Turning Point: remarks from President/CEO John Peller at 2019 annual meeting

April 26, 2020

AFC's 2019 Annual Report: Turning Point
Review photos from the event

Hi, everyone! Thank you all so much for coming out tonight, and thank you, Terri, for introducing me and for stepping up to lead our Board. You and I have run, swum and biked together through our endurance event program TEAM TO END AIDS so many times, and I’m glad to be alongside you on this new journey. I also want to thank the entire Board of Directors for guiding us into the place we are today, and especially thank Anna for being a great leader and mentor as Board chair.   

Before we dive in to our 2019 successes, I want to acknowledge the existence of COVID-19. Please, let’s take care of ourselves and one another tonight and throughout this epidemic by washing our hands regularly, fist-bumping instead of shaking hands, doing the “Dracula cough and sneeze” or sneezing into a tissue, taking care of ourselves when we’re not feeling well, and the hardest part: not hugging.  

Thank you 

We are at a turning point today because of you — all of you, and many more people who are not in the room. Our mission is to mobilize communities so we can end the HIV epidemic and homelessness in Illinois. We couldn’t achieve this without partnerships with so many communities and individuals. 

AFC’s Board of Directors, Associate Board and Honorary board are each made up of smart, insightful folks who have given time and talent to advance AFC’s mission. 

The Service Providers’ Council, led by Simone Koehlinger, Erie Crawford and Norma Rolfson, is a group of all the leaders in our HIV service network who come together to achieve excellence in HIV care and prevention. We want to thank this group, as well as our subcontracting partner organizations, for serving almost seven thousand clients in AFC’s network last year.  

Thanks also to the clients on our Ryan White community advisory board and our new housing community advisory board. These groups of people with lived experience provide essential feedback and new ideas on how we can improve our programs.   

Our donors, from corporations to individuals, make sure that we can keep powering the movement. We know how passionate you are to help us achieve our vision of making sure everyone living with HIV can thrive and preventing new cases of HIV! I want to recognize some key groups of donors: 

First, companies who share our mission donated more than nine hundred thousand dollars in support of AFC in the last fiscal year. Thank you!  

We’re especially thankful for the 13 companies that each gave more than twenty-five thousand dollars in support to AFC.  They’re part of our Corporate Partnership Program, with Gilead, ViiV and Janssen leading the way.   

Foundations have entrusted AFC with the responsibility of supporting the HIV/AIDS community -- thank you for sharing our priorities. Thanks especially to the Alphawood Foundation and Pritzker Community Health Initiative for their significant contributions. 

Thank you to our government partners, including the Chicago and Illinois Departments of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for entrusting us with the duty of leading the HIV service sector.    

Now I want to recognize the people who dug deep and made gifts to advance us toward zero. We experienced another strong year of fundraising with individuals donating more Guests at annual meetingthan four hundred and thirty thousand dollars in non-event related gifts in the last fiscal year. That’s incredible!  

I especially want to thank our Founder’s Circle, made up of individual donors who gave ten thousand dollars or more.  

Thanks to Our Sable Sherer Legacy Society members, who have pledged to include us in their wills or estate plans. Let us know if you’re interested in joining this committed group of people! 

We are grateful for attendees at Dance for Life, the annual dance extravaganza that raises critical funds for AFC and other organizations. Save the date for the next event on Saturday, August 15! 

Thanks to our incredible AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, Tee Up to End AIDS – our golf outing — and TEAM TO END AIDS participants. They walked, rolled, swam, biked, ran,  golfed,  or cheered along the sidelines. Run/Walk earned a record five hundred thousand dollars in donations last year, and T2 has already sold out their 2020 Chicago marathon spots — amazing!  But don’t worry – there’s still spots left for other T2 events, so sign up today.  

And, most recently, thanks to our World of Chocolate guests, who raised money and their blood-sugar levels at AFC’s annual World AIDS Day commemoration. We couldn’t do it without the incredible chocolatiers who tickle our palates.   

We hope to see you at our events this year, including Gala35, a big celebration of our 35th year and our countdown to zero on Saturday, May 16. Please also join us at AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, which will take place on — you heard it here first — Saturday, October 3!  

Thank you all so much, and thanks to Edward Wagner and the development, special events, and communications teams for building relationships with donors, hosting events, and exciting our community! Thanks also to the Shared Program Services Team, led by Andrea Dakin, for supporting the grants that power our organization in so many ways. Joel Rietsema and the Data Services team do an incredible job measuring the impact of our work. Big thanks to Laurie Wettstead and the Finance team for managing donations and the rest of our complex thirty million dollar budget.  

Finally, and very importantly, I need to give a big shout-out to AFC and the Center for Housing and Health’s 115-person team. We have innovated in ways this past year that are going to leave an important mark on our organization and help us better serve our mission, our clients, and one another. Thank you for holding me accountable, for working so hard day in and out, and for supporting one another with love, chili, hugs and listening ears. I really do appreciate you all. 

Turning point 

But now, I want to talk more about 2019, the year marking a major turning point for us. In December, the Chicago health department announced yet another record low number of new HIV cases in Chicago – they’re down 60% since 2001. That’s huge! Our turning point is also about the science of HIV medications today, which help people living with HIV thrive. HIV meds can help many people living with HIV have an undetectable viral load, which improves their lives and health AND it means they can’t transmit HIV sexually. We call this U=U or undetectable equals untransmittable. Plus, those same HIV drugs can be used to help people who are HIV-negative stay that way through PrEP and PEP. And let’s not forget that we have the Affordable Care Act, which turns 10 years old this month. It provides comprehensive, more affordable health care coverage to people living with and vulnerable to HIV. Since we have all these tools to use – we can finally achieve a plan like Getting to Zero Illinois, which aims to end new HIV cases and connect all Illinoisans living with HIV and AIDS to care by 2030. And we can finally end homelessness in Chicago thanks to the Flexible Housing Pool, an innovative program that spans so many sectors to fund permanent supportive housing. AFC can really turn toward a better future, thanks to our successes in 2019 as well as the 35 years of progress we’ve made as an organization! 

Despite being at a turning point, we still have many challenges in our future. One big roadblock is President Donald Trump, who has spent every moment in office chipping away at the rights and dignity of communities we prioritize, including LGBTQ+ people, Black and Latinx people immigrants, women — and let’s be honest, anyone who’s not a cis- white man. Sure, he has created a plan to end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. that will direct funds to key communities, including Cook County. But until he ends his reign of terror over communities most impacted by HIV and AIDS, it’s a hollow plan. We can do better. 

New look 

Now, for this turning point moment, we really need a new look that better reflects who we are today. AFC’s Communications team, especially Edward Wagner and Ashley Brown, a Branding Task Force made up of staff and community members, and People Who Care, a Chicago-based creative agency led by a team of LGBTQ+ people of color, worked to engage a committee of representatives from across AFC’s many communities to choose just the right outfit for the occasion of ending the HIV epidemic. And here it is: 

I’m so excited to share our new look with you. Let’s be honest. Our old logo was stogy but the new one is strong and bold. And you’ll notice that there’s a circle, but it’s a little irregular. We’re embracing the beauty of imperfection through this circle. Imperfection is humanity – it’s our greatest strength. Perfectionism is unachievable and drives discontentment. It is a product of white supremacy culture, which must be dismantled before we can truly embrace racial equity and achieve our mission.  

AFC represents the coming together of people – this process is imperfect; all people are imperfect; this is where our power lies. What do you think?  

How we got here 

But how did AFC get to this turning point? Largely thanks to our strategic plan, called Positive Momentum. This three-year plan is led by Kathye Gorosh and supported by so many team leads across AFC. It’s a road map toward achieving our five key priorities: Advancing health equity, preventing new cases of HIV, serving as a collaboration and knowledge center, being a bold voice for change, and strengthening our organizational excellence.  

Nine steps in 2019 

Now, I want to talk about 9 significant steps we took in 2019 to achieve these priorities and grow in new ways toward the end of the epidemic.  

1. Launch Getting to Zero Illinois 

First and foremost, after 3 years, 9 town hall meetings, 8 focus groups, a statewide survey, more than 700 public comments and countless edits, we have it: a plan for ending new HIV transmissions in our state and getting all people living with HIV and AIDS connected to care by 2030! We’re going to achieve our 20-plus-20 Target, which is to boost PrEP use and viral suppression by 20 percentage points each. We’ll achieve this by working with partners across Illinois to move levers in 6 key areas. Huge thanks to so many partners on this journey, especially CDPH, IDPH and hundreds of volunteers who have got us where we are today. Thanks too to Sara Semelka, Meg McElroy, and Simone Koehlinger at AFC for leading the plan.  

2. Move to 200 W. Monroe 

This year, we moved offices, transforming the way we work with clients, community partners and each other. We’re now at 200 W Monroe and in state-of-the-art workspaces, thanks to a very generous arrangement we painstakingly negotiated with our landlord. Major thanks to Tom Menard, Heather Remack, Brian Dibblee and the entire Operations and IT team for making the move seamless. We’re so glad to have a lunch room where we can sit down and eat and connect with one another! 

3. Achieve policy priorities  

Our third top nine highlight of 2019 is in policy, where AFC saw some of its biggest policy wins. That’s thanks to our many champions in the state legislature, our advocacy partners and many of YOU who spoke out to your legislators. And the biggest thanks go to Gov. JB Pritzker, who shifted the dynamics in our state toward true health equity. Governor Pritzker lead the charge for the fair tax, an income tax in which families with lower income pay lower rates and families with higher income pay more. It’s just common sense and it’s time we have a fair tax in Illinois – and it will be on the ballot in November, so vote yes for the fair tax! Some of our key legislative wins include expanding PrEP access to youth, banning a practice around copays that prevented some people from accessing PrEP, and making sure the best HIV drugs are available to all Illinoisans on Medicaid. Pride Action Tank also achieved some key victories for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Huge props to Nadeen Israel, Kim Hunt, and the whole policy team.  

Now, help us achieve our priorities in 2020: Join us at Springfield Advocacy Day on Wednesday, April 29, or just stay in touch with our policy progress by texting A-F-C to 40649. 

Annual Meeting guests

4. Grow knowledge and collaboration 

We leaned way in to being a Collaboration and Knowledge Center in 2019. Not only did we offer 67 trainings to our case managers to help them be the best care providers on the planet, but we also created space for dialog around Hepatitis C, HIV, PrEP, and more. Our PrEP and U=U education program Project RSP expanded its scope to provide the latest and greatest wisdom in HIV care and prevention to providers across the Midwest. Big ups to Cynthia Tucker, Jim Pickett, Mara Williamson and so many more folks who supported this work! 

5. Explore new ways of serving clients 

Number five in our top nine of 2019 is a two-for-one. Two projects thrived this year that are dramatically changing the way we support people living with HIV. First is the Safe and Sound Return Partnership, which focuses on finding jobs and housing for Chicagoans leaving jail or prison who are living with HIV. Last year, the program enrolled 108 people; got permanent homes for 15 of them; and, as a first for AFC, trained 25 of them for new jobs in fields like security, construction, automotive assembly and more. Amazing! On more of a systems level, we also convene the Women’s Connection, an assembly of cis- and trans- women of color who come up with new ways of supporting women living with HIV. Huge thanks to Cynthia Tucker and her team for leading these initiatives! 

6. Strengthen HIV case management  

In 2019, we improved the nation’s largest HIV case management system in big ways. First, we conducted a thorough reapplication process for nearly seven point four million dollars worth of HIV care services. This process awarded grants to 31 organizations and 125 case managers. We worked hard to award funding to agencies that are the best at serving the communities most impacted by the HIV epidemic: young gay and bisexual Latino, Latinx and Black men, transgender women of color, and Black cisgender women living in high-incidence areas.  

There are so many ways of measuring our success in our case management program, but we focus on the percentage of our clients whose HIV is virally suppressed. Among AFC’s HIV case management clients, 85% of them have achieved viral suppression. That’s incredible testimony to the power of case management — and it’s a big difference compared with the Illinois average of 54%. Ultimately, knowing who has achieved viral suppression helps us better support those clients who aren’t there yet. Huge thanks to Bashirat Olayanju and the rest of the Care team for always innovating and taking good care of our clients and case managers, and thank you again to our amazing partner agencies and Illinois and Chicago health departments for entrusting us with this work.  

7. End HIV criminalization 

Another thing I’m proud of is the Policy and Advocacy team’s commitment to ending HIV criminalization in the state. In case you didn’t know, there are laws in Illinois and most other states that can put a person living with HIV at risk of arrest and prosecution if they don’t disclose their status to their sexual partners. This law creates HIV stigma, prevents folks from getting tested, and discriminates against our community. And let’s be clear about who is getting arrested and prosecuted – it’s not people who look like me. It’s Black, Latino and Latinx women and gay men, trans women of all races, sex workers, and other people who are already the most marginalized in our society. This harmful law underscores everything that’s wrong with America’s racist criminal justice system. Coleman Goode and the rest of the Policy team leads IHAA, the Illinois HIV Action Alliance, which is convening our incredible partners and advocates and gathering information from Illinoisans across the state to decide the best approach to reforming this law. More to come on this in 2020.  

8. Foster employee wellness 

Our eighth top nine in 2019 demonstrates how we have come together as a staff to make the workplace more equitable and more inclusive, particularly when it comes to race. Our Caprice Carthans speakingRace and Social Justice committee convened an all-day conference called Positive Change that explored the ways race impacts the HIV workforce. Our HR and talent management team, along with the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee, fostered trainings around unconscious bias, racial justice, and leadership. Thanks to Maritza Ruano and the HR and talent management team for their tireless support, as well as our Race and Social Justice and DEI Committees. 

9. Innovate Chicago’s housing system 

And last but not least, AFC helped provide homes to almost 1,600 people in 2019. Our supporting organization, the Center for Housing and Health, has led the charge in Chicago to improve the way public, private, and government entities come together to guarantee that every Chicagoan has access to a good home. Huge props to our housing team for all your amazing work! 

Thank you all again for being with us tonight to see our new logo, our new direction, and our many accomplishments in 2019. I also want to thank Ashley Brown, Brian Solem, and Dustin Erikstrup for producing tonight’s event. Please pick up a copy of our 2019 Annual Report and a couple goodies with our new logo on your way out the door. Now, join us for conversation, fist bumps, hand sanitizer, non-hugs, drinks and snacks in the lobby. Good night!  

Categorized under AFC news, Inside Story and Special events.

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