One in a series about the new members of the Black AIDS Institute’s board.
Donna Christensen, M.D., a former congressional delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, has been a friend to the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) for more than two decades. It was in Congress where Christensen first learned of the Institute, when, in 1997, its president and CEO, Phill Wilson, testified about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black America, citing statistics so alarming that he recommended that the government issue a “state of emergency.”
By then, Dr. Christensen—who left her noteworthy career in the ER and maternity ward to become the first female physician to serve in the House of Representatives—had long been aware of HIV. She had cared for people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) back in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which she calls home. In 1985 she treated one of the first HIV patients in St. Croix. He had come to her clinic with a low-grade fever and mild pneumonia and asked Dr. Christensen to order an HIV test. A colleague leaked the doctor’s request to the press, which resulted in a front-page story about the disease’s presence there. The disease hit closer to home when Dr. Christensen delivered the news of a positive diagnosis to one friend and took care of another during his last days. “I’ve been right in the thick and thin of it from the beginning,” she says.
Dr. Christensen brought that expertise to Capitol Hill, becoming the Congressional Black Caucus’ go-to person for health and health-care information. That experience prompted her to lead the CBC’s Health Braintrust for 16 of her 18 years in office. And before the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) was passed in 2010, Dr. Christensen helped ensure that people with pre-existing conditions had access to health insurance, a huge win for PLWHA and a precondition for ending the HIV epidemic.
As Dr. Christensen joins BAI’s board, “One of my goals is to keep the connection between the Black AIDS Institute and Congress,” she says. Such high-level connections and guidance will be crucial as BAI’s next generation of HIV activists and organizers work to end the epidemic and improve the lives of people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS, specifically (and unapologetically) those in Black communities. “And I still consult for Gilead, which has always been a financial supporter of the Institute,” she adds.
Some of that funding will help the Institute’s training and capacity-building efforts to reduce new infections in the Southern U.S. in addition to direct service delivery in Los Angeles through the prevention clinic that opened this February and the Black men’s primary care clinic that will launch in April, both in partnership with St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, a federally qualified community health center. If Dr. Christensen’s schedule permits, she’ll attend the kickoff of the Black men’s primary care clinic, located in L.A.’s Leimert Park. “I’m impressed by the outreach and the clinics for providing comprehensive care.”
Dr. Christensen’s steady hand will also be essential as BAI hires new staff to lead advocacy initiatives and policy work and adds programs to address the needs of Black women, such as the new Black Women and PrEP Tool Kit, which premiered on National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
As Wilson prepares to step down from his post and Dr. Christensen and the board search for his replacement, three things are certain. First, his successor will inherit a thriving organization that’s ahead of the curve in understanding HIV in Black communities. Second, Dr. Christensen and other new executive leaders are positioning the Institute to continue to follow the epidemic and help Black communities save themselves. Third, the new president and CEO has some big shoes to fill. “We know Phill will be there to support the person and make it a very good transition,” Dr. Christensen says. “We don’t expect him to disappear.”
Taiia Smart Young is the author of Famous! How to Be the Star of Your Show: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Embracing Her Fabulous Self. She’s a frequent contributor to Essence, Latina and the Black AIDS Weekly. Be social with her on Instagram.