C. Virginia Fields, CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), is standing tall these days as her organization makes waves in the fight against AIDS. Here, the former Manhattan borough president shares what happened at NBLCA's conclave in Washington, D.C., this spring, how it is working with Southern churches and what is coming soon from the organization.
NBLCA held a conclave with members of the local government in the D.C. area in April. What action steps were decided on at the conclusion of this conference?
One of the steps was to do more organizing locally. In Ward 7, there are very high rates of infection. We want to organize the clergy so that the needs can be better identified. The other thing is to work with the government locally, which has started a test-and-treat initiative to link people to care.
Sex education in the schools around HIV/AIDS and other STDs is also important. School is where students identify that they receive their information about sex. Research has shown that students who receive good information may not necessarily stop having sex, but they have made better decisions about protected sex.
We have complaints from the schools, particularly from parents, that they don't want this information given to the students because parents believe it almost encourages the students to have sex. But the increase in teen pregnancy is not happening by osmosis. So the clergy wants to take the lead by working with school officials. A full plan of action will be written.
Given Mississippi legislators' seeming lack of regard for people living with HIV/AIDS, what will NBLCA do about reaching the Southern churches?
We are partnering with groups in this area that are already engaged. We are also working with some new partners in Southern cities, including Jackson, Miss., to establish similar structures. We want to organize communities through this process.
We work with the National Baptist Convention to conduct training in Southern states that will hopefully be taken back to the community. We hope this process will build more partnerships. We are going to work in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson; Birmingham, Ala.; and somewhere in South Carolina (we have yet to determine the city) over the next six months.
Let me say one other thing about the clergy. They get hit for not being as engaged. Some of that is true, but a lot of it is not true. A lot of them have been engaged from the beginning. They are speaking from the pulpits more boldly and regularly about HIV, not just around World AIDS Day. They are encouraging testing. They are using their churches as testing sites. They are allowing the health department and other groups to use their churches as testing sites. They are not all disengaged, but we do need to keep working with those who aren't involved.
What's your take on the crisis in the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP)?
We now have more than 7,000 people on the waiting list for ADAP in these United States because of budget cuts. [Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, the ADAP waiting list has grown to more than 9,000 people (pdf) in 13 states.] This is unheard of! We hear about things like this in sub-Saharan Africa, but not in America. Some of these people may die because the budget has been cut in states such as Georgia and Florida.
That's why it's important to keep [HIV] in the forefront for legislators to see. They need to know that just because the media isn't covering it as much doesn't make it any less of a crisis. A lot more work needs to be done.
What's coming next from NBLCA?
We have launched the "30 Years Strong" campaign. The focus will be on how this disease has [impacted] and continues to impact the African American community. We have an online community journal for people who are infected or have been affected to tell their stories. Putting a face on this disease is very powerful. We want to move people away from complacency: "I don't have to worry about that, or if I get that, I can just take a pill." It's still not curable.
Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance health writer who covers HIV/AIDS news in Washington, D.C., for Examiner.com and The Body.