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Black Groups Band Together to Fight AIDS
By: Lorinda Bullock
NNPA National Correspondent
Originally posted 8/16/2006

TORONTO (NNPA) – Just as the framers of the Declaration of Independence did when they gathered in 1776 to declare Americans free from the tyranny of England’s King George III, another group of powerful American leaders gathered here on Monday, this time on foreign soil, to reclaim Black America’s freedom from the grips of a deadlier and stronger foe – AIDS.

Representatives from business, politics, civil rights, the Black church and other groups came together the 16th International AIDS Conference and signed the “National Call to Action and Declaration of Commitment to End the AIDS Epidemic in Black America.”

Leaders from organizations such as the NAACP, National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women and others pledged their support and resources to make Black America reverse the devastating statistics by promoting more testing and education about prevention as well as protecting the rights of the infected.

“AIDS in America today is a Black disease no matter how you look at it. By gender, by sexual orientation, by age, by socio-economic class or education or region in the country in which you live, Black people bear the brunt of this epidemic,” said Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.

The Black AIDS Institute is a non-profit policy group leading the way in HIV education and advocacy of Black people fighting the disease in the U.S. The group was also responsible for Monday’s gathering of delegates that also included NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, actress/AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, filmmaker Bill Duke, Pernessa Seele, president of the Balm in Gilead and Congresswomen Maxine Waters (D-Calif), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Donna M. Christensen (D-V.I.).

Citing statistics from the Centers for Disease and Control, Wilson said that there are 650,000 Black people in the U.S. living with AIDS—a little more than half of the U.S.’s AIDS cases.

“We are here this afternoon to launch a national Black mass AIDS mobilization with a goal of reversing the epidemic in Black America by 2011, just five years from now,” Wilson stated.

“We realize this is an ambitious goal –some might say unrealistic. We believe anything less would be immoral.”

One by one, after explaining how their organizations would contribute to the war on AIDS, the leaders each signed a large poster board patterned after the original U.S. Declaration of Independence on a brown, weathered paper background with Old English lettering.

Bond said although the NAACP has been in the fight since 1998, they know they must do more. He said the NAACP would send delegates to every future International AIDS Conference, provide HIV screenings at all seven of its regional conferences and at the national convention and lobby for the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act, federal legislation that provides funding for, among other things, uninsured HIV patients.

The NAACP’s newest initiative, Bond said was to heavily promote mandatory HIV testing on prisoner’s entering and exiting America’s correctional facilities.

“We can’t accept that healthy men and women enter our systems for short stays on minor charges or longer stays for serious charges and then are released with a death sentence from which there is no pardon or parole,” he said.

Sandra Goodridge, director of Health- Quality of Life programs for the National Urban League, said the civil rights group would also launch more testing programs and would participate actively in World AIDS Day and the National Day of Service.

Understanding that Black women have started to become infected with HIV/AIDS at rapid rates, Cheryl Cooper, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, said they would use their resources and join with the Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Black AIDS institute this year to reach out to Black women.

“Unbelievably, 68 percent of women newly infected with HIV are African-American women, our women,” Cooper said.

Pernessa Seele, founder of the Balm in Gilead, explained that while stigma and reluctance to discuss HIV and AIDS in Black churches still exist, her organization has united thousands of Black churches across the nation not afraid to reach out, test the community and open clinics for infected people in their churches.

“I am happy to say that we have not done all that we can do, but we’re going to do more,” Seele said.

She said the most recent gain is the AME, AME Zion and CME churches signing on with Balm in Gilead to have health coordinators for every Episcopal district in the US.

In the Black Media, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service Editor George E. Curry pointed out that the NNPA already syndicates a column by Phill Wilson and has been providing extensive coverage of the pandemic, including staffing this convention.

Speaking after one panelist admitted that he was openly gay, Curry said, “I am a straight Black man and the issue is not whether one is straight or gay. The issue is whether we’re going to save lives.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), known for her in-your-face style, including being an advocate for needle-exchange programs and being vocal about the ineffectiveness of the US’s “abstinence only” policies, said that when it comes to AIDS, she’s actually been too mild.

“I’m taking the gloves off. I’m not so nice about this anymore,” she said as congresswomen Lee and Christensen stood beside her.

Waters also stressed the importance of HIV testing in the corrections system and said she is fighting on Capitol Hill to make that happen. She also said that in addition to the need to reauthorize the Ryan White Care Act, money for another massive federally funded AIDS program – the Minority AIDS Initiative – is also dwindling, while the need is growing.

Waters said the initiative got as much as $156 million in 1999 but funding was stagnant during the Bush administration. She and 119 members of Congress are currently pushing to appropriate $610 million to the initiative, to properly care for Blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Native Americans struggling with the disease.

She also pointedly challenged the pharmaceutical industry, urging them to assume a more active role in combating HIV and AIDS.

But before any government or corporate support can take place, Waters explained it starts with individual commitments.

“Get your heads out of the sand and understand you are just as vulnerable as anybody else,” she said.

“First, take responsibility so that we can demand from others that they take responsibility.”

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