New SFAF CEO breaks barriers

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 4, 2022
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Incoming SFAF CEO Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy SFAF
Incoming SFAF CEO Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy SFAF

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation announced a new CEO January 4 — only the second in the organization's 40-year history who is HIV-positive. Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., will also be the first non-white leader of the nonprofit health services provider.

TerMeer, who is Black, starts February 14. He gave a phone interview to the Bay Area Reporter shortly before the new year, in which he said he has a lot to learn about San Francisco and is eager to do so as he takes the helm of the city's largest provider of HIV/AIDS and other health services.

"I think as a person who's been working in this field and has been living with this disease for 18 years, I do hope a day arrives when we can end HIV — and I hope it's within my lifetime," TerMeer said.

The 39-year-old gay man brings 17 years of experience in nonprofit leadership to the organization. He was most recently CEO of the Cascade AIDS Project and Prism Health in Portland, Oregon.

"It is an honor to be selected for this role at such a pivotal moment in the HIV movement, and I am looking forward to contributing my leadership to best serve people living with and at risk for HIV in the Bay Area and beyond," stated TerMeer in a news release.

TerMeer succeeds Joe Hollendoner, a gay man who stepped down in May to lead the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The position was held for most of 2021 in an interim capacity by Kevin Rogers, previously the foundation's chief financial officer.

"The board search committee was tasked with finding a leader that could oversee the complex and multi-faceted strategy and service delivery of SFAF," stated Douglas Brooks, the co-chair of the organization's board of directors who chaired the CEO search committee. "We have found that leader in Dr. TerMeer. We have every confidence that he will guide the organization toward even greater progress on achieving the transformational goals of racial equity and health justice outlined in our strategic plan."

TerMeer, who holds a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University in Minneapolis, has also previously served as director of public policy and government relations at AIDS Resource Center Ohio, and as the director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition. He was honored by the White House twice during the Obama administration — first in 2012 as one of America's "emerging LGBTQ+ leaders" and again the next year as part of America's "emerging Black leadership."

Local leaders praised the hiring decision.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who has worked on sexual health issues in the state Legislature, told the B.A.R. that although he doesn't personally know TerMeer, what he has "seen about him seems fantastic." His hiring is a historic choice, added Wiener, that will be globally impactful.

"I am really excited to get to know him and continue our work with the AIDS foundation on so many critical issues," said Wiener. "It is historic and having someone in such a really truly national and international leadership role — the AIDS foundation is an international leadership organization - with deep lived experience that is very meaningful and impactful."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also expressed excitement.

"The San Francisco AIDS Foundation is an important provider of care for HIV-positive San Franciscans and is a critical partner in our efforts to get to zero new HIV infections," Mandelman stated. "I commend the AIDS foundation board for appointing a CEO with Dr. TerMeer's extensive leadership experience and look forward to working closely with him to support the critical work the foundation will undertake in the years to come."

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation will soon have a new leader in CEO Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy SFAF  

TerMeer said that one of his goals will be to find ways to address racial disparities in HIV infection rates. TerMeer brought up a 2016 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found up to half of gay and bisexual Black men who are currently alive will contract HIV in their lifetimes, compared to 1 in 6 gay and bisexual men of all races, and 1 in 11 gay and bisexual white men.

"It's impossible to have a discussion about the HIV epidemic, just as with any other socioeconomic disparity, without addressing race," TerMeer said. "There's trauma ingrained in our society. We need to have a strong understanding of what's happening in communities of color and how we can prevent HIV in the communities we serve."

TerMeer said he is proud to be the first Black head of the foundation and the second who is HIV-positive. The first HIV-positive CEO was Tim Jones, who served in an interim capacity in 2015.

"Black and Brown folks are disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. ... We need Black gay leadership," TerMeer said. "I was not aware I was only the second person living with HIV — though an opportunity to have an individual living with HIV at the helm at an organization is an important one."

TerMeer said he agrees with the foundation's longtime public support for a supervised drug consumption facility. The foundation has long expressed interest in operating one, and late last year the city purchased a site in the Tenderloin that may be used as a location, as the B.A.R. reported.

"In my current role at Cascade AIDS Project, we have taken a position as an agency — and I have taken a position personally — of supporting safe consumption sites," TerMeer said. "I am not yet fully briefed on the work SFAF is doing in this arena, but I know it's among their goals in the year ahead."

TerMeer said that "historically my approach has been to always develop partnerships with elected officials," and he looks forward to applying that experience to the administration of Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors.

"I've made a concerted effort in Portland to have relationships with the City Council, the mayor's office, county commissioners, and the legislators in Oregon," TerMeer said.

The AIDS foundation was one of the first agencies to create a program for long-term HIV survivors: the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. When asked how he will ensure long-term survivors are heard, he said he's "committed to those who came before me and paved a pathway for me to survive. It'll be great to hear directly from the community." In Portland, TerMeer said he helped launch the Aging Well program at the Cascade AIDS Project, which helps aging adults affected by HIV to connect with one another.

"They've really been able to come together prior to the COVID pandemic, and to find community in virtual space," TerMeer said.

That pandemic affected the AIDS foundation's fundraising, and prior to his departure Hollendoner presided over 17 layoffs, as the B.A.R. reported.

TerMeer said that while he's "looking forward to developing a complete understanding of the foundation's revenue and expenses, and to ensure we fulfill our commitments to our donors and the communities we serve ... I've learned the foundation remains fiscally healthy," and "to my knowledge there are no contemplated layoffs in the future."

TerMeer is hopeful about federal goals to end the HIV epidemic. Ending the HIV Epidemic is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' plan to reduce the number of HIV infections by 90% by the end of the decade, though he said this is only possible if the U.S. "can overcome some of the barriers that exist across our country," particularly in the South, which, according to a 2019 CDC issue brief is home to 51% of the nation's total number of new HIV infections, and "the greatest burden of HIV and deaths of any U.S. region."

San Francisco and several other California cities have their own Getting to Zero programs that aim to sharply reduce the number of HIV cases and AIDS-related deaths and reduce stigma. There were 168 new HIV cases in San Francisco in 2020, according to the latest HIV epidemiology report from the city's Department of Public Health.

TerMeer said one reason for the deaths — "in some Southern states, people with HIV have death rates that are three times higher than people with HIV in other states," the CDC stated — is that many Republican-run states did not expand Medicaid after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law in 2010.

"We have the tools in our tool belt to end HIV, but we have to find out how to end HIV in places like the South," TerMeer said.

In California, experts fear already record-high rates of sexually transmitted infections will get higher as people physically distance less and less due to the COVID-19 pandemic — which itself led to problems with access to STI testing.

"I don't bring with me any new specific strategy around STI prevention that we've been doing up here in Portland," TerMeer said, though we must "find ways to reduce stigma relative to HIV and STIs so finding out your status is not a stigmatizing thing, but an empowering thing so that you can take control of your own health."

TerMeer disclosed that he was hired with a base annual salary of $325,000, which he said was based on the recommendation of an outside expert. SFAF's annual budget is more than $45 million.

Updated, 1/5/22: This article has been updated with comments from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

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