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"It’s ‘Bout Time We Had This Meeting!": One Southern Activist’s Reflection on the White House Meeting on HIV in the Southern United States

By Dázon Dixon Diallo, MPH
SisterLove, Inc.
Atlanta, GA

The southern region, a paradox of the most beautiful and the most hideous elements that make up the soul of this nation, is the barometer of the health and wellbeing of the United States, and it is home to nearly half of all people living with HIV in the U.S. The Deep South, with its peculiar mix of social, cultural, political, economical and historical contexts, is way more than a geographic distinction, and bears a grim story of how we are losing the battle against HIV for so many young people, gay and bisexual people, people of color and women. As a Southerner, who has fought the good fight against HIV/ AIDS for nearly 30 years, I am still overwhelmed by how little the rest of the country knows about our HIV epidemic, and I’m furious about the anemic responses to the Southern epidemic by the leadership in our region. As my Nana would say, “It’s about time we had this meetin’!”

Anyone, who has followed the US HIV epidemic with any kind of regularity, knows the South bears the brunt (nearly half) of the staggering 50,000 new HIV infections that happen every year in this country. They would also know that in our region, the southern states and District of Columbia, we have the highest numbers of people living with HIV and AIDS. We are home to more African American/Black, women and rural folks living with HIV and AIDS than the rest of the county. In the South, more people are diagnosed later in their HIV disease and people living with AIDS die faster. It isn’t news that the resistance to implementing the Affordable Care Act in most Southern states fails to protect the basic human rights of poor and middle income families, especially those affected by HIV. We are keenly aware that the South is where our history, our politics, and the deeply complicated levels of stigma and discrimination are the greatest impediments to achieving the optimal goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) in the region. Anyone who cares about the health and human rights crisis the HIV epidemic exposes in a health system that is unequal, rapidly changing, and extremely complicated, knows about what’s going on with HIV in the Southern United States. Yes, anyone paying attention would know these things.

Douglas Brooks knows. As part of his introduction as the new Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Douglas M. Brooks, MSW, concluded a listening tour of several southern communities with an invitational meeting to the White House. The meeting was called specifically to address the Southern HIV epidemic. It was a full day of presentations and meaningful dialogue amongst panelists, as well as from the audience. The information, perspectives, stories, ideas, inquiries and demands that came forth throughout the day highlighted the unique struggles and strategies to battling the not-yet-checked rates of HIV transmission and diagnoses of Stage 3 HIV Disease (AIDS) across 15 states and DC.

The diversity and the array of presenters was nothing short of phenomenal. From the epidemiologists, policy analysts, social and behavioral scientists, the federal partners and the incredible panels of HIV+ leaders and community-based organizations, we heard the data and the details that tell the story of the disturbing trends, as well as the best practices, in the HIV response across the Southern US. Most striking throughout the day was the vocal exhale from so many Southern advocates and providers. Folks whose voices have only fallen on deaf ears among local and regional leadership, were finally being heard and given the platform (and extra time) to share struggles and strategies to turn the corner on HIV in the South. I was proud and honored to feel the collective anger and hope resonating in every question and every challenge expressed by every single speaker.

Douglas Brooks, a son-of-the-south, who is also a black gay man living with HIV, has the social and cultural consciousness that is needed to lead the country toward achieving the aims of the NHAS. Douglas knows that bringing folks to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave helps raise the visibility of the issues and the people who are struggling to win, battle by battle, the fight against HIV and AIDS. I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to witness the history, and I am even more grateful that we have Douglas Brooks and his ONAP team to thank for bringing us together.

I guess, after having been to a few of these White House level meetings, I have learned to have high hopes and low expectations for any concrete commitments or strategies that we could move forward as a result of the meeting. What made this meeting somewhat different is that we have a sense of new national leadership for our regional issues that we did not have before, and now we can build on the strategies and ideas that were put forward. I came away from the meeting with more questions than answers, of course, such as: Based on the trends and patterns for prevention, treatment and care that we have now, what is the Southern epidemic supposed to look like in 5 years (the length of the NHAS); How will the South be prioritized in the next iteration of the NHAS?; What are the capacity issues for scale-up of a greater response in the South?; Where is our PEPFARSUS? But the most imminent question is: “So, now what y’all gon’ do?”

Posted By: Dázon Dixon Diallo, MPH Founder/President SisterLove, Inc. - Friday, July 11, 2014

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