About 300 Black women leaders and public health professionals from across the country gathered this past weekend at the Loudermilk Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia, for the second Paradigm Shift: Black Women Confronting HIV, Health, and Social Justice Conference, organized by the Sankofa Collaborative. The Sankofa Collaborative is a project made up of Black health professionals representing nonprofit, public health, faith-based, and academic institutions as well as women who are living with HIV throughout the United States.
“I have been doing this work for 40 years; still today, this day I come across youth and adults throughout the community without the correct knowledge [of HIV] and resources—there is still work to be done,” said Cynthia Davis, M.P.H., Sankofa Collaborative co-chair and board chair of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“The Sankofa Collaborative exists to urgently address the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on Black cis and trans women and their families,” said Jammie Hopkins, Ph.D., M.S., a Sankofa planning committee member. “For too long, structural barriers, social stigma and discrimination, inequitable allocation of funding, and poorly conceived research priorities have perpetuated preventable disparities in HIV/AIDS and other crucial health conditions among Black women.”
Organizers launched the first biannual Paradigm Shift summit at Morehouse School of Medicine in 2017. The summit grew, at that time, out of an urgent need to focus on Black women, said the organizers. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released astonishing data on Black women and HIV, showing over 7,000 HIV diagnoses among Black women in 2017, 15 times greater chances of HIV acquisition than white women, and that 44% of Black transgender women are estimated to be living with HIV.
The first summit brought women together and was the catalyst for the group’s national action plan, which was released at this year’s summit. The plan calls for several actions, including the following:
- Mobilize Black communities for effective women-focused HIV/AIDS policy and advocacy
- Ensure adequate resources and funding support for efforts that seek to decrease and eliminate HIV/AIDS among Black women
- Provide an information-rich forum that serves as a platform for cross-disciplinary and community engagement towards the goals of increasing knowledge, strategies, and federal funding specific to Black women–centered research
- Increase engagement of Black organizations in Ending the HIV Epidemic in the Black community
This year’s summit merged the arts, politics, public health, medicine, and social justice to create a summit that spoke to all the senses and advocacy lenses.
In the arts, ViiV Healthcare presented Take My Hand, a theatre piece about two women—one cisgender and one transgender—who are living and eventually loving with HIV. Through poetry, prose, and movement, they tell their stories and urge the audience to take a deeper look at their own. An interactive panel discussion followed the short play, moderated by Amelia Korangy, senior manager of external affairs with ViiV Healthcare, which included Take My Hand actresses Roxie Johnson and Toni Bryce; Masonia Traylor, community advocate; and Lisa Diane White, deputy director with SisterLove, Inc. Take My Hand proves that healing, advocacy, and wellness can come from creative sources and unconventional sources.
In politics, 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate and rising star of the Democratic Party Stacey Abrams spoke to summit attendees, asking for more attention to be paid to voter suppression, voting integrity, and their link to lack of health care access in vulnerable communities, particularly Black communities.
“There is a direct connection to the high cost of health care and the low availability of coverage and the acceleration of preventable diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, when you can’t get to a doctor because you can’t see one this year—then what could be prevented or could be treated not only goes untreated, but as a human instant we try to ignore it,” said Abrams. “We often don’t seek help because asking for help costs money, and when you can’t afford to ask for help, you often can’t afford the consequences of not getting it. So we need to think about Medicaid expansion in our health care system. It is more than just an insurance system, it is a lifesaving system.”
When asked, “As we move forward, how do we exchange talk into sustainable action?” Abrams responded, “Vote!”
The conference brought internationally known national civil rights leader, professor, author, and prison abolitionist Angela Y. Davis, Ph.D., to lead and guide summit attendees on the intersection of HIV as a social justice issue, particularly in Black communities, with the industrial prison system. Davis began her talk with recognition of black women in HIV leadership, where she paid respect and celebration to Black women leaders in HIV such as Raniyah Copeland, president and CEO with the Black AIDS Institute, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, famed transgender rights activist, Stonewall veteran, and former executive director for the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project. Davis gave her time to talk about marginalized women at risk for HIV, including sex workers.
“We should acknowledge the prevalence of HIV among sex workers, who are often triply or quadruply stigmatized for what they have chosen to do for a living, and there are many who have called for the abolishment of sex work, not realizing that for some that work is a choice, and that they have a right to demand better working conditions, and to organize with their coworkers,” she said. “Black and Brown sex workers are stigmatized based on their race, they are stigmatized because they move in and out of prison, and they are stigmatized by the assumption that they are HIV positive. This is yet another point of intersectionality. Intersectionality of struggles.”
Summit co-chair Cynthia Davis agreed with Abrams and Angela Davis and said that Sankofa Collaborative plans to use their action plan to address some of the gaps in resources that don’t serve the Black community’s needs for an HIV response. “We are looking for greater accountability for federal funds,” she said. “Federal dollars are taxpayer dollars, they belong to the public, and we want greater accountability.”
“As we move forward beyond Paradigm Shift 2.0, our primary focus is on refining and actualizing our Action Plan,” said Hopkins. “Over the next five years, we will mobilize our coalition of stakeholders to ensure public policies, allocation of funding, research, community mobilization, and advocacy efforts are prioritized for the benefit of cis and trans Black women impacted by HIV and other health issues. The next summit will be another dynamic opportunity for us to reconvene, reinvigorate, celebrate our milestones, and examine our lessons learned along the way.”
“We are on a mission,” he concluded.