community; the leadership responded with 53. In the days following that meeting, Fraser-Howze began to examine AIDS policies in New York City, noting that they were primarily designed to benefit gay white men. She wondered whether this care system could be adapted to better help the Black community. Her exploration led to the foundation of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS in November 1987.
Now known as the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), Fraser-Howze’s organization is the oldest and largest of its kind in America. The NBLCA, charged with supporting the volunteer efforts of Black leaders who are responding to HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases, has served hundreds of organizations across the country. The agency helps Black organizations with community development, technical assistance, and policy formulation. It has raised millions of dollars for direct service organizations, and created the first programs supporting Black clergy in developing new strategies to address the epidemic.
Since 1995, Fraser-Howze has expanded her organization’s focus beyond HIV/AIDS to embrace all disease prevention and health promotion activities for the benefit of Black America.
“AIDS has let us see just how severely damaged our infrastructures are around public health in our community,” she says. “We were already a dying people, because of multiple epidemics of diseases, before HIV/AIDS. Now, the AIDS epidemic has magnified that.”
In recognition of her steadfast advocacy, then-President Bill Clinton appointed Fraser-Howze to his Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in June 1995, where her peers chose her to serve as co-chair of the council’s Subcommittee on Racial and Ethnic Populations. The 30-member council, thus far maintained by the Bush administration, was the first of its kind, directly advising the president on HIV/AIDS prevention programs and policies. Upon her reappointment to the council in 2000, Fraser-Howze became its longest-tenured member.
Fraser-Howze was also one of the principal organizers of the Congressional Black Caucus’s ongoing efforts to secure a formal presidential declaration of a national public health State of Emergency in African American communities, due to HIV/AIDS in particular and racial and ethnic health disparities in general. This debate led to the creation of the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative, through which Congress has annually appropriated new funding for programs directly targeting African Americans and other minority communities. The cumulative new funding sparked by the Initiative stands at $751 million. Although this achievement, alone, would be enough of a career accomplishment for some, Fraser-Howze vows to continue to fight for enhanced funding for Black America until there is universal recognition in our country that “everyone is worthy of being alive.”
Unbroken and unbowed in spite of her twenty-year involvement as a warrior in the battles to eradicate HIV/AIDS and all ethnic and racial health disparities, Fraser-Howze anticipates the day when her people are liberated from the bondage of HIV/AIDS.
“The war, our war, is going to be won on two fronts: in our neighborhoods and in the laboratory. This is the first time in a long time that we have begun to respond to the fact that we as a people are really in danger.”