The Group for African-American MSMs with HIV celebrates 10 years as organizer Auntjuan Wiley gears up for the 2nd annual Strength Conference
“I look for the need, and then try to find a way to fill that need,” says Auntjuan Wiley, who has been a soldier in the battle against HIV and AIDS in Dallas for more than a quarter of a century. It was about 12 years ago, he says, that he became acutely aware that there was no safe space in his city for African-American men who have sex with men — MSMs — to get together to talk about their lives, their struggles and their victories.
“It took a couple of years. I always wait to hear from the universe, and it took me a couple of years to hear from the universe on this,” Wiley, the president and CEO of AIDS Walk South Dallas, explains. But when he did hear that call, he answered quickly. And on Oct. 12, 2006, The Group held its first meeting.
The Group, Wiley explains, is a place for black MSMs to gather for “support, empowerment and education.” Over the last 10 years, more than 100 men have participated. The Group meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, and in the decade since it first formed, Wiley says, “we’ve only cancelled three meetings. Two were due to bad weather, and once, I was sick.”
The Group, Wiley says, offers “no gift cards. There’s no food; there aren’t any ‘incentives’ to get the men to come.” But still, they come, he says, because The Group offers them a safe place to gather and to talk.
Wiley says about 15 to 20 men attend each meeting. At the second Thursday meetings, “we focus on a topic, one of the ones the group has chosen in advance. At the first of the year, we come up with a list of topics we want to talk about that year, and each month, I choose a topic from that list and facilitate discussion on that topic.”
The fourth Thursday meetings, he continues, are “open discussion” meetings. It’s an opportunity for the men to just talk. They talk about what’s going on in their lives, what’s going on in the world. It’s a chance for them to get to know each other.”
Sometimes representative’s from a local doctor’s office or maybe from one of the local AIDS service organizations will attend the meetings to offer information and answer questions.
And once a month, The Group’s member get together for Social Saturday. They meet at a member’s home to talk, to eat, play card games —
“What we do all depends on who’s hosting the event that month,” Wiley says. “It’s a way to keep the men interested and engaged throughout the month.”
Meeting places, Wiley notes, are not publicized. Anyone who is interested in attending can call him directly for information. “There’s a screening process,” he explains. “I want to make sure that whoever is asking to attend is who they say they are, and that they aren’t someone who wants to make trouble. And we’ve never been ‘invaded,’ never had any problems.”
2nd annual Strength Conference
The Group, Wiley says, “has been a life-changing experience,” for him and for the other men who attend. And a couple of years ago, he says, he realized that he wanted to find a way to offer similar opportunities to a wider range of men. Thus was born The Strength Conference for Men Living With HIV.
“I was getting so many calls from men who didn’t meet the demographic for The Group, but who wanted something like it. So I wanted to offer something for all HIV-positive men, something with the same basis as The Group — support, empowerment and education,” Wiley says.
Last year, the first Strength Conference drew 54 men from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, East Texas and even Kansas City, Mo. This year, Wiley says, he is expecting to see about 100 men attend the second annual Strength Conference, set for Nov. 11-13 at Embassy Suites Love Field.
The weekend begins with check-in and a speaker to welcome participants on Friday. Saturday will be filled with break-out sessions, education seminars and plenary speakers. Among those speaking at the event will be Robert Suttle from the Sero Project, who will discuss HIV criminalization; Will Horn with Cosmopolitan Congregation of Dallas, who will discuss faith-based elements of living with HIV; David Wiley of Nashville, who will talk about successful relationships in a heteronormative society; and Jeremy Teal, who will talk about disclosing one’s HIV status.
Wiley notes that he asks for a $50 donation from participants, and that nominal fee covers everything from the hotel room — “Every one has to have a roommate” — to the food to speakers to special events. And for those who want to attend but just can’t pay the $50, some scholarships are available.
“We have an amazing list of really phenomenal sponsors in this community who are stepping forward to make this happen,” Wiley notes. They include J. Anderson Lester, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, AHF Pharmacy, Pride Pharmacy, Avita Pharmacy, American Specialty Pharmacy, VIIV Healthcare, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, Metro PCS, The Original Cupcakery, Arcus Media and C.U.R.E.
The Strength Conference, Wiley says, is “the only conference of this type in the U.S. serving all HIV-positive men. I have based it on The Grace Project [an annual conference for HIV-positive women], creating something like that for men. I saw a need and responded to that need, and next year, my hope is that it will become a truly national conference.”
It is already on its way to national status. In addition to participants from across the state and from Kansas again, Wiley says he has already received inquiries from men in Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta.
“This conference is about having seen a need and trying to fill that need,” Wiley says. “And now, we have guys coming in from all over to participate. I am very excited about what’s to come.”
The Group and the Strength Conference for Men with HIV are both programs of AIDS Walk South Dallas. The next AIDS Walk South Dallas is set for March 25, 2017.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2016.