Douglas M. Brooks, MSW, Former Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy.
The Black AIDS Institute’s Heroes in the Struggle Gala and Award Celebration honors, in a star-studded event and photographic tribute, individuals who, over the past year, have made a heroic contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Below, the first in a series profiling the 2016 honorees.
In 2014, when President Barack Obama appointed Douglas M. Brooks director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), he said that Brook was “uniquely suited to the task of helping to achieve the goal of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” For Brooks, a lauded HIV/AIDS policy authority and a Black gay male living with HIV for 26 years, the significance of his appointment was immense.
As the first openly gay, HIV-positive African-American man chosen to lead the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS, a disease that disproportionately affects Black gay and bisexual men, Brooks entered the ONAP job-the highest HIV/AIDS-fighting post in the nation-with exceptional empathy, insight and concern.
“Having been diagnosed with HIV, living with HIV and being on treatment certainly strengthens my ability to understand what people living with HIV experience. It strengthens my resolve to prevent other people from getting HIV,” says Brooks.
Carrying Out the Master Plan
As the nation’s “AIDS czar,” Brooks worked closely with federal, state and local officials to produce the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States: Updated to 2020-a revision of the nation’s first-ever HIV/AIDS strategy, developed by the Obama administration and implemented in 2010-which details principles, priorities and actions to guide the national response to the HIV epidemic.
Brooks led the strategy’s execution, working to reduce new HIV infections, improve health outcomes for PLWHA and eliminate HIV health disparities in the U.S. This included overseeing the White House’s first meetings on HIV stigma and HIV in the South and pushing the administration to address gay and bisexual men’s HIV/AIDS needs as well as disparities faced by Southern Black and LGBT communities. He was also instrumental in increasing access to Truvada, the pill providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
Brooks had also fought to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic for the previous two decades. Before ONAP, he was the senior vice president for community, health and public policy at the Justice Resource Institute (JRI), a health and human services agency. While there, he oversaw JRI Health, a division that provided residential, peer, legal and other supportive services for PLWHA and people with disabilities, as well as HIV prevention services and a comm-unity center for LGBT youths. In 2010 Brooks was named chair of the board of trustees of AIDS United in Washington, D.C., and appointed to the Pres-idential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
The Next Chapter
After serving as AIDS czar for two years, the Boston University graduate, who has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed social worker, wanted to have a more hand-on experience in the field. “As I was wrapping up my time at ONAP, I wanted to come back into community, but in a different way than I’d been,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to run programs. I wanted to be where there were opportunities to impact community in significant ways.”
Today Brooks works as the senior director of community engagement at Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical company whose product portfolio includes Truvada and other ARVs. In this newly created role, he works closely with communities affected both by HIV and the hepatitis C virus by providing information on prevention and accessing treatment. The work involves developing “whole health” methods that include mental- and physical-health resources, support for substance abuse, and partnerships with academic institutions to help people complete their high school or college education or technical training.
Brooks’ ascendance to the highest anti-HIV/AIDS post in the land and his return to help PLWHA access prevention and treatment methods represents a long journey from his diagnosis with HIV in 1990, when the virus was treated as a death sentence. The ARVs keeping millions of people alive today did not exist; nor did PrEP. Yet 26 years later, Brooks finds himself leading the crusade to institute some of the advancements in treatment that have kept him healthy and thriving.