Faith without works is dead.
-- James 2:17
A couple of years ago, I had the honor of interviewing actress and comedian Mo'Nique for a Positively Aware cover story. I was genuinely moved by how deeply connected she was to the impact that HIV/AIDS has had and is having on African American communities. There was one thing that she said during the interview, however, that's been stuck in my mind ever since.
When speaking about the government response (or the lack thereof) to the epidemic among black people, Mo'Nique made it clear that if a solution is ever to be realized, it would have to come from within.
"When has the government ever said 'we're gonna help black people'?" she asked. "So now, because we have this disease, did we really think the cavalry was going to come in?"
Mo'Nique's rhetorical question speaks to an elephant in the room that many in the HIV/AIDS service sector have ignored for far too long. Though significant progress is being made in the era of the Obama administration's National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), the real impact is yet to be realized. And, truth be told, public policy interventions are all for naught if the communities which they are designed to help are unwilling or unable to align themselves with their goals and work collaboratively to create change.
We have faith that since our country finally has a National HIV/AIDS Strategy, "a change is gonna come" for the people most impacted by this disease. The iPrEx trial and HPTN 052 have given us faith that using antiretrovirals as prevention will lead us to the end of the epidemic. And we have strong faith that full implementation of healthcare reform in 2014, if that ever happens, will allow unfettered access to the aforementioned treatment-as-prevention strategies for people who need them most.
Faith without works, however, is dead! Acting on faith, advocates fought like hell to make policies such as the NHAS and the Affordable Care Act a reality. With strong faith, researchers poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the scientific advances that continue to demonstrate the possibility of stopping HIV in its tracks.
But at the end of the day, if the people who could benefit most from all of these exciting developments do not believe that the buck stops with them and then govern themselves accordingly, it's all in vain. Faith in the end of HIV is dead in the absence of action!
This revelation became exceptionally clear to me during a roundtable discussion with African American service providers at the 2011 United States Conference on AIDS. Miquel Brazil, who is Director of Prevention Programming at the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, questioned whether the reason for lack of success with young black gay and bisexual men is because they do not feel connected to the progress that's been made over the years.
They don't know that it wasn't just white gay men who "acted up" in the middle of the streets of San Francisco and Philadelphia when President Reagan wouldn't even mention the word "AIDS." They don't know that black gay men like Phill Wilson and Cornelius Baker, still wildly respected leaders in the fight, were involved in advocacy that helped change the way drugs are brought to the market in this country ... or that they got involved because they saw too many brothers die.
And they don't know these things because, from what I heard from them, a solid sense of community is lacking among black gay men. Community fellowship, for reasons other than giving its members an opportunity to shake their asses or hear more bad news about how disproportionately impacted by disease they are, is practically non-existent. Communities share their history and pass on legacies. Communities mentor their young, and their young accept mentoring (and the occasional loving correction that comes with it).
But then, this issue is not unique to HIV/AIDS. I hear my elders say the same thing about my generation being ungrateful for the many privileges that they fought so hard for, which we now take for granted.
At what point do we actually stop complaining and wishing for change, and begin to facilitate the process of not simply passing but sharing the torch? When do we realize that the "government" isn't going to do anything for us that we aren't willing to do for ourselves? WE, THE PEOPLE ... Who else are we waiting on?
I was glad to hear that this particular group of brothers has faith that they can make a difference, and have created blueprints for a plan of action to be revisited at the African American MSM Leadership Conference taking place January 19-22 in New Orleans.
I have faith that we're heading in the right direction. And I'll be right there with them as they get down to action.