Hollywood rolled out the red carpet to fight HIV/AIDS as the Black AIDS Institute celebrated its 15th anniversary. The gala, held in Hollywood at the Director’s Guild of America, included a reception, silent auction and awards presentation of “Heroes in the Struggle”.
“Heroes in the Struggle” is a photographic tribute to Black Americans and their allies who have made heroic contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Since its debut, the exhibit has traveled around the world, raising awareness, challenging individuals and institutions to get involved in their communities, and generating critical conversation about HIV testing, treatment and prevention.
The collection started with 20 photos and has grown to 80. Past honorees have been President Bill Clinton, Activist Sheryl Lee Ralph and in 2010, Congressperson Barbara Lee.
This year’s honorees were longtime supporter, actress, comedienne and talk show host Mo’Nique; Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Jamar Rodgers, finalist on “The Voice” and an HIV advocate.
The motto, “Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution,” was the driving force that led Phil Wilson to found The Black AIDS Institute in May 1999. The organization is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people.
Speaking at the event, Wilson said that at the beginning, “We had no money, no office space, no staff. As my mother says, we had no pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of.”
Today the Institute has chapters in 15 cities.
The Institute’s mission is to stop the AIDS pandemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions, leaders and individuals in efforts to confront HIV. The Institute interprets public and private sector HIV policies, conducts trainings, offers technical assistance, disseminates information and provides advocacy and mobilization – from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view.
Hosts at the Hollywood event were Vanessa Williams, best known for her role in the TV series “Soul Food” and the blockbuster movie “New Jack City,” and Alimi Ballard, television and screen actor who has a recurring role on “CSI”.
Williams says the face of AIDS has changed. “We have to take care of ourselves, we must take care of our own,” she said, focusing on the disproportionate transmissions rates of HIV in the community.
Receiving her award, Mo’Nique said she felt the heroes were people who lived with the disease every day, with their head held high. She acknowledged Jamar Rodgers’ mother, who attended the gala with her son.
Rodgers became famous when he appeared on the TV show “The Voice” in 2012. “Before that, I was just walking dogs for a living,” he said. “So much has happened, because I told the truth.”
Rodgers encourages his brothers and sisters to tell the truth about their status, and get free. Since finding his voice, he has toured South Africa, made numerous television appearances and has an upcoming music project.
Dr. Fauci, a leading researcher in the country, reflected on the advances since the time when AIDS equaled death. “It is the stigma of homosexuality that gets in the way of people getting tested,” Fauci said. “It’s time to embrace people. It’s a disease – it’s time to take away the judgment.”
The Institute also honored Walgreens Corporation and the work it does for the community. Alvin “Alabama” Lovett and his wife Joyce, who own a local Kia dealership, were heroes who donated a car to be raffled off. Lovett says he is committed to driving out AIDS, one car at a time.
Other attending celebrities were Terrell Tilford and his wife Victoria Platt (CW’s star-crossed). Platt was vocal about losing her own brother to AIDS.
Other celebrities were Anna Marie Horsford, TC Carson and serving as presenters were Kevin Daniels (USA Sirens), Nelsan Ellis (HBO’s True Blood ), Shanola Hampton (Showtime’s Shameless), Jussie Smollett (Fox’s Empire), Tracie Thoms (Annie, Showtime’s VEEP) and J. August Richards.