Black Is Beyond Beautiful
Stepping down, Phill Wilson, Founding President & CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, bequeaths a legacy of love to successor Raniyah Copeland
Text & photos by Sean Black
“Raniyah Copeland is Bold, Brave, and Brilliant.”
These were the proud words spoken by her soon-to-be predecessor at this year’s annual Heroes in the Struggle gala hosted at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2018.
Gearing up to unveil his replacement to a room of brilliance, all in black-tie, Phill Wilson, a long-term survivor, has beaten incredible odds, odds that many of our loved ones never got to see. He represents hope and always has and now he shepherds a shared dream into capable hands of next-generation advocacy and leadership. Phill Wilson is realizing closure and the accomplishment of greatness.
In his speech, he reflected back to the time when he called upon friends (some present that night), to assist in actualizing a loved one’s dream; the launching of an organization that would engage Black people in efforts to confront the AIDS epidemic in ways not previously done.
“We knew two things,” solemnly remembered Wilson. “(1) Black People were dying, and (2) Nobody could save us, but us.”
1981 marked the onset when GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) was reported in The New York Times as a “contagion” isolated to the homosexual community, mostly white. Sadly and only too late, it was revealed that the disease and its dread could impact anyone. It didn’t discriminate. Delayed timing in public awareness was a critical misstep of this mounting health crisis, mostly because of the bigoted ignorance of the Reagan years. HIV/AIDS began disproportionately impacting communities of color, most notably Blacks. And now some, thirty-eight years later, the CDC (July 5, 2018) reports that African Americans continue to have the most severe burden of HIV over all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States. Blacks account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses, those living with HIV, and those who have ever received an AIDS diagnosis, compared to other races/ethnicities. In 2016, African Americans accounted for forty-four percent of HIV diagnoses, though they comprise twelve percent of the U.S. population.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration) confirms: “The lifetime risk of HIV is far higher among African-Americans than any other ethnic group. Black women have a 1 in 32 chance of acquiring HIV in their lifetime, compared to White women, who have only a 1 in 588 chance of HIV infection. Black men are at even greater risk, with a 1 in 16 lifetime chance of acquiring HIV, compared to White men, who bear a 1 in 104 risk.”
Alarmed by the catastrophe unfolding within their silenced community decades ago, Phill Wilson and close friend Reggie Williams propelled themselves into action.
“I knew when Black people understood the science of HIV—the epidemiology, the biomedical, and the behavioral—we would be more likely to get tested; better able to protect ourselves; more inclined to seek treatment, adhere to those treatments, and stay in care; and less likely to engage in stigmatizing behavior.”
Fast forward to the present, Wilson humbly green-lights his departure, marking it as a time for change. Wilson has never remained stuck in a problem. As a mentor to many ,Wilson sees opportunity and people at their best.
“Raniyah Copeland brings a vigor and vision to the AIDS movement that, given the current political environment, is desperately needed,” remarked Wilson, on the night of the recent gala fundraiser, cautioning the audience in these uncertain times while underscoring the dire need for Black female leadership.
Copeland, who began working at the Black AIDS Institute in 2008 ascended from her role of Training and Capacity Building Coordinator to the organization’s Director of Programs, where she has served for the last ten years. “I never imagined that I would be standing here preparing to assume the role of President and Chief Executive Officer of this extraordinary organization,” she humbly shared during her acceptance of the esteemed role.
Married to Bryce Copeland, a business manager for Sony Pictures Entertainment, she and her husband have two young children (Ahmad, four, and Aydin, one). She earned a Bachelor of Arts in the fields of African American Studies and Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Masters of Public Health from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. She is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., an AmeriCorp Alumna, and a Co-Founder of the African Black Coalition.
Beyond the qualifications of her education and tenure, Raniyah Copeland exemplifies exactly the kind of leadership which Wilson urgently calls upon. In their most recent, December 31st issue, Forbes quantified in an article, “Leveraging Black Wealth Power and Influence,” the importance and advantages of female executive and leadership roles pay back noting a 2018 study by McKinsey & Company revealing “companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability.” The margins reported increased dramatically when also factoring in cultural and ethnic diversity as well. Similar outcomes can only be hoped for when the assets of the organizations are health and well-being of human beings rather than profit and capital growth.
Clearly understanding the necessity of elevating healthy women of color into power roles and doing something about it, the Black AIDS Institute, with support from Gilead Sciences, recently launched an “Ambassador” program to build engagement and movement around HIV and sexual health for Black women, a prime focus of the organization. Upward mobility and opportunity can only stem from the empowerment that comes with feeling good, self-care, well-being and stable health. This ambassador program will consist of a cohort of twenty Black cis and trans women, some who are living with and some without HIV, who will receive training about HIV, sexual health, and how to build engagement through social media. Further, from a press release, “These women will utilize social media to expand knowledge of and access to biomedical tools among Black women. The program will destigmatize conversations about sexual health and HIV, normalize utilization of biomedical interventions among Black women through social media, and build power among the women ambassadors and their social networks. The ambassador program will include participation in training programs, town hall meetings with topics geared towards prevention and helping women amplify messaging about their sexual health. Normalizing HIV biomedical usage among Black women not only improves the health for Black women but normalizes biomedical interventions for all Black people and combats stigma associated with HIV.”
The deliverables and impact of these programs at The Black AIDS Institute will now fall onto the shoulders of Copeland, who, like Wilson, warns about our political state.
“I was raised on the West African concept of Sankofa. Sankofa literally means, ‘go back and get it’. As a value, it meant we had to always remember our past to protect our future. We have such a strong foundation to stand on.
“The Black AIDS Institute, this year alone, tested over 1,500 people, linked more than 100 Black Angelinos to PrEP, connected over 40 people living with HIV to care, launched a Black women and HIV initiative, trained over 10,000 people, worked to save Obamacare and expand healthcare access, along with many other projects that are directly ending HIV.
“This team kills it on the daily and I’m honored to lead you,” she announced to cheers. “I am grateful for the tremendous opportunity and humbling responsibility the board of directors has entrusted me with to lead a world-renowned twenty-year-old organization who has been the unequivocal leader unapologetically working to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America.
“As a mother to two children who are Black boys, the lives of my children have been endangered by white supremacy before they were even conceived. As a mother, the fear I have can be debilitating. There is great fear of what can happen when my children will be forced to engage with police, or how their teachers may marginalize them in school, or how they will be oppressed if they are trans or same gender loving. But, instead of operating out of fear I choose to operate out of love and passion. Fighting for a world where we are all free. Free of HIV, free of stigma, free of oppressions based off who we are. The concept that we can lay down, that some of us don’t have to fight for the freedom of all is a pillar of white supremacy. As a Black woman, I stand on a legacy of resistance. My commitment to ending HIV is not only about honoring those who came before me, it’s about ensuring that all Black people have the rights and freedoms afforded to humanity.
“It is because of those whose spirits and efforts remain ever-present, we can say we have the tools to end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. The horror of today is that we know how to end this epidemic, and yet the epidemic is not over. If it was not same gender-loving men, folks of trans experience, Black cis women, poor Black people…if it wasn’t us being affected, there would be outrage across the country and the headlines and media would give this epidemic the attention it deserves. We’ve got to do better. We can do better. We have to ensure Black communities know about the tools we have to end HIV and make sure healthcare providers and institutions are culturally humble and ready to provide quality services to Black communities.”
Copeland, a cis woman, is committed to inclusion and intersectionality. Her promise, embedded in the following remarks, was met with resounding applause and a standing ovation: “HIV is a disease of syndemics [based on the work of renowned scholar and HIV scientist Merrill Singer, PhD]. You can’t address the HIV epidemic without addressing racism, homophobia, transphobia, mass incarceration, intimate partner violence, mental health, substance use, education and income inequities, and patriarchy. The challenges we face today are those that are inextricably linked to systems of oppression that have been present since the first slave ship entered the Americas. The challenge is steep but there is no movement and group of folks more poised to face this than us.”
The Board which has stood faithfully behind Wilson is set to double-down on its support for Copeland. The Institute’s Board members include retired U.S. Representative Donna M. Christensen, Dr. David Cook, David Munar (President and CEO of the Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago, Illinois) and Southern U.S. Community Leader Gina Brown; Under the leadership of Jussie Smollett and Vanessa Williams, along with their “Black Hollywood Task Force on AIDS” (Ledisi, Karamo Brown, Taraji P. Henson, Alfre Woodard and Van Jones).
Copeland closed her speech that evening by recounting the eloquent words of her charismatic predecessor from his retirement letter; the mantra of a leader who is as equally bold, brave and brilliant in every way.
“Believe me when I say we will honor your legacy. The day when the AIDS epidemic is over is coming. And when it comes, I promise you, they will know. We were not all monsters. We were not all cowards. Some of us have dared to care in the face of it. Some of us have dared to fight because of it. Some of us have dared to love in spite of it. Because it’s in the caring, fighting, loving that you will live forever. And you, my friend, will live forever.”
Make-up: Juan Tamez.
For more information, log on to: blackaids.org.
Sean Black photographed Greg Owen for the December 2018 cover story. He is a Senior Editor at A&U.