“We pretty much operate in a collegial environment. We have a shared responsibility. We operate together. We love each other together,” says Dr. June Gipson, President and CEO of the Jackson, Miss. based My Brother’s Keeper, Inc. (MBK), as she reflected on this year’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) theme “Together For Love: Stop HIV Stigma.”
She says, “We do it to protect the community. We do it to serve the community. The community is a huge part of who we are. Everyday, 365, we work so that the community we love is able to exist without racism, homophobia, and stigma.” Gipson has been in her current role since 2011.
MBK’s mission is to reduce health disparities throughout the United States by enhancing the health and well being of minority and marginalized populations through leadership in public and community health practices, collaboration, and partnerships. The organization was founded in 1999 and under Dr. Gipson’s leadership has evolved from 19 to 85 staff members with four PhDs, and four MDs. They have grown from one location to six.
Through the years the work of the organization has shifted into the biomedical realm. “When we started it was prevention on the corner, passing out condoms, doing outreach, and distributing informational flyers,” she says. According to AIDSVu, there are approximately 9,236 people living with HIV in Mississippi in 2015 with almost 73 percent of those people being Black. Blacks in Mississippi make up 37 percent of the state’s population.
Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, says, “The work that My Brother’s Keeper does in Mississippi is crucial in the effort to end the HIV epidemic in Black America.” She added, “They have been able to grow and expand their reach and services and serve as a model for a Black organization that is rapidly shifting to meet the needs of their community.”
As the community-based organization moved into the biomedical realm, new challenges had to be tackled. “The work changed. It changed skillsets. It changed how we were going to respond to the community. The sad thing is that we still had the same amount of money. It changed the organization drastically and we had to improve on the skillsets of the people we have.” She added, “We had to work with the people we have and make them better, we trained the people that we had and grew their skills…We’re at the point now and we can hire who we want, and not who we can afford.” Gipson says, “If I need a physician, I can hire a physician…we’ve created an environment where people can grow and excel.”
A manifestation of this new reality is the opening of the Open Arms Healthcare Center. “Having that clinic took us on a different trajectory that we’re extremely proud of,” says Gipson. The mission of the clinic is to provide innovative, holistic healthcare to underserved, underinsured, and underrepresented populations, with a special focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in Mississippi.
“The clinic is a bi-product us having a good understanding of how public health and biomedical come together to support health. We’re creating a new model of how a community-based organization can work, primarily LGBT,” says Gipson. “We’re the first to do it, particularly in the South.”
From 2017 to 2018, MBK reached 2,046 individuals directly through its community outreach programs. In 2018, Open Arms Health Care Center served 5,528 unique individuals in the greater Jackson area. There were also 7,629 visits during that same time period. Currently, the IHCS Program serves 223 HIV positive patients. The outcomes of IHCS Program approach to HIV care has exceeded the state and national efforts.
As Gipson reflects on her leadership, “Professionally, as a Black female CEO, there aren’t a lot of us in the non-profit, or for-profit arenas…a change is happening.” Gipson says we live in a white patriarchal society in which women are at the bottom of the totem pole. “Females are seen as weak, emotional, decision makers and it takes us out.”
Gipson believes the world could learn from the leadership of women. She has learned, “Knee jerk decisions work well on the playground, but they don’t necessarily translate into business. There is nothing like taking a moment to make a timely decision.” She also believes in work/life balance. “Take time for yourself. Take time to honestly pull back from all that you do so you can come back fresh and renewed. Get a good glass of wine and laugh with your friends.”
*Hygh is the Senior Communications Manager for the Black AIDS Institute