AIDS in the Black Community: “Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution”

Leisha McKinley-Beach, Director of Technical Assistance and Stakeholder Engagement for the Black AIDS Institute.

Leisha McKinley-Beach

As we celebrate Black History Month, we're honoring African-Americans who are taking part in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This week, we're talking to Leisha McKinley-Beach. Leisha McKinley-Beach currently serves as the Director of Technical Assistance and Stakeholder Engagement for the Black AIDS Institute. Prior to joining BAI, Leisha served as HIV Prevention Director for the Georgia Department of Community Health and an HIV Prevention Manager for the Florida Department of Health. Recently, I talked with her about HIV/AIDS in the Black community and the future of the pandemic.

What challenges does the African-American community face in battling HIV/AIDS? The African-American community makes of 14 percent of the U.S. population, but 44 percent of the HIV epidemic.  A major challenge that African-American communities face is higher prevalence of HIV compared to other racial or ethnic groups, which means there is a greater risk of infection with every sexual encounter. Then there are social factors that include stigma, poverty, and homophobia, just to name a few.

Why has the epidemic in the United States primarily affected Black women? The epidemic in Black America is primarily among Black gay men. However, Black women account for 13 percent of ALL HIV infections in the U.S., and about 65 percent of all new infections among women. In 2010 there was a 21 percent decline in new infections among women. I believe that mobilized community education and testing efforts played a role in the decline. Programs such as Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS) in Florida, where women all over the state mobilized to test 100,000 Black women each year by 2010; organizations like Sister Love in Atlanta, that is dedicated to women's sexual reproductive health as well as HIV prevention and treatment education; and behavioral interventions such as SISTA, that gave Black women a platform to talk about HIV and address their risk behaviors. Unfortunately, even with a 21 percent decline, Black women are still 20 times more likely to be infected than White women.

What does the Black AIDS Institute do? The Institute is structured into three programs: Communication and Dissemination which is responsible for the Black AIDS Weekly, media and marketing programming; Training and Capacity Building is responsible for training programs, such as the African-American HIV University (AAHU), Science and Treatment College, and Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN); Stakeholder Engagement and Technical Assistance is responsible for Black gay men's programming, Positively Out-HIV positive disclosure initiative, community engagement sessions, and community mobilization activities.  Founded in May of 1999, the Black AIDS Institute is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on Black people. The Institute's Mission is to stop the AIDS pandemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV. The Institute interprets public and private sector HIV policies, conducts trainings, offers technical assistance, disseminates information and provides advocacy mobilization from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced a "Blueprint" for the U.S. government for battling HIV/AIDS globally. What would you like to see state and federal agencies do to battle HIV/AIDS in the U.S.? Develop a comprehensive approach to address HIV. On National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Black AIDS Institute will release the 2013 State of AIDS In Black America report titled “Light At The End Of The Tunnel.” We believe that the following five approaches will establish the foundation to end AIDS:

  1. Fully implement the Affordable Care Act
  2. Support people living with HIV to come out
  3. Increase the demand for treatment
  4. Integrate biomedical and behavioral approaches
  5. Black community-based organizations and AIDS service organizations must re-tool to respond to an evolving landscape

Are you optimistic about the future of the battle against HIV/AIDS in the U.S.?  Yes. Why? In the words of Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, "We now have the tools to end the AIDS epidemic. The question is no longer ‘can we’, but ‘will we’ end the AIDS epidemic?”

What lessons have you learned in the fight against HIV/AIDS that you would share with others working in this space?  No agency or individual can end the epidemic alone. The Black AIDS Institute has a motto, "Our people, Our Problem, Our Solution." If we apply this motto as an HIV workforce, we will work collaboratively to end the AIDS epidemic in OUR community.

Jane Coaston is Media Relations Coordinator for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.