Rep. Ellison, African American community leaders meet to address HIV, disparities


Community organizations and elected leaders met on Monday to discuss the growing epidemic of HIV in the African American community in Minnesota, and lack of equity in resources. Participants said they hope the meeting is a starting point for more robust action by community organization and politicians to secure resources and fight disparities.

Rep. Keith Ellison and state Sen. Jeff Hayden met with representatives of HIV outreach organizations, people living with HIV, and African American community leaders at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change on Monday afternoon. The event was called, “Fighting HIV and STI Disparities in the African American Community.”

Pastor DeWayne Davis of All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church served as moderator.

“We want to highlight the growing disparities among African Americans in Minnesota with respect to HIV and [sexually transmitted infections] and bring awareness to the lack of services for hiv prevention in this community and we want to begin that dialogue,” he said.

DeWayne noted that the HIV epidemic is tied to the larger inequities that African Americans face in Minnesota.

“You cannot begin to address the issues that affect any community without having open and honest dialogue and the reality is, in the context of Minnesota, that dialogue is much more than HIV. We are having it in the context of larger issues around sex and sexuality, race and privilege issues, competition for limited government and public resources, the larger context of health,
socioeconomic and education disparities this conservation happens in that larger context, and it is incumbent upon all of us who not only care about this issues, but other issues also, that these issues don’t get left out of the discussion.”

Jessica Brehmer, an epidemiologist from the Minnesota Department of Health, gave an overview of how HIV has impacted the African American community. Brehmer noted that 22 percent of people living with HIV in the state are African American despite making up only 4 percent of the population. That’s a rate of 865.1 per 100,000 Minnesotans compared to 88.6 for white Minnesotans.

New cases of HIV also disproportionately impact the community accounting for 24 percent of new HIV infections. Most of those new HIV cases are among men who have sex with men.

New cases of HIV also disproportionately impact the community accounting for 24 percent of new HIV infections. Most of those new HIV cases are among men who have sex with men.
Kevin Kaoz Moore of Pillsbury United Communities said that support programs are important in addressing HIV. “They are very, very important to youth that need extra support and a sense of community,” he said. 

He noted that funding shifts have taken away empowerment programs and replaced them with “test and treat” programs which seek to only find new cases of HIV and get them into medical care. That leaves much of community organizing and prevention education by the wayside.

Rep. Keith Ellison addressed the forum. “I remember, I’m 51 now, and I remember when we kind of thought of HIV/AIDS as a white, gay male disease, he said. “The profile of HIV/AIDS has changed.”

Ellison said that on the issue of HIV, and securing more funding for prevention and support services, needs to come from coalition-building.

“I just want to remind us all a couple of years ago they put some stuff on the ballot that would take our vote away and then tell us who to marry and not to marry and people in the community, HIV community, the gay community, the black community, all these communities sitting in this room, we organized really, really, really well, we reached out to people and we mobilized and in order to bring justice to this situation, the same level of mobilization is going to have to happen.”

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, echoed Ellison’s remarks

“The face of HIV is changing to look a lot like me,” he said. “We know that we need more resources, we know that we have more work to do especially in communities of color but we also know that in the Legislature, that we have to do better, and that there’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes that I’m not happy about and we have to be able to push.

“We need you to really help that,” he said adding that public support can create a sense of urgency to get issues heard at the Capitol so that “we can have those tough meetings along the way.”

Part of those tough discussions will have to be had on both sides of the aisle. Last session, legislators raided a fund earmarked for HIV services because a department hadn’t spent it. “I was extremely disappointed at the end of last year where money that should have gone to this community was taken and put in another place because of bureaucratic issues that went along the way,” Hayden said.

But, Hayden said, one of the most important things that can be done is to work to ensure equity in HIV funding.

“The elephant in the room even here today is that there are large white organizations that get money and smaller black organizations that don’t, but black AIDS is on the rise and white AIDS is on the decline,” he said. “I don’t mean to racialize the conversation but I know you guys are sophisticated enough to know what I’m talking about.”

“How do we come together. How do we take large organizations that have good infrastructure — we don’t want them to go away because they have the infrastructure, but then how do we we work with organizations that have good relationships with the community? We are hoping to sit down and have a conversation about that.”

He said all organizations must work together and community infighting does not help clients. “If we do it like we are doing today, we are losing ground. We have to be able to sit down and look each other in the eye and start to figure out how we work with each other. I keep having conversations with people who say they are not going to work with this group because of what happened five years ago, but we forget about the actual people we are supposed to be fighting for.”

Hayden added that addressing disparities would go a long way to addressing the impact of HIV on the African American community, things like unemployment and education.

“You kind of have to be able to read or write in order to look at [prevention materials]. You have to be able to understand cognitively what that means. We have an education issue where 43 percent of African American kids aren’t graduating. That’s a problem. If those social determinants aren’t being dealt with in a real way, how all those things are connected, people are impacted negatively.”

“We have to start asking some question of ourselves and our own administration, to make sure we are getting the things we ought to be getting,” he said. “We have to make sure that when money sitting around the bottom line, somebody doesn’t grab it and gives it to somebody else. Those are the kinds of things we really, really need to be able to focus on and you have some very smart people in the room who are watching this closely.”

Organizations involved in the forum include: Minneapolis Urban League, Turning Point, Open Cities, Youth and AIDS Project, Pillsbury House, All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church, Minnesota AIDS Project, Minnesota People of Color LGBTQ Pride, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change

Disclosure: Andy Birkey is a part time employee of the Minnesota AIDS Project, one of the community partners sponsoring the event.