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Douglas Brooks knows firsthand the suffering caused by AIDS. During the 1980s and ’90s, he endured a personal tidal wave of loss as dozens of people he knew succumbed to AIDS. A clinical social worker, Brooks has devoted his career to serving people living with, and at greatest risk for, HIV/AIDS. “Sadly, I came to this work because of needing to learn to care for sick and dying friends,” he says.
One of the nation’s leading HIV/AIDS policy experts, Brooks (SSW’99) was recently appointed by President Obama to lead the Office of National Aids Policy, (ONAP), which directs the US response to the AIDS epidemic. In announcing the appointment, Obama described Brooks as “uniquely suited to the task of helping to achieve the goal of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” Brooks is the first HIV-positive African American to hold the position.
Saying he is humbled by the opportunity to serve, Brooks sees his appointment as an opportunity to help shape the national dialogue. “I know personally the pain of experiencing stigma and discrimination related to HIV,” he says, citing a recent survey showing that many Americans still don’t understand how the virus is transmitted, and therefore are fearful of those living with HIV. “Despite our best efforts, the stigmatization, discrimination, and denial persist,” he says. “Moreover, some folks living with HIV don’t seek care because of their own fears. We need smart, caring people to get informed and to talk about HIV with their friends and families. We can end this epidemic, but we need the public’s help.”
In his new role implementing the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the HIV Care Continuum initiative, Brooks is leading the administration’s fight against the ongoing epidemic. Currently, one million people in the United States are living with HIV, with about 50,000 new cases reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And despite the fact that the estimated incidence of infection has remained stable in recent years, in some areas and among some population groups, including young gay black men, the rates are escalating. Success, Brooks notes, would mean that the United States would ultimately be “a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high-quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”
Longtime friend Harold Cox, School of Public Health associate dean for public health practice and an associate professor, says Brooks’ appointment comes at precisely the right time. “We’ve been talking about AIDS for 30 years,” Cox says. “At first, it was in-your-face all the time—so many people were dying. It’s not quite so in-your-face now, but people are still getting sick. Douglas comes to the conversation at a time when we need someone to say, ‘This is still real. It’s not over yet.’”
Brooks got his start in social work as an intern with the Justice Resource Institute (JRI), in Boston. He stayed for nearly two decades, taking on more responsibility and serving most recently as senior vice president for community, health, and public policy. He also oversaw JRI Health, a JRI division offering supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS and other disabilities; HIV, viral hepatitis, and TB prevention services; a LGBT youth community center; and curriculum development, training, and organizational development assistance.
“It was clear from the moment I met him that we had a real leader,” says JRI president Andy Pond (SSW’93). “People are drawn to him. We always thought of Douglas as our diplomat. He’s very passionate, but also very polished, and he can communicate with anybody at any level.”
A former visiting fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, McCormack School’s Center for Social Policy, Brooks brings an impressive list of credentials to his new position. His work representing JRI in national and international public health arenas is an experience that he says served him well in “working with state and federal officials to get to yes.” He also consulted with South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province Department of Health on strategies for developing partnerships among government, nongovernmental organizations, and people living with HIV. And he has served on the boards of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, AIDS United, and the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition. In 2010, he was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, a group that provides recommendations for implementing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
When the White House announced his latest appointment in March, organizations around the country offered approval and support. Craig E. Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, says Brooks “brings a wealth of policy, program, and life experience to ONAP” and has the right background to take “the fight against AIDS to the next level.” Former colleague John Gatto (SSW’87), executive director of JRI Health, says it makes sense for a social worker, who understands the complexities faced by people in need, to lead the fight against AIDS. “Douglas has come up through the ranks serving people with HIV, and living with it himself,” Gatto says, “and he knows we have to address social and economic injustice—homelessness, poverty, racial discrimination, homophobia—or we’ll never solve the AIDS epidemic.”
The appointment of Brooks is historic, Gatto says, “but not just because he understands the disease in a personal way.” Not so long ago, people thought of HIV as a death sentence. “It put you on the fringes of society facing stigma and discrimination. But here we are—someone with HIV is leading the movement at the national level. That’s astounding.”
Brooks, who grew up in Macon, Ga., credits his parents, who were always volunteering, with setting him on a path of compassionate action that shaped his education—and ultimately took him all the way to the White House. “They were huge believers in practicing their Christianity through service, and they instilled that in me,” he says. Brooks found his way to Boston, attending Lesley College, where he graduated with a degree in human services, before earning a master’s at BU.
“I treasure BU and the social work training I received there,” he says. “There is no doubt that the experience has been vital in the work I’ve undertaken and has helped land me where I am today.”