HIV Aids

An Interview With Black AIDS Institute Founder Phill Wilson

On Aug. 12, three members and one former member of the Black AIDS Institute’s (BAI) board of directors sent out a public letter accusing the six remaining board members of jeopardizing the survival of the organization. The three who were still on the board followed up with an email to the HIV/AIDS advocacy community Aug. 19 announcing their resignation and alleging that the remaining board members had created a toxic work environment, “illegally” voted to remove them, and terminated the employment of the organization’s now-former president and CEO, Raniyah Copeland, M.P.H.

After TheBody reached out for comment, Wendell Miller, BAI’s interim senior manager of operations, responded with a letter drafted by board chair Grazell Howard that pinned Copeland’s removal as CEO on a decision that the board had allegedly been contemplating since January. When asked what about Copeland’s leadership wasn’t working with respect to the fulfillment of BAI’s mission, Scarlett declined to comment on the record. (In a follow-up email sent to TheBody after this article published, Scarlett stated, “It was clear to the Board that a change of leadership was needed to fulfill the mission of BAI.”)

However, Gina Brown―the director of strategic partnerships and community engagement of Southern AIDS Coalition and a person living with HIV who was removed from the BAI’s board―told TheBody that many of BAI’s funders, who are her colleagues, have spoken about Copeland to her with praise, and continued to contribute to the organization. It is also worth noting that according to BAI’s announcements, at least 14 people with key staff positions were hired or promoted under Copeland’s leadership and as Scarlett repeated, that the “finances are incredibly solvent.”

While it’s not entirely clear what’s ahead for the Black HIV think tank, BAI remains an enduring and vital force in ending the HIV epidemic in Black communities. In an effort to understand the impact of these recent actions on BAI and affirm that its founding mission is still being achieved, TheBody spoke with prominent HIV/AIDS activist Phill Wilson, the organization’s founder and former president and CEO.

Wilson, who retired from BAI in 2018 after nearly 20 years as president and CEO, right away expressed his support of Copeland, referring to her as “smart, creative, and bold,” and adding, “The loser here is BAI and the Black AIDS movement if she decides to take her talents and skills to another discipline.”

When asked if the board should reverse its decision and reinstate Copeland, Wilson responded: “I’m not on the board, so that’s not my job [to decide]” and made clear, however, that he is against the board’s actions. Wilson went on to say that Copeland was “the right leader at the right time, and I could not have been prouder of her. And quite frankly, I could not have been more jealous of where the organization has come in the last two and a half years under her leadership because I hadn’t realized how much in the way I’d been.”

According to Wilson, Copeland, who was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in early August, was not the only purge by the current board. They also forced the removal of four board members, he said, including the last two people on the board who are living with HIV. He added that forcing out the very people that the organization was founded to represent compelled him to come out of retirement to protest the current board’s actions.

Protecting the Future of Black People

Wilson founded BAI in 1999 as a means to provide information about and help prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in otherwise neglected Black communities. He noted that he paid for the organization’s initial operations “by refinancing my house and taking a loan against my life insurance policies at a time when I had two kids.”

Under his vision and leadership, BAI established a Black-centric approach to health justice by working to decolonize practices that marginalize and impede Black communities from achieving the outcomes that they deserve. BAI fights to expand HIV prevention beyond abstinence-only or morality-based approaches and debunks the myth that HIV is a “gay disease” by making information available throughout numerous Black communities. Most recently, that endeavor has evolved into the Black Women’s PrEP Tool Kit, aimed at engaging Black women, who are often left out of conversations about sexual health and HIV, in discussions about protecting themselves from the virus.

When Wilson announced in 2018 that he would step down from leading BAI and allow it to undertake a new direction without his involvement, he said recently, his farewell address at that year’s United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) was meant to convey that “while I was proud of the work that I had accomplished, I did not believe that this moment in time could be served by my talents, skills, and worldview.”

Wilson felt then that the movement “needed newer, particularly younger, leadership who see things differently—leadership that I would disagree with because I can only see the world through my lived experience.” Much like his former BAI colleague Leisha McKinley-Beach, who recently spoke with TheBody about the need for white leaders of the HIV movement to avoid “founder’s syndrome,” Wilson said that his example was a message to those who were still holding onto power that it is important to “not necessarily abdicate, but get out of the way, be supportive, answer the phone, help, respect, and embrace new, younger leadership.”

Reflecting on Copeland’s removal by BAI’s board, Wilson says that in taking himself out of leadership, he made one crucial error: He did not mandate that they depart as well. Wilson’s sentiment is echoed in his press statement on the matter, shared earlier this week, which further excoriates the board for its actions. In it, he said:

Tragically, it has become inescapably apparent to me that BAI has thrived despite its board, not because of it. The current board members are disconnected from the HIV community. The cumulative effect of their failed governance, refusal to ensure that the composition of the board represents the community it serves, and unwillingness to support next-gen leadership, or address an employee’s harassment complaint are all undermining BAI’s evolution. I know how much it’s taken to build a powerful organization and how little it takes to destabilize one.

Leadership Must Include People Living With HIV

Wilson was not looking forward to commenting on the drama that has embroiled BIA. Having grown up in the housing projects on the South Side of Chicago, he was taught that “Black people don’t air our dirty laundry where white people can see it.” After ranking his decision to comment as one of the hardest experiences he has endured―alongside losing a lover to AIDS as well as nearly dying himself on two separate occasions―Wilson said that the only reason he is speaking out now is to save the organization.

“If I thought that there was any way that the organization would survive with me being silent, I would have stayed silent,” he said. “Regardless of my feelings about board action, if I believed that the board as currently constituted could create and support an environment where the organization could thrive―even if I disagreed with whatever they were doing, I would have remained silent.”

After learning that the last two remaining board members who were living with HIV had been illegally removed, Wilson decided that “there comes a point in time when silence and complicity are the same.” He continued, “In a Black context, not airing our dirty laundry makes us vulnerable to bad things happening because the perpetrators of bad things count on our silence.” Wilson notes that BAI was founded to “fight for the inclusion of voices of people living with HIV and AIDS,” and that without their representation on the board, his legacy has lost its meaning.

He delivered this statement in response to current board members, who he said communicated to him that they are trying to protect his legacy. As a rebuttal, he told TheBody, “It would break my heart if we lost another Black organization, but I started BAI for a reason, and if the institution continues by working in a manner that is antithetical to that reason, then why are we here?”

After naming the numerous identities that comprise how he walks through life―“the founder of the Black AIDS Institute, a Black man, and a gay man”―Wilson added, “In 2021, my primary identity that I touch every single day is an openly gay Black man living with AIDS.” Because of that, he said, “I can’t be complicit in any organization―regardless of who started it―that purges people living with HIV from its board. Once that happens in HIV and AIDS spaces, the conversation is over and the group has lost all credibility.”

In response to a question about whether BAI’s current lack of leadership and alleged board dysfunction will affect the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission, Wilson stated that because of the organization’s hardworking staff, “The thing to worry about is not the quote-unquote void of leadership, but the possible presence of bad leaders.” Wilson went on to reveal that by neglecting to appoint a new CEO/president, the current board chair will by default assume those roles―which he called “a dangerous composition.”

Wilson believes the board’s failure to expand to include new members who are living with HIV while actively removing people from the community that it was founded to serve—as well as the decision to remove two representatives from the South, the U.S. region hit hardest by HIV—reveals “a disconnect between the work that needs to be done, the vision, the lived experience, and the worldview of people living with HIV.” Wilson added that BAI cannot fulfill its mission of engaging and mobilizing traditional Black institutions, individuals, and people living with HIV “without representatives from Black communities or people living with HIV.”

Fighting for the Services That Service Us

With an eye on how BAI’s discordance will affect outside perceptions, despite the excellence of its staff, Wilson said that anyone who has concerns should know that “the work is being done at the moment, and you should go there and get involved.”

For Black, Brown, and other marginalized communities, “there’s a requirement that we fight for the services that serve us and for institutions to reflect who we are,” said Wilson. “That’s exactly why BAI was founded in the first place; because we did not believe that there were sufficient institutions to respond to the needs of Black people.” Wilson recalled that when he founded BAI, he had been living on permanent disability benefits because of AIDS but started working—against his doctor’s suggestion—because he saw that “there was a specific gap to fill.”

He went on to note that Calvin Rolark, the founder of the United Black Fund, used to say, “Nobody can save us but us.” And in the case of HIV and AIDS, said Wilson, “I say Black people as a space holder because we’re disproportionately impacted by [the virus].” Ultimately, that is why Wilson is coming out of retirement to support that work by speaking up against the removal of people living with HIV from BAI’s board and of Raniyah Copeland as well—a team he believes was doing the essential work required to protect future generations against HIV and AIDS.

Earlier this week, Wilson published a letter on Facebook and, in coordination with his colleagues, launched a petition asking the HIV and AIDS community to join in calling for the immediate resignation of BAI Board Chair Grazell Howard and Second Vice Chair Peter Brownlie, as well as the resignation of the remaining four board members by Dec. 1, 2021. The petition also calls for transparent plans for the establishment of new governance as well as the formation of an executive committee that will include Black people who interact most with HIV―gay men, trans women, cisgender women, people currently using PrEP, and workers at AIDS service organizations.

The deadline for these secondary actions has been intentionally set for World AIDS Day 2021. It reflects Wilson’s maxim that “HIV spaces must be led by people living with HIV.”

Currently, Wilson has been joined by numerous leaders in the HIV movement who have signed his statement in support; many signed as PLWA to indicate that they are living with HIV and AIDS. They include Gina Brown, PLWA, director of strategic partnerships and community engagement of Southern AIDS Coalition and a former BAI board member; Leisha McKinley-Beach, former BAI staff; Maxx Boykin, former BAI staff; Dázon Dixon Diallo, founder of SisterLove, Inc; Marlene McNeese, former board member; Leo Moore, M.D., medical director for clinic services at Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; David Ernesto Munar, president and CEO of Howard Brown Health, PLWA and former board member; Venita Ray, co-executive director of Positive Women’s Network; Trina Scott, African American HIV University alumni; and Vanessa Williams, former board member.

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