Interview Exclusive: Darwin Thompson, NAESM
This past January, while the world prepared for the inauguration of our 45th President, black gay men were having a bit of an inauguration of their own. During that same weekend, over 500 black heterosexual and LGBTQ people convened in Dallas, TX for the National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities Conference also known as NAESM to discuss strategies and the past, present and future of HIV work for black MSMs and trans people. It was during this trip that I had the privilege of talking with NAESM’s fearless leader, Darwin Thompson, who, in under two years at the helm, has grown this organization into the force it has become in HIV prevention and services work across the country.
George: What is the importance of the NAESM conference?
Darwin: I think that the NAESM conference is important because it is the only collective conference that brings together black gay men to talk about HIV and health disparities in a way that only affects them. It is the largest convening of health educators, doctors, government officials that really want to keep the focus on HIV and follow the epidemic when it comes to HIV prevention. It is an unparalleled networking opportunity for young professionals with mentorship and different youth development programs through NAESM that are almost nonexistent at other conferences. The NAESM conference helps to uplift the community in ways that have yet to come into fruition.
George : Last year, you were named the Executive Director of NAESM. Tell me how this year has been for you, including some of the highs and lows?
Darwin: This has been a great first year with many changes and much success. We have been able to develop new programs while expanding and improving existing programs we have done for years. We were also able to hire new staff members as we transformed the infrastructure of the agency to improve the quality of the services we offer.
As you saw with our conference, we have created new partnerships and have had new stakeholders invest in us, making our presence not only local, but national. The only thing that can be considered a low is not having sufficient resources to adequately provide services to the volume of clients that we see daily, which unfortunately is a fate many orgs like ours face in the current economic climate.
George: What do you see as the vision, mission and future of NAESM under your leadership?
Darwin: Naturally we will stay true to our mission, which is to address the myriad health and wellness issues confronted by black gay men through advocacy, education and services. It is my plan to expand our housing program as well as our wellness program to provide more case management, mental health counseling and substance abuse counseling. I also plan to ultimately expand into clinical care starting with our PrEP Clinic and eventually being able to provide primary care for the populations that we serve.
George: Was it coincidental that NAESM occurred during inauguration weekend?
Darwin: Yes, it was entirely coincidental. But it turned out to be serendipitous. We never know what collective power can really do in communities that fear abandonment by the incoming administration. The feeling of solidarity with the community coming together as well as just being able to love on each other was amazing, and I’m glad that the conference happened during inauguration weekend.
George: What was the main theme and goal that you wanted people to leave with from this year’s conference?
Darwin: The main theme I wanted people to leave with from this year’s conference was to take hold of their authentic power. This year, we highlighted local organizations that are doing amazing work to reduce health disparities in black gay communities as well around other marginalized populations. We wanted to highlight the successes of these local organizations so that their methods and strategies can be duplicated across the country. I really wanted conference attendees to take away some of the best practices for smaller organizations and less known community advocates. The final thing I wanted attendees to take away from this conference is that the dialogue still needs to continue. We still are a population that is seeing an increase in HIV among our younger members, and as we are seeing less funding for programs we still need to advocate for ourselves to really get to zero.
George: What are some future plans for year two? New sites, new construction, new programs, etc.?
Year one saw the expansion and new site for our Hangout Program. For year two, we want to continue to develop our current programs with an eye in expanding our housing program with the addition of more beds. Planned new programming would be the opening of our PrEP Clinic which is projected to launch within the next month or so. We really want to just build on our current offering of programs as we are in the last eight months of our current strategic plan and formalizing our strategic plan that will take us to 2022.
George: What advice would you give another young Executive Director like yourself?
The advice I would give to another young ED like myself is to really make sure you are ready for this type of responsibility because this is literally a 24/7 job. To understand that when one door says no, there are going to be many doors that say yes. If you stay true to the mission and vision of your organization and you take ego out of the work, anything you want to accomplish can be accomplished.
In knowing Darwin for the past two years, and being a part of the NAESM conference, I can truly say it is one of the most affirming places that allows black gay and trans people to simply be as we are. As the landscape of leadership transitions to being younger, it is important that people like Darwin are able to share their stories, the good and bad, in an effort to teach those who will come after. The epidemic of HIV is far from over. However, with leaders like Darwin at the helm, I am confident that we will be the generation that will see a world free of HIV.
To learn more about NAESM, visit: www.NAESM.org