What do you do after an HIV diagnosis? Black men call the Akron AIDS Collaborative

words by Noor Hindi

Brandon Ward clearly remembers the day he was diagnosed with HIV. He was trying to donate plasma at a clinic in Akron, and when they stopped him from donating, he immediately understood why. He recalls feeling like his heart was stopping, a nurse trying to console him, the immediate shock of receiving the news and the long walk back to his apartment.

Brandon was diagnosed last year at age 30.

“I had to walk all the way back with that news in the hot sun,” he says. “This was last summer, and it was one of the longest walks I’ve ever had, and I’ve walked everywhere in this city growing up. And I kept kicking myself [and] asking, ‘Why do I have to deal with this?’”

The first person Brandon called upon hearing the news was Steve Arrington, who Brandon has known for over 12 years through the Akron AIDS Collaborative. The collaborative helped create a community for Brandon after he graduated high school and was struggling with his identity as a Black, gay man.

Since learning about the collaborative, Brandon has  volunteered with them on and off, and in the last year, the collaborative has helped Brandon cope with his diagnosis.

“I did not give a damn about anyone or anything in this past year,” he says “All I wanted to do is crawl in a hole. It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort and it takes a lot to keep pushing forward. It’s heavy.”

Courtney Calhoun, founder of Akron Brother’s Circle, says the Collaborative has helped thousands of people like Brandon over the last two decades. The Akron Brother’s Circle is a program under the collaborative that provides counseling and education to men of color who are gay. The Akron Brother’s Circle is how the collaborative got started. 

“The Collaborative’s mission is to be an advocate for HIV and AIDS in the African American community,” Courtney says. “The work that we do, it’s not like we’re giving out medication. But we’re helping with people’s families. We are providing clothing to people. We’re assisting people through college. We’re filling in the gaps and doing a lot of things that your conventional agencies can’t do and will not do. So, when they close their doors at 5 pm, ours are open around the clock. People are coming to Steven’s house all through the night. People are calling me all the time. We’re the ones to take those calls.”

The collaborative holds four events each year. During Thanksgiving, they donate turkeys to people with HIV/AIDS. Along with this, they commemorate World Aids Day, which is Dec. 1. This year, they will partner with Ma’Sue Productions for a play about HIV/AIDS. During the fall, the collaborative holds a scholarship luncheon where they give away scholarship money to LGBTQ students in Akron. Aside from this, they hold Family Black Pride in Akron each year.

READ MORE: ‘I’m outliving everybody:’ Steve Arrington reflects on 30 years of advocacy for men with HIV

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Courtney says organizations targeted to Black men like Akron AIDS Collaborative are especially important because literature and outreach efforts in the Black community during the epidemic was minimal. 

“That’s why HIV and AIDS continued to grow in our community. Because the information was not there,” Courtney says. “And nobody was willing to work in our community to do outreach and prevention.”

Since its start, the collaborative has struggled to bridge unequal gaps in funding between the white gay community and the Black gay community. They’ve also struggled with making sure that predominantly white organizations doing outreach and education within the LGBTQ community are equitable and understand the different barriers to access for Black men.

“Privilege comes in when you have white gay establishments that you can go to and say, ‘Hey, can you give us $500? Can you give us a $1,000 donation for our event?’ There are no Black, gay establishments that we can go to,” Courntey says. “We don’t have those connections within those institutions. And we don’t rise high enough to go to them. That’s where your white privilege comes in. That’s where it becomes much easier for them to do the work.”

Courtney says the best way to help Akron AIDS Collaborative is to donate to the organization so it can continue doing the work it’s been doing and help people like Brandon. 

“I would not have known who to go to [without the collaborative],” Brandon says. “There is not that help. I had to learn how to navigate and to be strong and to get through and to ‘keep on,’ in the words of Sojourner Truth. Keep on keeping on. That had to be the story, regardless of whatever else I was dealing with. I had to keep going.” 

To donate, call Steve Arrington at 330-431-0677. Keep up with the collaborative’s events by visiting Facebook.com/AkronAIDSCollaborative.

Photo at top: Akron AIDS Collaborative volunteers at Family Black Pride. Used with permission from Steve Arrington.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.