Our nation lost one of its most exceptional public servants with the passing of Congressman Louis Stokes on August 18th, 2015. Seasoned HIV advocates are aware of the significant impact made by the Congressional Black Caucus' Health Brain Trust under Congressman Stokes' leadership.
The Minority AIDS Initiative (MAI) was created as a direct response to members of the Congressional Black Caucus.This legacy should be shared far and wide, for it is important that we are reminded of what can be accomplished when community and members of the Congressional Black Caucus work together.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters was the keynote speaker at the 2015 U.S. Conference on AIDS. In her prepared remarks, below, she shares her recollection of the creation of the MAI -- and the vital role of many leaders, including late Mario Cooper and Congressman Stokes -- in the context of today's Black Lives Matter movement.
Thank you all for coming to the 2015 U.S. Conference on AIDS and to this Opening Plenary Breakfast on Black Lives Matter. I would also like to thank Paul Kawata, Executive Director of the National Minority AIDS Council, for inviting me to join you this morning. I am honored to be joined by my colleague, Congresswoman Robyn Kelly, the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, and Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson.
The Black Lives Matter movement was a response to recent killings of unarmed black men by police. The young black people, who have been instrumental in this movement and who coined the phrase "black lives matter," are poignant, inspiring, and simply brilliant. These young people have galvanized the black community. Although Black Lives Matter may have been intended to focus on police abuse, profiling, and killing, it has awakened us and inspired us to think about all aspects of black life and the possibilities of a new, invigorated fight for justice and equality.
Today, we are here to talk about HIV and AIDS, and we all know this disease has had a profound and devastating impact upon thousands of black lives. In fact, many of us in both the black community and the AIDS community have been fighting to eliminate this disparity for many years.
One of the great heroes in this struggle -- my friend and former colleague, Congressman Louis Stokes -- died last month. Lou Stokes served 15 terms in Congress from 1969 through 1998. He was the first black congressman elected in the state of Ohio and the first black member of the House Appropriations Committee. He was also a Founding Member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Congressman Stokes dedicated his life to public service and giving a voice to the voiceless, and that included blacks who were living with HIV/AIDS.
Back in April of 1998, while I was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congressman Stokes sponsored a Health Braintrust. During this Braintrust, I and other members of the CBC were shocked by the presentation of Dr. Beny J. Primm, the Executive Director of the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation, which described the severity of the crisis of HIV/AIDS in minority communities, particularly the African American community.
Around that time, Mario Cooper, a Harvard scholar and longtime AIDS activist, claimed that CBC members were not doing anything to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic among blacks.
I arranged for Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to meet with the CBC to discuss the impact of HIV/AIDS in the black community. At this meeting, I told Secretary Shalala that we had information from Dr. Beny Primm, who called AIDS in the black community a "State of Emergency." I asked her, given all of the information she had available to her as the Secretary of HHS, "Do you agree?"
Secretary Shalala looked me in the eye and said, "Yes."
On May 11, 1998, I organized a meeting between the CBC and more than 20 AIDS activists, public health workers, and representatives from all over the country to tell us about the impact of HIV/AIDS on minorities. At this meeting, the CBC made a decision to ask President Clinton to declare a "Public Health Emergency" to combat the HIV/AIDS crisis in the black community.
We made a decision to sound the alarm about the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in black communities all across the United States. We began to write press releases, speak on black talk-radio shows, and create a deeper relationship between CBC members and AIDS activists.
One of the events we organized was a trip by all of the CBC members to Baltimore, where there was a high incidence of HIV/AIDS among African Americans. We visited an HIV/AIDS program at Johns Hopkins, a syringe exchange program, and a program serving women. We met with people living with HIV/AIDS and listened to their stories.
In the fall of 1998, Congressman Louis Stokes, Congresswoman Donna Christensen, and I met with Secretary Shalala again to discuss this crisis. We made the case that along with any declaration of a state of emergency, there had to be resources to address the crisis. The result of this meeting was the Minority AIDS Initiative, which supports HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment in black, Latino, and other minority communities.
On October 28, 1998, the CBC held an event to roll-out the Minority AIDS Initiative. The event featured the participation of President Clinton, Secretary Shalala, Congressman Stokes, Congresswoman Christensen, myself, and representatives of HIV/AIDS organizations from around the country. At this "Roll-out," we announced that the Minority AIDS Initiative would receive an initial appropriation of $156 million in fiscal year 1999.
Since the establishment of the Minority AIDS Initiative, I have worked with my colleagues to expand the initiative to meet the tremendous need for HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and services in the black community, as well as other minority communities. Every year, I circulate request letters to leaders of the House Appropriations Committee in support of funding for the initiative, and dozens of concerned Members of Congress sign these letters.
Funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative grew considerably during its first few years and then leveled off at approximately $400 million per year during the Bush Administration.
During the Obama Administration, funding has been limited by sequestration and budget caps, but we have continued to fight to expand it, and we have won modest increases. Because of our efforts, the Minority AIDS Initiative received $425 million in fiscal year 2015. That was despite the prevailing atmosphere of fiscal austerity.
After Congressman Stokes left Congress, I appointed Congresswoman Donna Christensen to be the Chair of the CBC's Health Braintrust. She served admirably in that position for sixteen years until she left Congress at the end of last year, providing strong, dedicated leadership on AIDS and other health disparities issues.
After Congresswoman Christensen left Congress, Congresswoman Robyn Kelly volunteered for the responsibility of becoming Chair of the CBC's Health Braintrust. In her new role, she has already traveled to the districts of several CBC members to witness the health disparities affecting our communities. When she came to my district last May, we met with AIDS activists, academics, and health providers and discussed the impact of HIV/AIDS on black Americans in Los Angeles.
On March 26th of this year, I sent a letter to the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee requesting an appropriation of $610 million for the Minority AIDS Initiative in fiscal year 2016, and 66 Members of Congress signed my letter.
So you can imagine my shock when I learned in June that the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended that funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative be cut by $61 million and that the Secretary's Minority AIDS Initiative Fund be completely eliminated.
These cuts are absolutely unacceptable.
In 1997, the year before the Minority AIDS Initiative was established, racial and ethnic minorities constituted a majority of the deaths among people with AIDS. Today, while the total number of deaths among people with AIDS has fallen, minorities still constitute the majority of those deaths. Racial and ethnic minorities also constitute a majority of new HIV infections and a majority of people living with HIV/AIDS. Indeed, the rate of new HIV infections among blacks is about 8 times that of whites, and the rate among Latinos is about 3 times that of whites. In 2010, blacks alone accounted for almost half of the deaths among people with HIV.
Clearly, the lives of blacks, Latinos, and other minorities disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS are still at great risk, and we cannot afford to let the Minority AIDS Initiative be decimated.
Congresswoman Robyn Kelly and I are planning to send a letter to the President urging him to veto any bill that includes these cuts. Furthermore, we are going to do everything we can to fight these cuts and protect the lives of minorities living with this dreadful disease!
So Black Lives Matter may have been intended to become a call to action on police brutality -- focused on the killing of young unarmed black men. However, the brilliant defining of our resistance to disrespect and oppression in these three simple words has expanded to inspire and motive action in all aspects of our lives."
Hadiyah Charles is a passionate health policy advocate with a deep understanding of regulatory and legislative policy analysis and community engagement.