Tyler TerMeer, PhD, the new CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation, talks about leadership, HIV/AIDS, and navigating “dueling pandemics”
by Alina Oswald
“As you flip the page to a new chapter in 2022 and look for a fresh start, don’t leave all of 2021 and its turbulence behind. Sit in the discomfort, challenge yourself to grow, and remember for some of us turbulence is common.” January 1, 2022.
Recently, while browsing through Instagram, I came across the above quote by Tyler TerMeer, PhD. It speaks to a reality that has defined some individuals’ lives, day in and day out, for many years. I read and reread those words, and realized just how deeply they resonate with me, and quite possibly with many others, and felt compelled to find out more about the person who wrote them.
Dr. Tyler TerMeer is the new CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF), an organization that, for the past forty years, has promoted health, wellness, and social justice services for communities most impacted by HIV. He is the first BIPOC serving as CEO of SFAF.
Holding a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration from Walden University, he has served as CEO at Cascade AIDS Project and Prism Health, in Portland, Oregon, as the Director of Public Policy and Government Relationships at AIDS Resource Center Ohio, and as Director of Ohio AIDS Coalition. In 2012, the White House named him one of the Nation’s Emerging LGBTQ+ Leaders, and, one year later, honored him as part of the Nation’s Emerging Black Leadership.
“As a person who has been living with and working in the field of HIV for nearly eighteen years, I have always admired the work of San Francisco AIDS Foundation,” he tells me over the phone. “They are bold, courageous and inspiring in the way that they approach their work. In finding out that this CEO role was going to be a possibility, I was eager to explore and learn more about the opportunity. I’m just incredibly thrilled and honored to be taking the helm in February.”
In an article posted on SFAF’s website, Dr. TerMeer talks about the “pivotal moment in the HIV movement” in which we live. “I think we’re in a pivotal moment,” he reiterates, “because forty years into the HIV and AIDS pandemic, through the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, we finally have the blueprint, tools and resources necessary to end HIV, possibly in our lifetime. However,” he cautions, “that requires political will, and us uniting to help not only the community we’re directly serving but ensuring that there’s an end to HIV in all parts of the country.” That means, ensuring that all people living with HIV across the country can access the vital care treatment that they need.
“The HIV movement, in particular, is a very beautiful case study of what true resilience looks like,” he comments. “It has shown that, in order to continue making strides, we need to [remain] thoughtful and intentional about how we move forward in the epidemic.”
The Foundation has continued to make strides, even in a time of COVID. Yet, all the socioeconomic issues that the most recent pandemic has brought to surface and that are very prevalent in the media right now are not new. They have been the underlying driving factors of HIV in the country for quite some time. “This is a complicated time,” he says, and there’s no “playbook” to help us navigate through all the challenges. What we can do, he advises, is to work together and learn what’s happening in various communities, what’s working and what’s not, and help support the organizations providing programs and services that are responsive to this “time of dueling pandemics.”
Truth is that, during COVID, traditional HIV service organizations around the country have had to offer services in a virtual environment, which required that people they serve have access to a computer and regular Wi-Fi…which is not a reality for many people. The lack of physical appointments, and feeling uncomfortable using virtual health appointments have led to increased isolation and decreased access to medical providers. Add in the increased need for food for those who have been afraid of leaving their home in a time where they might be more susceptible to COVID; and an increased need for emergency rental assistance or housing assistance for those who have lost their jobs or are unable to make the same level of income that they did before the pandemic, and a more detailed picture of life in a time of today’s “dueling pandemics” comes into focus. And that’s only scratching the surface.
“We [also] can’t have any legitimate discussion about HIV without having discussions about all of the other social disparities that are impacting communities and all of those social drivers,” he adds, “including a discussion in our country about racism and white supremacy that have continued to fuel the epidemic, now more so than they’ve ever been,” he points out. “So, one of the reasons I was incredibly impressed throughout the [SFAF] interview process is they have made a strong commitment in their strategic plan over the last several years to ensure that whatever group of folks that they’re talking about, whether it is about black and brown communities or their white counterparts, whether it’s about those who are in a drug user help community or those who are over the age of fifty and living with HIV, that they are focused on racial justice throughout that process, recognizing that all their social drivers impact people in different ways.”
“I don’t take for granted how important this role is, you know. We have a very powerful and important organization with many years of history and impact in the community, and I think that any leader who is coming in [should] hear from the community and figure out how we move forward in such an important time in the world.”
Nowadays, perhaps more than ever, it seems that many individuals are seeking a good leader, a role model, someone to admire and trust, someone to follow; hence, I have to ask, what makes a good leader?
“For myself, [it] is someone who is present,” he answers. “It took me a long time to understand the difference between being visible and being present, authentic.” That means being “honest and transparent about my decision-making processes and how I arrived at those decisions, really engaged in listening not just to be there, but listening to learn, hearing directly from the community about their experiences with the larger movements, also [being] willing to just sit in the discomfort of knowing that every decision that’s been made in the past, and also the ones that will happen in the future aren’t going to be everyone’s favorite. That means acknowledging where there have been missteps in the past, asking for help, and working together as a team to ensure that the people who need us the most have the access they need.
“I have had a really amazing mentor early on in the epidemic or rather in my journey with the epidemic. He was my first boss in the HIV space, former executive director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition, Kevin Sullivan. He used to talk about how as a leader it was his job to build up the people around him in the best possible way that he could, to help them become strong advocates and help people who are living with HIV and AIDS to feel empowered to use their voice and their story as a tool for advocacy and a tool for empowerment and education in what we hope will be the final chapter [of HIV] in our country. I have grounded myself in that throughout my time as a leader, building a community of people around me and whenever possible lifting up people living with HIV so that we’re making decisions that are in the best interest of the community and for the community.”
Looking ahead, Dr. TerMeer is eager to work with SFAF and develop a thorough understanding of the depth of programs and services that are offered, to assess the effects of COVID on the community and do “a thoughtful listening tour of all of those groups of that community to understand that organization’s history—the highs and the lows—knowing that that will put me in the best possible position to lead the team as they work forward towards a future where justice is achieved for all people who are living with and at risk of HIV.”
He believes in the importance of having a strong grounding in community, in order to find the best ways to be supportive, especially of communities that are most impacted by HIV—black and brown communities, people over the age of fifty and in support of the drug-user health movement in San Francisco. “I don’t take for granted how important this role is, you know,” he says. “We have a very powerful and important organization with many years of history and impact in the community, and I think that any leader who is coming in [should] hear from the community and figure out how we move forward in such an important time in the world.”
He adds, “I come to [SFAF] with a strong foundation of most of the work that the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is doing, through my time as the CEO of Cascade AIDS Project in Portland, Oregon, where we have been able to focus on building a robust set of social services and direct care options for people living with HIV and the broader LGBTQ+ community by being thoughtful and responsive to what we were hearing from the community, and I hope to continue that.”
Learn more about San Francisco AIDS Foundation by visiting: www.sfaf.org.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, is a writer, photographer, and educator based in the New York City area. She’s also the new Arts Editor of Out IN Jersey Magazine. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.