The Tireless Advocate

Most people probably couldn’t fathom a doctor telling them, “You are HIV positive.” And during the early ’80s when the disease was becoming more prevalent across the nation, Phill Wilson couldn’t either.

“I had already seen what would happen [to those infected],” recalls Wilson, who back then ran a giftware manufacturing company called Black is More Than Beautiful. “I had visited the hospitals. I sat at the deathbeds. And I delivered the eulogies of so many of my friends who died from the disease.”

So when Wilson found out he was HIV positive in the summer of 1985, he saw it as a death sentence. “The confirmation was devastating,” he recalls.  “At that time I fully expected that it was going to end in a quick, painful, horrible death.”

Today, as founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, Wilson fights the epidemic for himself and others. “I get up every morning and do what I can to help end this disease,” says Wilson, who founded the Los Angeles-based organization in 1999 and is now living with AIDS. With a staff of 14 and an operating budget of nearly $2.5 million, the Black AIDS Institute serves as a national think tank for HIV/AIDS focusing solely on African Americans. The organization reaches millions through mobilization, advocacy work, and public policy. It has garnered attention from organizations such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it receives funding though major partners, including the MAC AIDS Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Census reports estimate black people make up about 12% of the U.S. population, but according to the CDC they accounted for more than 40% of all HIV cases at the end of 2007. The CDC also reports that about 20% of all people living with HIV don’t know of their infection.

Wilson says neither he nor his partner at the time knew their status because HIV tests had just become available in 1985. “It was very different thinking I had HIV than it was knowing that I had HIV.” He says while conversations about HIV/AIDS have improved greatly since then, too much focus remains on stigmatizing victims. The 54-year-old adds: “Not enough of our conversations are about how resilient a people we are and how we can end this epidemic.”

Among the institute’s current campaigns are We > AIDS and Test 1 Million. The former is an initiative promoting safe sex and solidarity against the disease, and the latter encourages people to know their status. Both seek to heighten public awareness of HIV/AIDS; combat the stigma and myths attached to the disease; and provide vehicles for community education, engagement, and information about free testing.

Wilson says the institute’s mobilization and advocacy work reaches 4 million to 5 million black Americans each year, and training efforts touch about 100,000. The effectiveness of these campaigns is increased by the star power of celebrities such as actress Regina King, who has been a staunch supporter of the HIV/AIDS cause. She also served as a spokeswoman for the Test 1 Million campaign. All these efforts keep Wilson optimistic. “I believe black people have been greater than any of the challenges we’ve faced in the past,” says Wilson. “And we are greater than AIDS as well.”