There was a reunion of sorts last weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 60 leaders representing 19 African-American organizations discussed the future of AIDS in black America while a rare thunderstorm saturated the desert around them. Last time they met—in sunny Toronto last summer at the International AIDS Conference—it was to exchange promises for a new national campaign to fight HIV. Scottsdale was step two: time for a plan of action. “This is about getting them to do,” explained the Black AIDS Institute’s Phill Wilson, the man behind the National Black Leaders AIDS Strategic Planning Summit, along with The Balm In Gilead and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA).

It was an action-packed three days for these media, religious, political and social justice leaders. “The energy in the room was exciting because you rarely get a chance to totally devote [yourself] to this one issue,” reported George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) News Service.

Participants re-committed to a series of goals: Reducing the rate of HIV infection among African Americans by half in five years, increasing the percentage of those who know their status and reducing stigma. And they added more: Testing a million people over the next year, getting black Americans into care earlier and improving education for those testing negative as well as positive.

But if Toronto was the “what,” Scottsdale was the “how.” How to develop new strategies, participants asked each other, that will bring these goals to life without the divisions and political agendas that have dogged efforts in the past—and are still helping push HIV rates among African Americans through the roof?

Perhaps the most powerful tactic to emerge from the weekend, participants say, was a scheme to speak to all African Americans with the same message but according to their specific needs. The idea is to attack AIDS from every angle, on every stage and through every demographic. “We’re viewing the epidemic through a lens of four target populations: women, youth, heterosexual men and homosexual men,” explains Wilson—categories, he points out, in which everyone can find a fit. “Our mobilization plan is designed to meet you wherever you are.”

Grazelle Howard, Vice President of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, says this means setting each leader up with the tools to speak to their own constituents. “Not everyone can hear the same message from the same messenger,” she says. “For instance, some straight men may not be comfortable sitting in a room learning about HIV from a gay man.”

For Howard, the power of the campaign is that mere association will be enough to involve every single African American. For instance, she says, “You want to save your children…you want to save your mother.”

Dealing with the entire community means opening up topics that often go undiscussed in the black community, such as sexual preference, gender and class. Middle and upper class African Americans “live in denial,” says Howard, “believing that this disease only happens to Africans and poor people.”

The latest statistics show quite clearly that no one is exempt. Just two weeks before the Scottsdale summit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on a 2005 study that found black women are 20 times more likely to be infected with HIV than their white counterparts, 61% of newly diagnosed youth ages 13-24 are African American and black men are seven times more likely to have HIV than white men.  

There were no surprises in that study. Wilson, who attended the CDC event where the stats were unveiled—the March 8 Heightened National Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis among African Americans—was not shocked at all. “This is not news to us,” he said. “This is what we have been saying all along.”

There are advantages to publicizing the numbers as often as possible, however, says Pernessa Seele, CEO and founder of The Balm In Gilead. The Summit will announce an official national action plan on or near June 27, National HIV Testing Day. Until then, says Seele, “We need to keep our leaders and our entire community talking about this disease.”