Tony R. Wafford
He’s not gay. Or a man who has sex with men. Or an IV drug user.
None of that matters to this hero when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
“Why do I have to be any of those things to realize people are dying and suffering?” asks Tony R. Wafford. “You can be as smart or as ignorant as you want to be. Why not be smart?”
Wafford commands attention as much with his lovably brazen personality as he does with his honesty, especially when talking about AIDS, a subject often swept under the rug in the African American community. As a hero and an activist, Wafford is lifting up the rug and bringing HIV/AIDS out into the open.
“We need to talk to one another,” says the community advisory board chair for the HIV Prevention Trials Network in Los Angeles. “HIV/AIDS is the number one killer of African American people aged 22-45. And with 73 percent of all of the newly-reported cases of HIV infection being African American women, we can’t just turn our heads.”
A Detroit native, Wafford moved to Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago—young, broke, alone and lacking in formal education. His diminished resources, however, were coupled with a larger-than-life demeanor and an intense desire to realize his dreams. On his second day in town he landed a job at Damon Construction, where he was employed for the next 13 years, working his way up to field supervisor. Soon after coming to Los Angeles, Wafford became involved with a number of different community activities, including volunteering for his church, the NAACP, and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Wafford’s involvement with the community brought him in contact with public relations guru Terrie Williams. With Williams, Wafford worked with such entertainment greats as Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis and Anita Baker. Eventually, Wafford opened up his own public relations firm, Wafford Consulting. While working for himself, he volunteered with numerous civic organizations, but it took attending a meeting of a community advisory board on HIV/AIDS for the successful businessman to find his true calling. It was at that meeting that Wafford learned that AIDS was not just affecting certain stereotyped groups, but that his 22 year-old daughter was as much at risk, if not more than, gay men or IV drug users.
“From that moment on, I’ve been running non-stop,” says Wafford. In 2000, he became chair of the America’s Working Group for HIV Prevention Network. One of his first projects was a program called “Takin’ It to the Street,” where Wafford implemented a grassroots project distributing condoms and HIV information to barber shops, beauty salons and shoe repair shops.
Another of his successful campaigns has been “Fighting HIV Through R&B.” Wafford persuaded Al Haymon—a prominent African American concert promoter who handled acts like Usher, Patti LaBelle, Destiny’s Child and the late Luther Vandross—to offer concert tickets as an incentive for HIV/AIDS testing. The effort resulted in the testing and education of over 20,000 African Americans in over 24 states and 66 cities throughout the United States. “The oldest person to test positive was a 68-year-old woman in Philadelphia and the youngest was a 14-year-old girl in Seattle,” remembers Wafford.
In 2002, he addressed the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, where he discussed the epidemic and its effects on African Americans. In 2004, Wafford coordinated “The Cost & Casualties of Silence: An African American HIV/AIDS Summit,” moderated by Tavis Smiley and Diane Weathers, editor in chief of Essence. The town hall-style panel discussion featured physicians, church leaders, and community activists such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Iyanla Vanzant, and was televised nationally on CSPAN.
“It’s a fight I’m optimistic about,” says Wafford of the pandemic. “I was once one of those people who called other people ‘faggots’ and ‘sick muthafuckas.’ We’re making tremendous progress. I put the onus on Black heterosexuals to make a difference. It’s up to us to put an end to AIDS.”
Wafford’s most recent project included coordinating the HIV/AIDS Community Development Initiative Services with the Office of AIDS Programs and Policy within the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health. In reaching out to the African American community, the initiative services provided quality HIV/AIDS education to a nontraditional target audience, including businesses, community-based organizations, and service providers.
In addition, Wafford has worked closely with faith-based organizations and is responsible for recruiting over 150 African American churches to establish over 300 HIV/AIDS ministries throughout Los Angeles County. These ministries help set the foundation for a grassroots approach to testing and quality education in urban communities. He also coordinated a successful faith-based summit entitled “HIV/AIDS and the Black Faith Community: Roles and Responsibilities.” The gathering featured notable African American leaders on the panel, including Apostle Beverly “Bam” Crawford of the Bible Enrichment Fellowship Church, Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden of the Bryant Temple AME Church, and Rev. Russell E. Thornhill of the Unity Fellowship Church. Hosted by the Faithful Central Bible Church, the summit also provided education and free HIV testing.
While Wafford acknowledges the challenges are still great, he’s also witnessed a great deal of change for the better. “As long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen how heterosexuals like me can change their attitudes,” he says when asked about the most rewarding part of his work. “Every now and then, I get to see heterosexual males broadening their perspective to the point where they just see [Black gay men] as brothers.”
That alone makes Tony R. Wafford a hero in the struggle.