An Interview with Phill Wilson, Founder, Former President of Black AIDS Institute - Diverse Health

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An Interview with Phill Wilson, Founder, Former President of Black AIDS Institute

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by Monica Levitan

Phill Wilson, the founder and president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) since its inception in 1999, has recently retired. The Institute is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the country that’s focused on African-Americans.

Diverse: Issues In Higher Education recently interviewed Wilson about his time at the Institute, and what’s next for him and the Institute.

Diverse: Why did you decide to start the Black AIDS Institute?

Wilson: I started working on the Black AIDS Institute in 1988 with my best friend at the time, Reggie Williams. He and I were at a International Aids Conference in Amsterdam, I believe. There were few Black Americans attending the International Aids Conferences back then. But even the African-Americans that were there in the sessions that dealt with science, almost no one was attending those sessions. So we would talk to people and they would say, ‘The reason that we don’t attend those sessions is because we don’t understand what they’re talking about’. At the same time though, African-Americans and Black people across the Diaspora, were being disproportionally impacted. So we thought, ‘well it’s going to be impossible for us to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our communities if people don’t understand the science of HIV’. It was also clear that in 1988, because of the way that HIV was first characterized in the United States and by extension across the globe, as a White, gay disease, that Black people were never going to take ownership of the epidemic. So we decided that it was important to create an organization that focused on engaging and mobilizing Black leaders, institutions and individuals in an effort to confront HIV and leading by increasing the HIV science and treatment literacy in Black communities. So we began by initially trying to create an African-American HIV university, that was our first plan. Initially, no one wanted that effort. Nobody wanted to fund it, nobody wanted to support it. So we worked on that for a number of years. Eventually, Reggie died and during that period of time I got very sick and my doctors thought that I was not going to live either. Then, from 1996 I actually was so sick that I had to stop working and by 1996 Reggie had moved to Amsterdam and we thought that we were not going to be able to make the idea happen. Also around that same time, protease and inhibitors came into play. I eventually got better and took up the idea again and eventually I was able to get support from a new group of friends, and we decided to create an organization instead of just the HIV university. Then, in 1998 we started it and then in 1999 we actually incorporated the AIDS Policy and Training Institute, which is the legal name for the Black AIDS Institute. The bottom line is that, the Institute was founded as a place that focused exclusively on addressing the HIV/AIDS needs in Black communities, so that’s why I started it.

Phill Wilson

Phill Wilson

 Diverse: How many members are in the Black AIDS Institute?

Wilson: Well, there are 20 chapters and affiliates around the country. The annual budget is around $2.5 million, and the staff is almost 20 people.

Diverse: Why did you decide to retire?

Wilson: Well, I decided to retire for a number of reasons. One, I feel very, very strongly that it is important and imperative to have a plan for the future and for organizations and movements to prepare and support and to nurture new leadership. I feel like, while we’ve made tremendous progress in efforts to confront HIV across all communities, including Black communities, while at the same the disparities that we began to address when we started the organization in 1999 still exists, even though we’ve made progress. There’s still work to do, and I think that work can be best achieved with new leadership and a different set of skills and talent. The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the health landscape in 2019 is very different from the landscape of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from 20 years ago when we founded the Black AIDS Institute. I felt that the skills necessary to continue the progress that we’ve made over the last 20 years require a new skill set.”

Diverse: What do you think of BAI’s new president,  Raniyah Copeland?

Wilson: I think that she is a remarkable choice. She’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s bold, she’s brilliant, she understands the work. She’s been with the Black AIDS Institute for a decade now. She is one of the architects of over the last 10 years, and she has a vision to take the organization where it needs to go next.

Diverse: What’s next for the Black AIDS Institute? Any changes?

Wilson: Well there’s a number of things, and these are things that were part of a strategic plan that we created two years ago. Probably the biggest change that has already begun is a very big move into direct services. Over the last four years the Institute has increased its direct service footprint. Last year, the Institute started a clinical direct service in Los Angeles called the Clinic for Us, three clinics were opened in 2018 and there’s a plan to open a fourth clinic in 2019. The organization expanded its staff to include staff that are based in the South and in Georgia where as you may know, that’s where the trajectory of the HIV epidemic is. The organization is expanding and retooling its policy focus to focus more and more of its policy work on state and local efforts. So, I think that those changes are consistent with the evolving need of the epidemic.

Diverse: Do you plan to stay in contact with the Institute?

Wilson: I think I will certainly stay in contact. I will continue to be a supporter. My role will be more of a supporter of the organization, an advocate for the organization when and if there is a need for advice or counseling. I will be open to respond to those calls. There is a transition plan, a 90 day transition plan where I will work with the new president and CEO and the transition team to help that process. But after that I won’t be involved.

Diverse:  What’s next for you?

Wilson: I don’t really know. I am taking a little time to decompress. It took a lot of work to prepare the organization for this transition. What I do know, is I will do something. I just don’t know what that will be yet and a part of what I do might keep me doing some work in HIV but there’s some other things that I think I might be interested in exploring on a part-time basis. I think I have a set of skills that might be transferable in some other arenas and so I want to see if that is indeed a possibility.

For more information on the Black AIDS Institute, please visit blackaids.org.

Monica Levitan can be reached at mlevitan@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @monlevy_.

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