“Our house is on fire!” Phill Wilson preaches from the pulpit at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Los Angeles, Newsweek reported June 10, 2001. “AIDS is a fire raging in our community and it’s out of control!”
Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute two years earlier, in May 1999, to shout “Our house is on fire!” from every pulpit, stage and rooftop he could find as whites with access to the new three-drug cocktail saw HIV/AIDS turned into a manageable disease while new infection rates in the Black community continued to skyrocket. Though not horse from shouting – and having made extraordinary progress in the almost 20 years serving as President and CEO of Black AIDS Institute (BAI)– Wilson announced his retirement in 2015.
After a concerted search, the BAI Board announced a new director on Dec. 1 during their annual Heroes in the Struggle gala: Raniyah Copeland, 34, a BAI executive staffer was picked out of 20 applicants. “I can’t imagine a better choice to lead the institute into the future. Raniyah is bold, brave, and brilliant,” Wilson said about his successor. “She brings a vigor and vision to the AIDS movement that, given the current political environment, is desperately needed.”
And Copeland does “bring it.” Backed by degrees in African American Studies from the University of California/Berkeley and a Master of Public Health from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, Copeland started her dream job at BAI combining her two passions—Black people and health—in April of 2008, first as the Training and Capacity Building Coordinator and now as Director of Programs, until Jan. 1 when she assumes the CEO mantle.
“What’s really important to me is Black people,” Copeland tells the Los Angeles Blade when asked why a straight married mother of two would want the job. “It’s really quite horrible that we aren’t all really outraged by what HIV looks like in Black communities. HIV disproportionally impacts same-gender-loving people, trans folks, and Black cis women. I am a cis-hetero-woman—but we are one community and I think that for me, it sends an important message that we are in this together.
“The only way we are really going to end HIV is by our entire community coming together,” Copeland says. “It’s important that we all do our work to end HIV stigma and homophobia and transphobia—and that’s not the work of only some same-gender-loving people. It’s work we all have to do and I’m excited to lead that effort.”
It’s an excitement fueled by the lessons of history. “I was raised by what folks might call two radical Black parents. Growing up, I learned a lot about the history of Black people, the oppression of Black people,” she says. “A monumental book for me was ‘A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story’ by Elaine Brown, who was the highest ranking Black woman in the Black Panther Party. I remember thinking that we as Black people have so much to offer and we’ve been through so much, that it was disgraceful that Black people were disproportionately impacted by so many diseases, whether it was breast cancer, diabetes or HIV.”
In college, Copeland worked on reproductive justice issues but was startled writing a report on HIV in Black communities. “I thought how crazy it was that there was this huge HIV epidemic and the highest amount of attention that I ever remembered was around Magic Johnson,” she says. “But there were all these other communities within the Black community that were disproportionately impacted. It didn’t sit well. It didn’t seem right that HIV wasn’t getting the attention that it deserved—it didn’t seem like people cared very much.”
After college, she was thrilled finding a BAI job posting. “Who I am is being able to be uniquely, unapologetically Black. So finding an organization that focused on that was really exciting for me.” And doing HIV work across the country, “really showed me how the epidemic looks so different in different places.”
Copeland’s work is intersectional. “Mass incarceration is one of many themes that is really so important to ending HIV. We work with Black Lives Matters closely and make sure that HIV is part of the policy agenda and the work that they do,” she says. “For many people, particularly Black people, HIV is not the primary concern. Whether they’re going to get shot by police is a primary concern; whether there’s food on their table is a primary concern; whether they’re able to be in safe relationships free of intimate partner violence is a primary concern.”
So how make HIV important? “Respond to those issues,” she says. “To really respond to HIV, we have to discuss the issues that trans people have: how do we ensure that trans folks are supported? How do we ensure that trans folks have access to quality healthcare that’s culturally humble? And make sure they have opportunities to education and employment?”
Part of the answer is by partnering with different organizations. Which leads to: “how do we provide services that are culturally humble? How do we work with institutions to teach them how to better serve Black communities? These organizations are not HIV-specific but they are critically important working on issues such as employment or legal support or education,” Copeland says. “Those are the services and the relationship and the partnerships that we have to develop and further to ensure that the communities that we serve have the support and resources that are part of being human.”
Copeland is excited about BAI’s new expansion into direct services and partnering with different organizations, such as St. John’s Well Child & Family Center. “We end HIV,” she says, by creating access to quality healthcare that’s “culturally humble” and “by making sure that people have access to the human rights and the dignity that they deserve.”
Being culturally humble, Copeland explains, “is a step above being culturally competent. Cultural competency means you have an understanding of the norms and the culture that people come from. You understand the language that you should and shouldn’t use. You understand medical mistrust that is present in Black communities. You understand the need of trans folks and how they different from cis people. These are all things that you learn. Cultural competency – you understand the culture.
“Being culturally humble means that even though you know you have a competency, that each person is going to present to you differently,” Copeland says. “No culture is monolithic. So when people present to you, you have the competency but you let them guide and you let them determine the kind of services they want. It’s a different type of framework around how you position the relationship. And really understanding that the people we serve, the people that we engage with – that they lead us.”
But 57% of new HIV infections are among 13 to 29-year-old African American youths, according to the CDC, and reaction to using PrEP, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis—using anti-HIV medications to keep HIV negative people from becoming infected – has been mixed.
“Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is when people at very high risk for HIV take HIV medicines daily to lower their chances of getting infected. PrEP can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout your body. It is highly effective for preventing HIV if used as prescribed, but it is much less effective when not taken consistently,” the CDC reports. “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%. Your risk of getting HIV from sex can be even lower if you combine PrEP with condoms and other prevention methods.”
HIV reporter Emily Land writes: “Only seven percent of participants part of a PrEP demonstration project conducted in three major U.S. cities between 2012 and 2013 were black, and one study found that heightened concerns over potential side effects may pose one significant barrier to PrEP uptake among African American men,” with stigma throwing up another obstacle.
Photo of Raniyah Copeland and Phill Wilson by Lisa Allen
“Medical mistrust is not just something that is being made up. Black people, people of color have long history of medical abuse by American institutions and individuals,” Oakland says. “The Tuskegee Experiment is the hallmarker for many Black communities—and many Black folks don’t actually know what Tuskegee was – they can’t tell you the details of what it was.
“But what it stands for is the many experiences that we all can tell you – medical mistrust and medical abuses that have happened: forced sterilization of women, forced hysterectomies, the subpar care that many same-gender-loving people receive today, the experience that trans people have on a regular basis and medical abuses they experience. And so there is a long legacy of it and it currently happens today with improper medical care,” Copeland says.
“When we talk about the tools to end the HIV epidemic, many of those tools are based in biomedical science. But for the work we do— you have to first affirm that absolutely—that Black people, that communities of color have been abused by medical systems for eons,” she says. “You can take it all the back during slave trade. And now today that we have many more institutions to ensure that doesn’t happen again, we have to take advantage of these tools that we know are so important and can save lives. PrEP is one of those and there is absolutely a huge amount of mistrust when it comes to PrEP and Black communities.”
Copeland may helping re-frame the approach to empowering people who are living with HIV to know about sexual health but the passion to put out the fire burns just as bright as when Wilson first issued the call.
“He’s been such a huge game-changer,” Copeland says of Wilson, “and I’m very, very honored to come after him.”