June 13, 2010
As the nation looks toward National HIV Testing Day on June 27, the NAACP wants Black folks to know that it is working on their behalf in this effort. Not only is the country's oldest and largest civil rights group currently engaged in an aggressive testing campaign in 10 major cities -- including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Philadelphia -- but its partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allows it to cast its anti-AIDS net even wider.
The NAACP is one of 14 leading African American organizations partnering with the CDC through the Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative (AAALI) (PDF), a five-year program intended to help prevent, increase awareness about and initiate action to fight HIV/AIDS among their members. AAALI provides, among other things, funding for an HIV coordinator who works with each group's membership to disseminate AIDS-awareness materials and helm a wide variety of communication, mobilization and outreach activities.
The NAACP ensures that the leaders of all of its 1,200 branches receive HIV training so that they can school others on the ABCs of HIV prevention. "We do four trainings a year to bring leaders up to speed on what the disease is and how they can best educate their members," explains the NAACP's AAALI project coordinator Tamara Henry. "To do this we partner with speakers and trainers from organizations like the National Minority AIDS Education and Training Center."
So far, says Henry, the training and education programs have been fairly well received. One of the best examples of this response -- in addition to the 300 Black college students in attendance on World AIDS Day -- may be the large turnout the Boston chapter got during a conference it threw in February to coincide with National Black HIV Awareness Day.
More than 125 people -- including a state representative and a handful of other local elected leaders -- showed up during a blizzard for a series of panel discussions, workshops and presentations. Even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called in. Chapter leaders credited heavy publicity, partnerships with local AIDS activists, and the conference's weekend schedule for the optimal turnout.
"Doctors and other medical professionals could attend because it didn't take away from their clinic time," says Karen Payne, president of the chapter. "Another big draw was the training certificates we offered people ... if you participated, you were awarded a certificate by the national chapter, thanking you for commitment to educating, empowering and mobilizing the African American community in the fight against AIDS."
But the biggest boon, say organizers, was the feedback they received from members of the faith-based community. Payne describes the moment when a pastor of a local church stood up and admitted to being unprepared when a member of her congregation confided that she was dying of the disease. The minister said she had come to the conference to get training.
"When preachers talk, people listen," says Payne, "so to see ministers step up to the plate and ask for help ... that was very moving. Their testimony set the tone for the entire weekend." In addition to helping her chapter put together a special HIV "toolkit" -- which arms members with the information necessary to administer HIV-awareness classes in their communities -- Payne is also helping to organize her chapter's next major event, a Black HIV/AIDS symposium in November, co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research.
In the meantime, all eyes are on the NAACP's upcoming 101st Annual National Convention, which will be held this year in Kansas City, Missouri, from July 10 to 15. It will feature a health symposium that includes testing sites, a health fair and a workshop about fostering intergenerational dialogue concerning HIV.
Organizers say that more than 5,000 people attended last year's convention, and they're hoping for even more in 2010. They insist that only by engaging a wide cross-section of Black Americans in the discussion can we begin to work through the community crisis. "This initiative has been all about pulling people together to figure out what works and what doesn't work in our fight to stop the spread of HIV in our community," says Henry. "After all, we're all in this together."
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Essence, POZ, Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.