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AIDS 2006; Toronto, Canada; August 13-18, 2006

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The Body Covers: The XVI International AIDS Conference
XVI International AIDS Conference: An Interview With Keith Green

August 25, 2006

Keith Green has appeared on before. He is a frequent contributer to Positively Aware, which is published by the Chicago AIDS organization Test Positive Aware Network. His story is featured in our African American Resource Center.

Listen (5.2MB MP3, 15 min.)
This is Bonnie Goldman, and I'm here at the International AIDS Conference with Keith Green. He’s going to tell us a little bit about what his experience has been. Is this your first International AIDS conference?

Keith Green
Yes, this is the first one.

What was your experience? What did you expect coming in and what were your surprises?

I really didn’t know what to expect. I've been to other conferences, but none international. So I didn’t expect to see -- well, I guess I did expect to see some different kinds of people, but it was just [that] the magnitude of it has been huge. [Seeing] people from all over and hearing information of what’s going on from all over the world was really, really great. I was somewhat disappointed -- because for me, black men who have sex with men [MSM] are a critical population that needs some serious attention in the United States. [This particular population] probably has the highest prevalence rate in the world. And to not see much -- the stuff that was presented wasn’t really new news and it doesn’t seem like there's a whole lot going on in terms of addressing this issue in our country.

So, I was really disappointed. I was disappointed in the lack of [a] U.S. presence overall, especially from our government. We were very absent, so that really was interesting.

What are some of the sessions that you went to that impressed you?

I went to one session on youth and HIV and they were looking at different countries in Africa -- East Africa. There were presentations on Kenya and Uganda. Basically, they talked about the U.S. political influence on the ABCs [abstain, be faithful, use condoms] of prevention in other countries, and how there's a lot of miseducation being given out to kids [in developing countries] about condom use, about being faithful, and their interpretations of these are so far off. I think only 13 percent [of the children receiving ABC-based education] were able to really give an idea of what the ABCs meant.

It was really interesting [to hear] what they thought about condom usage, like some kids thought that condoms caused HIV and they're immoral -- just their thinking about condom usage [was not what you would have expected]. Being faithful they thought referred to being loyal to a friend or [being] dedicated to God. It wasn’t the truth about the ABCs. So there's a lot of miseducation going on and a lot of that has to do with the U.S., influence on how the dollars are spent. Because, of course, 33 percent of our U.S. dollars [for] the Global Fund for AIDS, must be mandated for abstinence-before-marriage-only programs. So that [session] was really interesting.

When I initially came [to the conference] I didn’t think I would follow the Black AIDS Institute stream of stuff that was going on. I came in for the Media Round Table [this event took place a day before the conference began. The Black AIDS Institute invited black media makers -- from newspaper publishers to radio personalities -- to share experiences and strategies for ramping up the community dialogue about HIV]. I kind of missed it [the roundtable], but I got to talk to a lot of the folks from it.

Tell me about what the Black AIDS Institute is doing here. What kind of sessions did the Black AIDS Institute have?

Well, they organized a mobilization of African-American leaders and institutions. Julian Bond [Chairman of] the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] was here. State Senator Vincent Hughes from Pennsylvania. So many, I mean -- [entertainer] Sheryl Lee Ralph, [actor] Bill Duke. People in so many different positions in the United States, around media, politics, government, you name it he [Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute] had folks at the table to -- first of all, have a presence [at the International AIDS Conference]. He talked about how two years ago when he was in Bangkok [at the International AIDS Conference in 2004] there was very little African American presence. He was really disappointed in that, so first of all he wants to bring these folks together.

Another leg of that was journalists. He bought together about, I think, there may have been in the end about 24 journalists from all over the country to interact and to write. I think what I got out of it, and again, I was only here partially for that, but what I really got out of that and I'm still processing [it]-- I was just having lunch a few minutes ago and I was processing the way that this is historic to bring these kinds of black people together. Jesse Jackson was supposed to be here and Al Sharpton, [although they couldn’t come] they all sent letters of support. They're onboard with the movement to really have a presence and to make the issues of black America known.

And Sharon Egiebor was the editor for the daily newsletter [put out at the conference] that covered specific issues relevant to African Americans -- not only blacks, the African Diaspora -- so no matter where, the Caribbean, Jamaica, wherever, there was something going on that was of relevance and significance to black people that’s what we’re covering. And really, I mean, just to spend time with Julian Bond was just for me amazing. I've had an amazing experience. I'm still processing so much of that.

What was amazing about it?

Just the fact that these people are coming together for the first time really to address this issue, and everybody is committing what their particular institution is going to do. What they're going to do as an entertainer, actor, writer, whatever the case is, everybody’s committing, and then there was a measure of accountability put in place. Like, in two years this is how we’re going to measure that we had some impact. This is the number of people we want to test. This is what we want to do, so it was not just words, but there was some charge behind it to make sure that your words became action.

We went out as a team last night for dinner and that was also the charge put to us, like, this is just the beginning. This is the first step, and hopefully we’ll take this home and then begin to implement it on a smaller level, on an individual level in our own communities, so that it becomes a collective work that is really making a difference.

So for instance, I noticed there was a newspaper publisher there. So what did he commit to do? There were business leaders. What particular thing could they commit to do?

Making HIV and AIDS a part of their agendas. The NAACP committed to having -- well, one of their board members is HIV positive and they're committed to national testing days. They also want to have HIV/AIDS directors within each of their chapters, which would be really, really interesting. So, across the country you have a HIV/AIDS director for the NAACP as well as some of the other institutions.

Mary Mitchell, I'm on her e-mail list. She’s a journalist in Chicago at [The Chicago] Sun-Times, and her column on Monday ran with her experience at the Media Round Table and her commitment to regularly include HIV/AIDS-related things in her work.

So, it's kind of including it in what we already do whatever our position is, but making sure that it's really, really relevant and stands out.

Do you think the newspapers covered the initiative enough? There are so many things going on here. I think that was Monday’s news, and then nobody mentioned it again.

Yes, I agree. They did not cover it enough. Actually, I've talked to people back home [in Chicago] who didn’t really have a clue. One friend said, “If I hear one more thing from AIDS conference ...” That’s what my friend said today, but it was nothing to do with what was going on with us. Then when I started to relay to him some of the stuff that was going on, he was just amazed. But it didn’t really make news back home, which is another charge of the folks that are here, to take it back home. Like this happened, this is really, really relevant. It's significant.

My thinking -- Sandra Johnson, whom I love, she said -- and she’s a treatment activist/advocate. I think she’s in Miami now. She was in New York, but she said she’s afraid there will come a time when history books will refer to African Americans as a people who once were.

That statement has stuck with me for so long and continues to stick with me. I always think about stuff like this in terms of how it will be looked at. If that were the case and people were referred to us as the people who once were, how would that look in history? What will they say led us to that place? This will be hopefully one of those movements that changed that, or if it doesn’t, it will be one of those that [makes them say in the future], “Well, they tried to do this. They tried to do that,” but hopefully this will be a movement that changes that book of history that [proves], “No, that’s not the case. African Americans were people who hold themselves together in the situation that they were in and became something.”

Out of curiosity, did you feel any anger on your part in terms of the late response of the black leadership? You’ve been involved in working in an AIDS organization for a while. Did you ever wonder where the hell these older people were? Where is the leadership? They finally discovered, you know, 25 million deaths later, “Oh yeah, there's an AIDS epidemic and it's killing people in the African-American community more than in other communities.” Was there, is there, any element of anger about that?

There is. However, my anger is so much bigger than HIV and AIDS, because where have the leaders -- where are they in terms of our educational system? Our children are far more likely to not graduate from high school then any other group of people. So, [I’m asking] just where are our leaders period. Not as it relates to HIV, but where are they and where have they been?

I was glad to see this right now, and I try not to harbor any ill feelings or ill thoughts, but again, it is: Where have you been all of this time? I understand this is an ongoing fight and people have been at it for years. There's sort of a gap between the Julian Bonds and my generation. So, there's this gap that nobody’s stepped in. Those brothers are tired. I’m not saying they’re not going to continue to work, continue to do, but, you know, as you get older you don’t have that fight, so this gap has got to be filled.

Folks my age, [National Health Coordinator] Myisha Patterson is a 24 year-old, African-American woman with the NAACP. She was so powerful. I was probably more impressed with her than anybody out of the whole thing, because she’s young, and her presence when she walks into the room, it's like power. It’s power, and she is about making a difference and making changes. Speaking to her personally, I was able to feel that it was genuine. It wasn’t about her presence in this show, because she’s here, but it was genuine. I'm really, really excited about what she will do with that organization to -- not only HIV and AIDS, but education, homelessness, substance use and abuse -- all of those things affect us. We need an international conference on black people and not just AIDS.

So what are you going to do differently? Are you going to be involved with this initiative at all when you go home? Were you covering it or were you part of it?

I was a little bit of both. I will cover it for Positively Aware when I get home. You know, right now this is an interesting time for me. I'm in school. I'm working on my master’s in social work, so I'm really trying to find my place. I'm not sure exactly where my place is, but I think that I'm clear that from here on out HIV will be a part of what I do, but only a part.

There's so much more that impacts and effects black people in the United States of America and abroad, so I'm really looking at how to find a place in this work that allows me to have an impact on a global community level, if you will, a larger community level, and address the factors and issues that put people at risk for HIV and that stop them from accessing treatment, etc., etc. All of those things have to be addressed in context. So HIV has to be addressed in the context of all that other stuff. My personal commitment is to look at ways to chunk at that other stuff and support the HIV/AIDS movement where I can, but really look at it in context of everything else.

In the end it sounds like you were very inspired by this conference.

I am very inspired. Honestly, I had e-mailed Phill Wilson a couple of days before, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do anything in relation to the Black AIDS Institute. I was tired. I'm working two jobs, [I’m] a full-time student, [I] just finished up the semester. I have two weeks off, and I go back to school on the 28th of August. I was like, “I can’t do it. I'm on vacation next week and I'm just going to rest.” I had agreed that I’d do an article or two, but when I got here I got so involved. It was so much that I've got a lot of notes for good stuff that I promised to cover as the week goes on. But I just took on a whole lot more than I initially even planned on taking on, because I was just that motivated and inspired and understand the need, the bigger need. Our community needs a lot. It needs a lot and it starts from within. We can’t expect anybody else to come in and do it. I'm not angry at anybody outside of the African-American community for not stepping in. You can't be.

If somebody wants to join this initiative could they go to and join in, in some way? Can they start something in their own community?

Absolutely. There's so much that needs to be started in our own communities.

Dr. Ron Stall presented a study where he made predictions about the African-American MSM community and what it would look like years down the line. It was really, really scary and frightening. We walked out of there like, “What can we do?” There was a group of us asking, “What can we do in our own spaces to make a difference?” So I think that being a part of this initiative [doesn’t require doing anything] official. There was a declaration that those leaders signed on that particular day, but for me that is the press and media part of it. The real grit of it happens at the community level, not really here. That work is laid. I think, if we really line ourselves up with it, we may be able to get more support in what we do individually and personally, so I think people should definitely start their own initiatives.

OK. Thank you, Keith.

Click here to e-mail Keith Green.

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