By Danielle M. Campbell, Jeremiah Johnson, Jim Pickett, Venita Ray and Kneeshe Parkinson
Recent events at the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) have demonstrated that we as a community need to have a critical conversation about the transparency and accountability, or lack thereof, at U.S.-based HIV organizations. This includes the composition and operations of boards of directors and, most importantly, their relationship to the communities they claim to serve.
We must be certain that these boards are representing our thoughts and perspectives through meaningful inclusion, with safeguards in place that protect us from members not reflective of the HIV community and the most impacted communities. If we exist as advocates, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that affected communities are strategically included in all conversations that affect us. Inclusion means ensuring that people living with HIV and the most vulnerable communities are prominently represented. It also means bringing in new leadership into our organizations. This is not just an epidemic for the old guard; we must include younger and diverse perspectives to be centered in positions of real power that reflect those populations most disproportionately affected by HIV.
Unfortunately, recent incidents at BAI have placed an unwanted spotlight on the kinds of issues we see across many—if not most—of our national HIV advocacy organizations that rely on the leadership “status quo” in the face of confronting a changing epidemic. During her long tenure at BAI and relatively short time at its helm, Raniyah Copeland quickly shifted narratives within predominantly white national policy spaces to focus on the biases that perpetuate racial disparities in HIV related outcomes among Black people. Moreover, through her vision she leveraged BAI’s considerable staff talent to introduce an unapologetically Black viewpoint into national discussions about ending HIV as an epidemic, effectively reinserting BAI into key policy and research conversations through the We The People: A Black Strategy to End the Epidemic report. It was no surprise that her appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in July was widely celebrated by community activists. In a field founded on the motto Silence Equals Death, for many of us Raniyah’s voice has been giving us life. And yet, despite all of the energy and momentum surrounding Raniyah’s leadership, she was removed as CEO in August of this year.
In response, the remaining members of the board living with HIV or with direct nonprofit experience resigned in protest, describing how they had been shut out of the decision making process and citing the unethical and opaque behavior of the remaining board corporate representatives as their reason for leaving.
Across the nation, community advocates have been alarmed by these developments. The sidelining of an outspoken Black woman with a proven history of nonprofit leadership and the significant disruption of the only national unapologetically Black HIV think tank is nothing short of a tragedy. It serves as a terrifying reminder of the dangers of having a corporatized board with minimal meaningful representation from people living with HIV and individuals with direct nonprofit experience. Although the board has created a plan for interim leadership, no plan has been put in place to make the board more representative of communities most impacted and vulnerable to the epidemic. The current members, like many other boards of HIV organizations across the country, currently display a lack of accountability and transparency to the HIV community. With respect to BAI, Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) advocates have also expressed numerous concerns with the board’s actions.
These events are particularly troubling at a time when our movement is significantly challenged by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and with even fewer organizational heads who represent a truly unapologetically Black perspective on HIV. During her short tenure as CEO, Raniyah was outspoken on topics that the field of HIV/AIDS policy advocacy would rather not discuss, most notably the stark differences between the racial composition of the HIV epidemic vs. those getting paid to discuss the epidemic in high-level policy spaces.
As proponents of BAI and Raniyah’s formidable style of leadership, we and a group of concerned advocates sent a sign on letter to the board on Thursday, September 9th, demanding that the board reinstate Raniyah and realign itself with organizational bylaws that were meant to safeguard from just this sort of corporate takeover. The response we received on September 23rd was merely a replication of their announcement of interim leadership that did nothing to address community concerns about the state of the BAI board.
We know what happened to Raniyah is not an isolated incident. Leaders like Raniyah have been silenced before. Many HIV organizations have not always been transparent, inclusive or representative of the communities they serve. It is time to draw a line in the sand and demand more accountability from these organizations. It is time we stand up and say “no more.” We need all HIV organizations to know that we are watching, we are paying attention and we demand meaningful involvement of people living with HIV, transparency and accountability by board members and leadership. We will no longer look away when the organizations funded to serve us betray us.
We cannot allow the silencing of a talented leader go unanswered. What has happened at BAI is unacceptable, and it is unacceptable when it happens at other HIV organizations. And as a field, we must take this moment to discuss what we mean by community representation, assess our ongoing vulnerabilities to corporate takeovers, and safeguard ourselves. We believe now would be the right time for the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership and others to host such a discussion. We owe it to our work, we owe it to our younger outspoken leaders, and we owe it to the communities we serve.