Tim Murphy: Hi there, Raniyah! [pronounced RAH-NEE-YAH]. Thank you for chatting. So, please tell us all about how combating HIV in the Black community became your life’s work.
Raniyah Copeland: Well, my parents are from Philadelphia—big, Black families who’ve been on the East Coast a few generations. My mom can trace her family back to being runaway slaves. In the 1970s, my parents converted from Christianity to the Nation of Islam, which got them a lot of pushback from their families. The NOI was about building Black Power and coming out from under the white gaze, developing businesses and a whole lifestyle not dependent on white people. Later, my parents converted to Sunni Islam—the same trajectory as Malcolm X after he traveled to Mecca, and of millions of other Black Muslim Americans.
I’m actually the first of my five siblings to be born in Pasadena, California, after my parents moved to Southern California. I had a pretty good, regular childhood. Pasadena, like many places, was very segregated, which I had a lens on because of my parents. In high school, I led protests, and my friends and I founded the first Black student club, about which I had to debate my physics teacher, who didn’t know why we should have a Black club. I’ve always been that person who’s very Black and concerned about injustices.
Between 2002 and 2006, I went to [the University of California at] Berkeley, which was less than 3% Black, especially after California banned affirmative action in the ’90s. There, I became the executive director of the Black recruitment and retention center, because even fewer Black students graduated than came in. We’d drive down to Southern California and talk to Black high school students [about coming to Berkeley]. That’s how my parents raised me, believing that our ancestors have given us so much to have the freedom we have, but we’re still not free—and we owe it to future generations to fight for freedom for Black people. That’s always been a part of my framework and values. My goal was to help Black people live long and healthy lives, because I saw the impact of health on Black communities, how diseases impact it differently.
After college, I worked at Planned Parenthood in Pasadena as a reproductive health assistant while taking my science classes so I could apply to med school. In college, so many people around me had unplanned pregnancies or got STIs. I thought, “This is not right,” and I really got into reproductive health.
So we did HIV testing there, and a young Black gay man came in and tested positive. And he said, “I expected this was going to happen.” His face was like stone. I can still see it. I felt very alone with him in that moment. It gave me chills that he’d resigned himself to getting HIV because he was Black and gay. I thought, “How can this happen? How can a group within our community have a disease that is impacting them so much and we’re not all up in arms?” That was so unacceptable, if we’re talking about freedom and equity for Black people. My parents didn’t talk to me about sexuality, but their values around freedom meant freedom for everybody.
It all converged in that moment for me. I didn’t think that becoming a doctor could create change on the level I wanted, the community level. And then I saw a job posting for the training and capacity-building coordinator for BAI’s African-American HIV University (AAHU), and I was like, “Oh my god, child, this is it.” I worked all night writing a multipage cover letter, even driving around the building. When I interviewed, I said, “Whatever you ask me to do, I’m here for.” That was 2007, and I’ve worked for BAI ever since.
Murphy: Wow, 13 years is quite a stretch at one place. So, in your words, tell us a bit about BAI’s mission and the high points of what it’s done these past 13 years.
Copeland: Our mission is to engage Black institutions and individuals to confront HIV, and I think we’ve done so much of that. We have two lanes. The first involves the HIV workforce, and we’ve made a huge impact supporting Black leadership in the HIV workforce. Hundreds of people have gone through our AAHU training since it was launched in 1999, including many of the Black people you know who are running stuff around the country—within health departments, state HIV directors, leading organizations, within Pharma. AAHU grads include our new director of national programs, Rev. Rob Newells, who was formerly the head of AIDS Project East Bay; Aaron Davis in the Maryland health department; Trina Scott at Gilead, who previously worked on the Greater Than AIDS campaign at Kaiser Family Health; and Charles Stephens, ED of Counter Narrative Project.
We’ve done a lot of work demanding Black leadership in the Office of National AIDS Policy. This year, we launched a support-group network for Black executive directors of HIV agencies, because during COVID it’s a real concern that we might see Black organizations close. In 2015, we did an HIV workforce survey, asking in part how the people who were tasked with deploying biomedical tools [such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)] felt about them. There has to be an investment in Black and brown people doing our own work around issues of medical mistrust.
Our second lane has always been about engaging directly with Black communities. That makes us unique. We’re not just talking to the [HIV field] chorus, but with institutions that shape Black culture. We pushed the NAACP and the Urban League to develop their first HIV strategies in the 2000s under our Black AIDS Mobilization program. We have a long history with Black churches and Black media. We’ve worked with Black fraternities and sororities, Black nursing and medical organizations, to build this capacity of Black leadership within HIV. For a long time, we’ve been the largest developer of unique content about HIV in Black America for Essence, Ebony, print, radio. We did a video conversation with Tina Knowles [Beyoncé and Solange’s mother] to reach broader Black audiences.
Murphy: Wow, quite a bit of work. I would love to hear how Phill Wilson, the legendary founder of BAI, who is now retired, shaped your own career and work.
Copeland: He was my mentor. I think his legacy is how bold we are at BAI. Everything we do is directed at ending HIV in Black communities. We dream big. Another part of his legacy was about how we center the communities most impacted. I can hear him saying, “The messenger matters.” That’s why we hire staff who are Black and living with HIV and have deep and meaningful experience. We value Blackness; it’s the foundation of who we are. Phill always had an urgency, a constant drive to do better, and people tell me that I’m a mini-Phill!
Murphy: Wonderful. So, what would you say have been BAI’s big advances under your leadership the past two years?
Copeland: I’m super proud of the work we’ve done raising the funds to do the work we do. In the past two years, our budget has doubled. It’s been great to see funders, including individuals, step up and support us.
I’m also really proud of our expansion in direct services, which we started in LA six years ago. We’re on track now to serve 3,000 Angelenos every year—in HIV testing, linkage to care, and PrEP. We’ve partnered with St. John’s, the largest community health clinic in South LA. We’re also doing substance-use screening and services now.
As for our national programs, we’re going to serve as a California HIV research policy center going into 2021, which is a partnership with UCSF [University of California San Francisco] and UCSD [University of California San Diego]. We’ll be looking at policy issues impacting HIV among communities of color from a structural, anti-racist framework. After multiple town halls and surveys, we launched the “We The People” campaign, emphasizing that [ending HIV in Black communities] isn’t just about meds. It’s about these systems that we live in. When Trump said he’d try to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, his plan spoke little to how to respond to structural drivers like housing, stigma, and health care access—all things driven by white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
Murphy: And you have been really expanding your footprint in the South, yes?
Copeland: Yes, we now have office space in Atlanta—where Rob Newells, our director of national programs, is based—and staff across six Southern states, including Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. The South is where the majority of our 16 Black Treatment Advocate Networks (BTANs) are. They’re our boots on the ground, coalitions that meet monthly, individuals impacted by HIV coming together to respond. Some are heavily led by Black people in health departments or community-based organizations, others more led by people living with or impacted by HIV. They did 20 virtual town halls, and now they’re developing policy action plans for next year, around issues like incarceration, expanding Medicaid, having culturally appropriate health providers. The BTANs also did a lot of Get Out the Vote and census work. And now they’re preparing for the COVID vaccines, in partnership with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN).
Murphy: It’s great to hear that BAI is going to play a role in building Black community trust around the COVID vaccines. How has COVID affected your work the past year?
Copeland: It’s been a lot. Our work has been impacted. How do we provide direct services when we’re under shutdown, not in the office. We usually travel for work all the time, and we haven’t been able to. COVID has impacted BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] individuals more than anyone, and the personal impact of our staff being sick, or having loved ones be sick or die, has been scary. That’s partly why we started the support group for heads of Black-led HIV organizations, to address the impact COVID is having on us. I can’t tell you the number of staff we have with family members who’ve passed away.
Murphy: Also this year, we really saw the term “white supremacy” go from meaning, basically, the KKK, to describing nearly all our national systems where white people both have and hold onto the power and the resources. Has that term shift helped your work, given you more bandwidth in a way?
Copeland: Yeah, I think it’s increased people’s interest in supporting us, because they’re saying, “Oh, Black leadership is important.” We’ve seen our individual donations increase four times over what we’d planned for this year. We’ve always made the case that HIV is a racial justice issue, but now more people are hearing and amplifying that. So many social media influencers have been reposting, lifting us up, saying, “Here is a Black organization that’s been doing the work.” And the funders are saying the same. But I don’t think we [at BAI] are saying anything different. Our “We The People” campaign is saying, “HIV is a racial justice issue.” But there’s more appetite to hear that now.
For me, the most frustrating thing about working in HIV has been working with white people who believe in and talk about equity and equality but who are silent when you talk about who actually has power. There has not been enough individual introspection about how white supremacy shapes us all. And that includes Black people, too, because we live in a white supremacy structure that we also perpetuate, but it happens differently with white folks, who have a different kind of privilege and power. If you look at these big [community health centers], most are led by white queer people. Maybe there’s a Black woman in human resources. I think there’s more [Black people in leadership roles] now. But it’s been a hard thing for people, all of us, to see. Recently, there’s been more conversation about it. So now, where is the courage going to come into play? How are you going to lift up and center Black people living with HIV in leadership roles, build internal pipelines so they can be on boards one day soon?
Murphy: Do you mind me asking your own HIV status?
Copeland: I’m HIV negative. It’s something I talk about in our organization, what that means and what does HIV leadership look like on my board, executive leadership, and staff, and how am I building pipelines? There should probably be a day when I’m not the CEO anymore. I think about and center people living with HIV in our work. I think we fare well, compared to other organizations, when it comes to representation for people living with HIV. But we have a lot of work to do with transgender folks. There’s something wrong when we don’t have transgender staff in leadership roles throughout the organization. Half of our staff are Black gay, same-gender-loving, or bisexual men, so I feel proud in that regard that we really are [made up of] the community we serve.
I also am in this space as a mother now. I have two little boys, 6 and 3, and I think back to that young Black man and that HIV test at Planned Parenthood. I don’t know what the sexuality or gender identity of my boys is going to be, but I know that [they could be gay, nonbinary, or transgender]. That changes my proximity to HIV. Everybody better care about this, because y’all need to care about my kids!
Murphy: Right! It’s personal now. So what’s the BAI agenda for 2021 and beyond?
Copeland: We have new opportunities with a new presidential administration and the new awareness that people have about anti-Black racism, so we really want to galvanize around that, around really holding people accountable. We have these new [Biden administration] appointees who seem to understand much of the context and needs of Black communities, though they do not represent Black communities themselves. Let’s hold them accountable.
And with the [federal/jurisdictional] Ending the Epidemic plan, let’s really push to make sure that dismantling systems of oppression are at the forefront. Our “We The People” report has our four pillars on how to end HIV. The first is about dismantling the systems that fuel HIV—things like resourcing anti-racism and social justice coalitions, mobilizing Black communities to reform laws and policies that impede the fight against HIV. We need more laws protecting gender identity, an end to HIV criminalization, comprehensive sex ed, access to sexual and reproductive health, broad criminal justice reform, investing in affordable housing, and reforming immigration. That’s all gonna take time.
But until those systems are dismantled, we have to make sure we’re providing the resources and services that address the full richness and experience of Black people and help mitigate the structural factors. Things like trauma-informed care, harm reduction, self-care, mental health, peer recovery coaching, and peer mentorship programs.
Murphy: OK, wow. So let me finish with such an important question, which is what are your own personal sources of comfort and joy, what nurtures and sustains you, amid all this work?
Copeland: Having two young kids is exhausting, but they’re so cute! Over the weekend, we’re playing Uno, Connect Four, riding bikes and scooters, watching movies. It sucks me dry, but seeing their joy fills me up and is a constant affirmation of why I do this work, seeing their little faces and the love and joy and pride I have for them, being able to make this world different for them.
I’m also strong on self-care. I do walking meditations and listen to music. I have a couple calls a month with people, a conversation while we walk. I did one recently with Vignetta Charles [the CEO of health-equity nonprofit ETR]. I said, “Girl, come on, let’s walk and talk.” That brings me great joy, connecting with Black folks.
I have a multi-step skin routine, putting all kinds of oils and masks on my face, putting juice and berries on my body, rubbing my skin with oil, thinking, “Ooh, look at the melanin!” It makes me feel fabulous and beautiful, being able to be outside in this wonderful Southern California weather. It gives me all the things—my Blackness, being outside taking care of myself, and seeing the future in my children.