Not one month into his new role as director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy ( ONAP ), Douglas M. Brooks, MSW, bid greetings from President Obama to a gathering of several hundred people in Boston.
"I have to tell you, there are some exciting things" going on, Brooks told those in attendance at the Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast, held on April 12 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Sponsored by the local AIDS Action Committee, this was the organization's 25th annual event, which recognizes and honors the roles of LGBTs from communities of color in the AIDS epidemic.
Brooks went on to say that what is most exciting "is that I get to stand here and say to you on behalf of the President of the United States: I bring you his warmest greetings to AIDS Action Committee, to Fenway, and to everyone engaged in this work.
"There should be no doubt in your mind that this is really important to him," Brooks explained referring to the combined efforts of HIV advocates, policy makers, and health care providers in battling a more than three-decades long AIDS epidemic.
Brooks returned to Boston to receive AIDS Action Committee's Lifetime Achievement Award. In accepting the honors, he spoke boldly about the "persistent stigmatization, discrimination, and denial that remains in our community" being as "untenable" as the resulting "persistent HIV-related disparities that are killing us.
"As people come to care too late, too sick, we find ourselves not able to stay in treatment; and we are often the least virally suppressed.
"I don't think it has to be that way, and I will be working every day to look at new systems and do the work we need to do to address those issues in our community."
Brooks did not stop there. "I want you to make sure that you are educated around HIV," he said. "I ask you to start up a conversation with at least one person whom you have never spoken to before in your family, community, and church about HIV. The more we can de-stigmatize it, I think, the better able we will be to support folks in our community who are at risk and living with HIV."
A Georgia native, Brooks is no stranger to Massachusetts where is a licensed clinical social worker. Throughout his career, which began in the early on days of the epidemic at the Provincetown AIDS Support group, Brooks has been a compassionate advocate for people living with AIDS and a passionate voice in tackling inequalities and disparities in medical care, outreach and prevention to reduce new HIV infections, especially among youth and gay men of color.
Prior to joining the Obama administration, Brooks was senior vice president for Community, Health, and Public Policy at the Justice Resource Institute ( JRI ), a regional health and human service agency with a range of residential and community-based services in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. He also previously served as executive director of the Sidney Borum Jr. Community Health Center, now affiliated with Fenway Heath.
In 2010, Obama appointed Brooks to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and served as its liaison to the Centers for Disease Control/Health Resources and Services Administration ( CDC/HRSA ) Advisory Committee, leading those organizations to achieve their assigned goals according to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
Also on hand for recognition by AIDS Action Committee honor was David Munar, who received the organization's Bayard Rustin Award for Courage.
In his remarks, Munar, who is president and chief executive officer at Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center, said that he was grateful to receive an award bearing the gay, African American civil-rights leader's name.
"Bayard Rustin reminds us that we don't move in this world alone, we depend on those around us, for us," Munar told breakfast attendees. "Social movements don't exist alone either. They are animated because of people like you. They are animated because of your advocacy. They exist because of the institutions that we promote and build," namely Fenway and AIDS Action.
"I am deeply honored to share the stage with Douglas," Munar said. "In this moment, it is so exciting. Douglas is an HIV-positive African American in the White House. It's a really historic and important moment for us. It makes people with HIV visible."
That line drew spirited applause.
In 1994, as a 24-year-old patient at Howard Brown Health Center, Munar received a diagnosis of HIV. As a Latino gay man, he knows firsthand the fear and isolation of an HIV diagnosis and the service gaps that persist in communities of color and for populations, historically, that have been medically underserved.
Prior to joining Howard Brown, Munar spent 23 years at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago where, over the years, he served as policy director, vice president of policy and communication, senior vice president, and president/CEO.
In 2007, he helped launch the Coalition for a National AIDS Strategy, which led to the "National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States," unveiled by the president in July 2010.
In 2011, the White House named Munar a "Champion of Change."
Throughout his career, Munar has worked to close health care gaps and to build comprehensive systems of health care and prevention that meet the needs of vulnerable communities.
A bilingual Colombian-American gay man, Munar is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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