Like all too many Black AIDS activists, Sandra Singleton McDonald started off with almost no resources beyond the passion born from watching loved ones fall ill. Early in the epidemic, the Atlanta, Georgia native was moved by the carnage unfolding from this new virus, and began researching how she could help. She had worked in corporate America but found it unsatisfying. She needed to be more involved in her community, to have a job that reflected the spirit of interdependence she says her Southern upbringing stressed. So, in 1986, after meeting an African American patient who touched her heart in an AIDS clinic, McDonald took off running.
In a February 2001 interview with Kujisource, a publication of the Black AIDS Institute, she described how the experience launched her activism. “He was in denial,” McDonald recalled, “very troubled and very angry. It was through the development of our friendship that we decided that he had to get up out of that bed and go with me to educate our communities about this disease. So we started working out of the trunk of my car, not knowing that we were starting an agency. We were just on a mission to get the word out.”
They did far more than that. Over the next 15 years, McDonald built Outreach, Inc., the oldest Black HIV/AIDS and substance abuse service organization in the South. The agency’s primary goal is to break the link between injection drug use and HIV in the Black community. Transmission via unclean needles accounts for about a third of AIDS cases among Black men, and nearly half among Black women. Add in the number of women infected during unsafe sex with men who themselves contracted the virus after sharing needles, and the percentage among women is likely much higher. Despite these numbers, legal restrictions and cultural stigma often prevent injection drug users from seeking the treatment they need to deal with both substance abuse and HIV. “Outreach is an agency where people can come in just as they are,” McDonald told Kujisource, “and be accepted and loved and worked with in terms of reaching their goals to get better.”
In addition to its substance abuse treatment programs, Outreach, Inc., offers services ranging from peer counseling and “safe space” drop-in centers to educational programs for schools, churches, and correctional facilities. The Atlanta-based group leads regional media campaigns, offers HIV prevention workshops to Black sororities and fraternities, matches HIV positive mothers with mentors, and provides transportation services to people disabled by the virus, along with a host of other programs. And the agency that started in the trunk of McDonald’s car now counts among its clients the National Football League—for which Outreach conducts seminars on substance abuse and HIV prevention, targeting NFL players.
The passion that McDonald harnessed in 1986 remains, and has been enhanced by what she describes simply as anger. “I am very, very angry that we have lost more people to this disease than have died in the Vietnam war,” she told Kujisource. “And we still don’t have a handle on prevention programs. I am still very angry that African Americans have to struggle and scrape for medicines and access to health care and drug treatment in a country that can afford computers in every home. I won’t be over this anger until I see marked improvements.”
McDonald says she never expected she’d still be fighting this epidemic in the new millennium. It was 1989 when she first got the feeling that the struggle would be a long one. “That’s when I had to get a second breath,” she says, noting she’s still riding on that reinvigoration. But she’s pushed forward by the heroism she sees in the community today. “I see little people do great things to make a difference in this battle,” she explains. “I see wonderful African Americans living with HIV and having the courage to get up and say that ‘I live with this disease.’ And we’ve grown culturally as a community, because we are talking about stuff that we never talked about before.”
For McDonald, the next step is bringing every individual to the realization that he or she is part of the epidemic. “There are two types of people in this epidemic,” she stresses, “those infected and those affected. We are all living with HIV.” McDonald believes that realization will prompt more people to get involved, either by taking personal steps like getting tested and learning to protect themselves or by volunteering at local AIDS service organizations. “Really,” she concludes, “it is a true test of our love for our community.”