August 9, 2008
|C. Virginia Fields|
A desire to bring about change led to a career in politics that included eight years as Manhattan Borough president and a run for the city's highest office.
Fields' current position as president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS seems to combine all of the passions that fueled her earlier pursuits. She was "outraged" when she learned at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City that the number of African Americans infected with HIV is 40 percent higher than federal officials had originally believed.
"I cannot believe that we're three decades into this epidemic and we're still seeing numbers like we're seeing," Fields said. "I cannot say I'm shocked. I'm outraged but I'm not shocked."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, using more precise methodology, it had measured approximately 56,300 new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2006 rather than the 40,000 previously estimated. Nearly half of those were in African Americans, whose rate of infection was seven times higher than whites.
The agency's announcement came on the heels of a report released by the Black AIDS Institute in July that found that Black Americans, if they were a separate country, would have higher rates of HIV/AIDS than many of the third world countries the government targets for help.
Of course, as president of the NBLCA, Fields was already well aware of HIV/AIDS impacts the Black community. In fact, it was numbers that drew her to her current post.
After term limits forced her to leave her post as borough president, the NBLCA board showed her numbers that convinced her fighting to reduce HIV/AIDS infections would be her next job. The numbers were planted in a soil of compassion.
"I have seen a number of friends and colleagues die of AIDS," Fields said. "One of my first supervisors in the 1980s died of AIDS. He was probably one of the first persons I knew personally who died of AIDS. So many others I have known have died of AIDS."
Fields, who said she went into politics "to use the government to make a difference," rattles off the efforts her group is making to end HIV/AIDS like it's a campaign stump speech. They have affiliates in 12 cities, with three more expected by the end of the year. They work with local leaders, clergy and others, giving them technical assistance, information, coordination and other forms of help in their efforts to fight the disease.
The group, founded in 1987, also conducts policy, research and advocacy on HIV/AIDS and serves as chief consultant on HIV/AIDS and public health-related issues to numerous national organizations.
Fields said she is particularly enthusiastic about the results of a conclave NBCLA facilitated last October. Co-chaired by Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, and Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter's House in Dallas, the conclave came up with a national strategy to fight AIDS.
The United States requires countries that receive help under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to have such a strategy yet the United States itself does not have one, Fields said.
The strategy would set goals and timetables and identify and coordinate needed resources, Fields said.
She said AIDS resources come under 10 agencies. "How are they coordinated? Who's communicating? Those are things a national AIDS strategy would address," she said. "It will be a road map about how we respond to the epidemic in the United States."
Fields said the strategy has "broad-based support" but has not yet been translated into legislation. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has agreed to spearhead the legislation, she said.
Fields said she came away from the AIDS conference encouraged.
"What has been most interesting and informative is being here with people from all over the world ... Africans, people from the Caribbean, from here in Mexico," she said. "I'm hearing their stories and the common concerns that we all have and the need to do more and the desire to do more. I'm encouraged that we're all going to leave here differently than we came -- much more committed."
Jerry Thomas PR is based in Chicago.