The African-American Outreach Initiative (AAOI) is coming up on its sixth year and continues to get better. Having been involved in the planning of this conference for the past five years and knowing firsthand about the tremendous amount of volunteer effort it takes to pull it off, I decided to sit down with Sabrina Taylor, outgoing planning committee chairperson, to get her thoughts about how the Initiative has evolved and what she sees as the vision for its future.
Sabrina is Director of HIV/AIDS Education at the Grady Infectious Disease Program (IDP) and has voluntarily been at the helm of the AAOI planning committee since 2000. I asked the following:
SJ: Tell me something about the history of the African-American Initiative.
ST: It started in 1999 when the Metropolitan HIV Planning Council was given some grant monies through the Congressional Black Caucus. The primary focus of the monies was to conduct some form of outreach among the black and Hispanic communities. After some initial discussion among community leaders, it was determined that too many cultural issues existed to attempt multicultural activities; therefore, the targeted population would henceforth remain black. It was also decided that the activity would always be held in March, in order to link its importance to the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, sponsored by the Balm in Gilead.
SJ: How has the Initiative evolved over the past five years?
ST: The first conference was held in midtown Atlanta and despite the fact that we felt it was well-marketed, we thought we'd be doing good if 50 participants showed up. To our surprise and delight, more than 150 attendees showed up and attendance rates have exceeded our expectations every year since. After the first year, we moved to the Holiday Inn in downtown Decatur and then last year, we moved again to the Atlanta Renaissance Hotel near the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Last year, more than 600 people were in attendance.
The goals of the conference remain steadfast: to continue to meet or exceed consumer involvement, to encourage more African-Americans to apply for the HIV Planning Council, to continue recruiting individuals who are living with HIV and unaware of area services, and to track those individuals who attend the conference regarding access of care and maintaining treatment.
SJ: Why do participants keep coming back?
ST: I believe it's because the conference is solely focused on them. Meeting others who are living well in a safe and comfortable environment, as well as child care, a PWA lounge, two days of informative workshops and good food in a hotel environment also doesn't hurt!
SJ: What is your vision for the future of the Initiative?
ST: We are strategizing and looking at different methods of recruiting attendees, including utilizing street outreach teams. I would also like to see us be even more successful in assuring that attendees are getting into care. We are looking at working with student interns from Kennesaw State University who will develop a client tracking form. We will also continue to work closely with the Ryan White staff to build attendance and to track conference attendees.
SJ: What's on your wish list for the Initiative?
ST: I would love to see more financial support and a more widespread capability to support attendees who are living with HIV. I'd also like to see a more diversified funding base and more participants taking on leadership responsibilities. Michael Banner (of Our Common Welfare) is the incoming program chair and represents a splendid example of someone who has done just that.
SJ: Any final thoughts you'd like to share?
ST: I must acknowledge that the African-American Outreach Initiative is made up of Title I planning council members and our governmental partners, including the CDC, ORC Macro International, Kennesaw State and Argosy University, and the Office of Minority Health. This speaks to the array of talent and expertise that helps pull off the conference. These folk bring a different level of commitment to the table. Finally, a special thanks to our pharmaceutical sponsors, including Abbott Laboratories, Agouron/Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Roche Pharmaceuticals.
Once again, the Initiative will be held on Saturday and Sunday, March 19-20, at the Renaissance Concourse Hotel at One Hartsfield Centre Parkway in Atlanta. There is an opening reception on Friday, March 18, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. There will be shuttle buses running from the College Park MARTA station and activities will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Don't miss this wonderful event!