I sat down with Robb Reichard, the Executive Director of the AIDS Fund, with an open mind and a sponge-like brain. And I learned quite a bit. He is truly an inspirational figure in Philadelphia’s social quilt, and our discussion uncovered quite a few similar personal philosophies. With the joint effort at the upcoming Art for the Cash Poor event, it seemed only appropriate to get his take on the idea of disparate non-profits working together: two causes, one event. And I think you’ll like his answers. After all, without supporting the cultural fabric of the city, how can we spread social awareness of such widespread issues?
Dawn Kramlich: I’m very interested in what really started your journey of becoming such a prominent figure in the Philadelphia community’s support system – can you explain where that role began?
Robb Reichard: Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I was working at a local Philly college, and AIDS education on college campuses was really just starting to happen then. I was running a lot of AIDS education programs and homophobia workshops on campus. When the walk came along, I thought, this is a great opportunity for students to get involved, do something educational, and raise awareness while raising some funds. So we organized a walk team. My first AIDS walk was in 1990, but the actual first AIDS walk in the city was in 1987.
DK: So you were volunteering with them from pretty much the start of it all, that’s a very knowledgeable and unique position to be in today! No wonder you have a strong voice in the community! What continues to inspire you about the AIDS Fund?
RR: One of the things I love about the AIDS walk and AIDS Fund is that we don’t target any particular population, we don’t target any particular service. A lot of the service providers do case management or they do counseling and testing, or some of them do multiple things, and a lot of them have specific populations that they are working with….
DK: …but you run the full gamut – you support everyone.
RR: Yeah, we do because we support all of the service providers. Really, when you’re supporting AIDS Fund, you’re supporting the full gamut of the epidemic, all of the varying populations that are affected by the epidemic, and also the full range of services.
DK: So is that something that you helped establish here at AIDS Fund – that sort of not narrow but wide view of helping all populations?
RR: It really came from the very beginning – that first AIDS walk in 1987 was several organizations coming together, and they were some of the first AIDS organizations in the city – BEBASHI, Action AIDS, The Mazzoni Center (which at that point was Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives) came together to produce the walk because there was little or no government funding at that point. There was a tremendous need because the traditional social service system was not helping people with HIV. There were unique needs, there was a lot of fear – and that continues today, but not to the same extent. The traditional social service system really wasn’t designed, if at all, to work with the populations and their unique challenges that were happening with HIV. So these small organizations had really grown grass roots to address such needs.
DK: So it really was the community picking itself up and helping itself by drawing awareness to the epidemic and to that social system that wasn’t working, clearly.
RR: Exactly. Exactly. A lot has happened and changed over the last 30 years; we went from – in the early days of the epidemic – helping people to die with dignity, to today, when we’re helping people live with dignity. But the needs are much more complex. There’s 1.2 million people living in this country with HIV – there’s more and more people every year because the level of new infections has not declined. So you have these new infections, but people are living longer, so you have more and more people living with HIV who need the services in order to have a long and healthy life.
From day one, the original name, “From All Walks of Life”, has signified all communities coming together to fight this epidemic. So we’ve really stayed clear to that vision. Our biggest program is the AIDS walk, which is every Fall. If you go to the AIDS walk, you see a real cross section of the city at the event. You have high school students, college students – really the full gamut – grandfathers who are still out there walking in memory of their sons whom they lost far too early to the epidemic. With the walk, we uncover that whole population within the city, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
We’re getting the message out there about HIV and AIDS, and I’m a strong advocate of people having good information and making their choices based on that information.
We have a huge divide these days, in this country. Only ½ of the people who are HIV positive in this country are on treatment. And only ½ of them are successful on treatment to the point where the virus is undetectable, which is the optimum of where we want people to be.
So we have people who are doing really well on treatment – the 25%… and that’s fabulous, but they’re not the majority. Everybody should have access to quality health care, medical insurance, access to the drugs, but there’s a lot of barriers to get there, and the fact that people don’t know is creating this kind of divergent system. 1 in 5 people with HIV don’t know it because they haven’t gotten an HIV test. In major US cities, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 gay men in US cities are HIV positive, and almost half of them don’t know it because they haven’t gotten an HIV test recently. And 1 in 16 African-American men will become infected in their lifetime, 1 in 30 African American women. The numbers are just staggering, but it doesn’t get the attention it once did.
I think we’re constantly doing a better job of getting people tested and into care, but it’s a lot of work to keep people in care.
DK: It’s an uphill battle.
RR: Right, and getting people successfully into care is the morally right thing to do. We have treatment, and we now know, from a public health standpoint, that people who are successfully in care and have the virus suppressed are much less likely to pass the virus on. There’s one mathematical projection that said: if we got everybody who was HIV positive in the world – that’s 40 million people – into treatment, and successfully on treatment, the epidemic would be over by… I think they said 2035. Just because people wouldn’t be passing it on.
DK: That sounds like a great thing to work toward. If only that were possible right now!
Now, obviously you guys have a mission statement, but I think any organization’s mission statement (while it may be set in stone to whatever degree) still evolves all the time. So, I want to hear, in your words, what you believe it is today.
RR: Our mission is really two-fold. The first part is to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS in our community. And the second part would be the funds that we provide to the direct service providers; so they’re obviously interconnected.
DK: Yes, they have to be interconnected, absolutely! So how do you primarily get the message out at the AIDS walk?
RR: Our messaging through the AIDS walk is really focused on three statistics: 1.) Every 9 and a half minutes, someone in the US is infected with HIV. 2.) 1 in 5 people with HIV don’t know it. And 3.) the rate of new infections in Philadelphia is 5 times the national average. Those are the three stats we primarily focus on, other than when we do some other stats for targeted community things. My belief is that the walk is what we do, but the “why” is the messaging that we have to get out there. It truly is a public awareness campaign. We also do the local Philly Fund AIDS project, which is the AIDS memorial quilt. We house quilt panels here and have them available for displays at health fairs, colleges, universities, other schools.
DK: Obviously, the AIDS walk is in the forefront and always will be, but there are other ways to go about the same message. What would you say is the most successful event that you guys have had besides the AIDS walk?
RR: Gay Bingo would be it. We’re just having our 17th anniversary of doing Gay Bingo! It’s somewhat amazing to me. I mentioned Eric Witschner, one of the previous executive directors – when he and I went out for happy hour one night, he said “well we got this idea for a new event… they do it in Seattle, and we’re gonna do it too. It’s gonna be bingo, but we’re gonna have drag queens.” And I’m like ::raises his eyebrows:: “umm… and you think this is going to work?”
DK: ::chuckles:: So you were skeptical!
RR: ::laughs:: I was skeptical, and I’ll be the first to admit it.
DK: ::laughs:: And yet, here you are saying that it is the most successful event, other than the AIDS walk! I like that! It goes to show that you never know until you try it.
RR: You never know. I still don’t know. And I was just telling my co-workers that I often feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to not screw it up. ::laughs::
DK: I would imagine that would be a lot of pressure! ::chuckles::
RR: It is! ::laughs:: Because we have one of the longest, most successful running gay bingos in the country. They do happen in other places, but we get anywhere from 500-700 people every month. Most organizations would be thrilled to get that once a year. We get it every month.
DK: Wow, nice! 500-700 a month is really difficult to achieve! That’s amazing.
RR: Half of the people every month are new! It has been a great vehicle for us to get the message out, and so we start every gay bingo with the gay bingo pledge. We also display panels of the AIDS memorial quilt, and we always have a featured partner organization who comes and talks about the HIV services that they provide in the community. So, while we’re raising money, we’re also getting the message out there that HIV is still an issue.
DK: So now I’m curious… how and why InLiquid? How do you think that Art for the Cash Poor will help maintain this awareness that gay bingo draws?
RR: I think it’s a great opportunity, and I think that today non-profits need to be collaborating, working together… It’s a tough world out there: with the recession, peoples’ finances are stretched to the limits, and peoples’ time is very limited… everybody is multi-tasking, everybody is trying to do more with less. And so it’s important for non-profits to work together and figure out, even though you may have very different missions, how you can join forces to advance both organizations.
One of my philosophies has always been: how do we maximize resources in the community? And I think – I’m hoping – that our gay bingo audience is going to come out to Art for the Cash Poor! Fingers crossed! I hope that we’re successful this time around, and that we can build on it next year. It’s something different, it’s an inexpensive event, and an opportunity to see great artwork and support local artists. We are all in all of this together…
And certainly, I think, the AIDS epidemic had a huge impact on the arts community, particularly early in the epidemic, but it continues to. I look and think… many artists’ lives were cut short in the early years of the epidemic, and what would they have created? What did we miss? You know? Where would their work have gone? Like Keith Haring. What would he have created now, when he’d be – what 70, or whatever he would be if he had another 30 years to create?
DK: Right! Absolutely. It blows your mind to think about what artists like him would have been capable of if their lives hadn’t been cut short!
For me, the beauty of Art for the Cash Poor lies in the fact that there are amazing local artists … and their work isn’t unaffordable! So, it’s bringing that often-lofty-for-no-reason idea of art to everyone. And teaming up with you guys is another way to make this event for everyone – anyone can be affected by these issues, so…
RR: Yes! And from our standpoint, the opportunity to reach the 5,000 people who come through those doors over the course of the weekend is amazing! We’re going to have an AIDS memorial quilt panel on display – which is, I think, really appropriate…
DK: Yeah, absolutely. Quilting is a form of art!
RR: It’s a form of art, it’s the largest community art project in the world, and it’s a great opportunity for us to reach a community that we may not normally reach.
We’re all interconnected. The arts community has been impacted by HIV over the years, and so I want to see how we can all work together. It’s about how we can maximize it all. We’re constantly looking for how we can get out there and remind people about HIV – because that’s a big part of our mission. Because we’re still here, it’s still out there, this is still an issue in our community. Our work is not done.
Join InLiquid and the AIDS Fund for Art for the Cash Poor 14 at the Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American St. – indoors and out – on June 7 – 9, rain or shine.