"This is like coming home to family."
"This is community."
"This is the space I was always looking for."
Nearly every year that I've attended the Saving Ourselves Symposium (I believe four of the seven years of its existence), I've heard attendees speak of the conference with this kind of intimacy. Many of its attendees express that they find some other conferences impersonal -- conferences can be kind of intimidating when you first enter the field of HIV prevention, treatment, or advocacy. But the Saving Ourselves Symposium (SOS) seemed to strike the right note for people looking to learn about the work of others, share their own successes and challenges, and connect with like-minded people from across the South over the long haul.
"Before 2012-2013, there was not this focused, concentrated space in the South," said Marvell Terry, founder of The Red Door Foundation, which founded and produced the SOS conference in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. "I think the first thing for me is recognizing that there is a space now for people living in the South to come to for SOS."
After seven years of building the only conference focused on southern black LGBT people who serve as HIV advocates and other issues impacting the community, the Saving Ourselves Symposium will become a project of Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC). As founder of SOS, Terry announced in May 2019 that he was interested in keeping the conference alive but wanted to put it in the care of another organization that would keep the integrity of the conference. Terry said that he, along with a review committee, put out a formal request for proposals for organizations who wanted to become the new stewards of the conference. He said that SAC became the choice organization in part because they were committed to keeping the conference in the South and focusing the outreach and programmatic goals for the conference to most directly benefit southern organizations.
Dafina Ward, J.D., the interim executive director of SAC, noted that her organization was interested in becoming the host of SOS because the "conference has demonstrated a commitment to center addressing the needs of communities that have been traditionally marginalized. And all of that is very much aligned with SAC's mission, and our commitment to centering racial justice and economic justice and all the other areas where we are seeing HIV show up in the region."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the southern states account for approximately 46% of all people living with HIV in the U.S. and 52% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2017. The South also leads in mortality of people living with HIV; over 47% of all people who died while HIV positive were in southern states. Louisiana is the first southern state in recent years to announce that it is seeing a decline in new diagnoses.
New funding initiatives over the past few years by public institutions and private philanthropy have focused more resources in the South. According to Funders Concerned About AIDS' 2018 report, the U.S. southern region saw a 67% increase ($19 million) in private funding for HIV-related initiatives, while all other U.S. regions saw a slight decrease.
With new capacity from Southern AIDS Coalition, the conference may be able to reach deeper to more community advocates in the region to bolster these efforts and the federal plan to end the HIV epidemic by 2030.
They haven't announced a date and time for the eighth SOS, to be held in 2020, but SAC hopes that the conference can still maintain the community feeling that conference attendees have noted that made it distinct.
"We don't see it as our conference, but very much the community's conference," said Ward. "And we have an opportunity to facilitate that."