Powers for Good
by Candy Samples

Blake Strasser

Photo by John Petrozino

I’ve known the fabulous Blake Strasser for the past five years, first being introduced to her when I was talked into signing up as a crew member for the Braking AIDS Ride, benefiting Housing Works in New York City. The Braking AIDS Ride is an intense three-day journey across New York State ending in New York City with over 100 riders and a crew committed to fundraising, raising awareness, and, ultimately, ending the AIDS epidemic. Blake works at Global Impact Productions, the company that produces the annual ride as well as other rides and fundraising events for various causes.

How fitting to have her here for my debut interview for A&U Magazine. Like my song, “Powers for Good,” Blake is someone who does just that in her own life—both in her “day job” and during her extracurricular time, “having participated as a rider for twenty-two years,” Blake says.

She adds: “When I did my first ride I promised I would ride until we didn’t have to anymore.”

Y’all’ve just got to meet my friend, Blake!

Blake Strasser. Photo by Alan Barnett Photography

Candy Samples: In my brief time participating in AIDS rides I quickly learned that the ride “family” consists of some very passionate people that have been affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. When did you first become aware of HIV/AIDS?
Blake Strasser:
I was in high school in Colorado in the mid-eighties and I am ashamed to say it is something people actually joked about. It seemed so distant. Then I moved to San Francisco for college, studying theater and music and everything changed. It felt like I was losing friends as quickly as I could make them. I lived in the Castro my second year and was literally watching my community shrink. Lyndon LaRouche had a ballot initiative to “quarantine people with AIDS in ‘camp-like’ settings.” It was a terrifying time both for the ignorant and the involved.

Did you get involved with HIV/AIDS causes while you were there or did that come later?
I did, but not in an organized way. Lots of protests and helping wherever I could, but it was really a bit of a triage situation everything was happening so quickly.

You were literally “in the trenches.” After your schooling in San Fran, was that when you headed to New York City? And was that when the rides started?
Yep. I did two and a half years of college. Basically took all of my performance classes and then headed out. New York is a bit compartmentalized compared to San Francisco. While New York was also an epicenter of the epidemic, there were huge swatches of the city where you wouldn’t even have known anything was going on. I threw myself into work. I was still losing friends on a regular basis. It’s scary how normal it became. I was numb. Then on a really bad date I excused myself from the table and there was a stack of postcards for the old Boston-to-NY ride by the restroom. I picked one up and called from the payphone right there. I was going to just get info, but ended up signing up to ride. I don’t think I had ridden more than ten miles at that point and I had never fundraised. It just felt right. I needed to get back in the fight.

Photo courtesy B. Strasser

You saw the sign—literally! How long after that first ride did you begin working “in the field,” so to speak, helping organize rides?
I started volunteering a bit after the first year but didn’t officially join the team until 2000. Then I joined Global Impact in 2003 and have been there ever since. The theater company I was co-founder of would always do our final dress rehearsal as a fundraiser and my cut would always go to the ride beneficiaries. That would have been late nineties.

So you got involved with Global Impact before becoming staff there? It must have really spoken to you!
A different company predated Global Impact, but, yes, I was involved as a participant and volunteer before I made the career change. Actually I was on the Alaska ride volunteering on the gear crew when I realized I wasn’t happy doing theater anymore and that what was fulfilling was making a difference through the rides. A few months later a job became available and I jumped on it, never looking back.

Do you find that putting on the various rides is a lot like putting on a show?
A theatrical background did really cross over well. Not just the obvious production similarities, but the listening skills I picked up. Emotions run high on and leading up to the events, and it is amazing and humbling the things people share with me. The challenge of the ride and getting ready for it can leave you a bit raw. It’s like therapy in a lot of ways. You dig really deep and uncover things you haven’t thought of in years if at all. I am grateful for the amazing people this ride brings into my life. It’s overwhelming.

Blake Strasser and Roy Coleman, both former national board members of Positive Pedalers. Photo courtesy B. Strasser

And that’s how I met you—as the rider coach. You gave me the rundown of what to expect and it’s been a life changer for me. How does it feel to have evolved from being that first time rider into a coach for so many embarking on their first journey?
I just feel lucky. I found a way to make a difference when I really needed one. My first ride, I was angry and scared and I was able to channel that into something completely different. The fact that we now have the tools to end AIDS still hits me in waves. I am actually thinking about next steps, which a few years ago I never did. I assumed I would be fighting AIDS into my grave. There is still work to be done, but there is so much hope and an actual plan. It’s amazing. We will all look back at this someday and know we played a role in it. This is one of the rare times when the saying “there are no small roles” is actually true. It’s so many people pushing the boundaries of what they can do that is going to end the epidemic. It’s completely overwhelming. When I look at the people around me, including you, I am humbled to have played the smallest of roles.

Any words of advice or encouragement for the next generation that might be on the fence about participating in an event such as the Braking AIDS Ride?
I always go back to one of my favorite quotes. Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” Anyone can do the Ride; it’s fully supported and our crew will take great care of you. We even have a new incentive for young riders, under the age of thirty, coming on to Braking AIDS for the first time, with a lower $2,800 fundraising minimum. Anyone can help end AIDS, and we need everyone to help! The awareness that is raised and the stigma that is removed by our riders and crew as they prepare is irreplaceable. We are getting closer to ending the epidemic every day and we need everyone to push!

For more information about Braking AIDS Ride, log on to: www.brakingaidsride.org.

Candy Samples is a singer/songwriter drag artist in New York City. In her spare time, she fundraises and raises awareness for many different HIV/AIDS organizations. She is a fierce ally to the HIV/AIDS community and encourages all to use their “Powers for Good.” For more information, log on to: www.samplemycandy.com.