May 17, 2010
David Munar: Growing at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago
by James Wortman
The AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s vice president, David Munar, discusses his career as an advocate, the challenges facing the Latino HIV/AIDS community and his efforts working with the White House to develop a national AIDS strategy.
How did you first become involved in HIV/AIDS work?
I got started almost out of college. I was a year out of school, and I was working at an immigration rights organization helping undocumented individuals obtain amnesty. I was always interested in doing advocacy work. I did work at the university level on LGBT rights, and I knew I wanted to be working for social change.
A friend of mine from school recruited me for an entry-level job here at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago in 1991, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve had eight different jobs here. It’s been an enormous learning experience, and I feel very privileged to do this work. While working here in 1994 I learned that I’m HIV positive, so that also deepened my passion for this work.
Tell us about your work forming the Campaign for a National AIDS Strategy.
We started in 2007, and it was inspired by the Open Society Institute report on blueprints for a national AIDS plan. We wanted to make sure that something happens with that idea. It’s a big idea that the United States should have a national strategy, [which is what] we require of PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]–focused countries.
A big focus initially was both to get the community involved and put together a pretty scrappy Web page and call to action, where we solicited organizations and individuals to endorse this idea. Then we conducted pretty aggressive outreach to presidential candidates in 2008 and were very successful in the Democratic field with virtually every candidate eventually endorsing the idea of a national AIDS strategy. And then in October 2008 we secured support from [Republican presidential candidate] Senator [John] McCain, which was very exciting.
We have been engaged with the White House and Jeff Crowley’s office and staff [Crowley oversees the Office of National AIDS Policy] around developing recommendations and making sure that there is a conduit between all of the community advocacy around this idea and the White House. So it’s been exciting and really fascinating work. We’re looking forward to the White House releasing a plan later this year.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in advocating for a national AIDS strategy?
Like with any worthwhile endeavor, there are lots of challenges. Principally, the first challenge was changing the discourse around HIV/AIDS within our own community, but mostly outside [the HIV community], to send the message that better outcomes are achievable. We have the tools at our disposal to curb the epidemic in the United States. [But we need] a better process to focus on those activities and strategies that we know will make a difference. I think that lots of folks either believed that HIV was gone from the United States or that it was entrenched and we could never change it.
Another thing that’s been really hard is that HIV is a complex disease. It’s really multiple epidemics in communities all over the country and affecting many people. [HIV/AIDS] is fueled by many other cofactors, so one of our essential organizing things is that the government should take a leadership role in setting limited priorities, and it’s hard to find what those right priorities are.
We know that the epidemic predominantly affects certain communities and populations, and we know that certain issues are perpetuating HIV, and we know that we can achieve some significant progress like housing, linkage to care [and other] health care provisions. We wanted to make sure that those were flagged and were made a high priority, but this is still a complex epidemic, and we’re still going to need a lot of work to occur on issues and in populations that are likely not going to be identified by the federal government’s plan—and those are legitimately important. And that’s tough.
I think that’s a struggle between setting priorities and [creating] a long laundry list. The government should set some priorities and map out a couple of limited things that will make a big difference while making sure that we keep our eye on the prize and are not so focused on those priorities that we don’t miss another emerging issue or other ways that we can tackle those challenges.
You’re a first-generation Colombian American. What do you see as one of the primary factors driving new HIV cases among Latinos?
The Latino population is not monolithic. There are big variables in terms of nationality, immigrant status and assimilation. That said, I think that there is enormous silence around HIV in the Latino community, and that perpetuates misinformation, stigma and a lot of self-loathing among Latinos living with HIV. And that’s a huge barrier to prevention and care. I also think health care inequality is an enormous challenge, particularly for undocumented Latinos. And that disparity is only going to widen with health reform.
The AIDS Foundation of Chicago spearheaded the Chicago Female Condom Campaign’s “Put a Ring on It” initiative. Do we need to start a larger conversation about female condoms, especially since men who have sex with men (MSM) can use them too?
Absolutely! We at the foundation really believe sexually active individuals need as many options as possible to protect themselves and their partners. That’s why we’ve been a longtime advocate of microbicide development to give women and men new choices to protect themselves.
We started and continue to nurture the International Rectal Microbicides Advocates, which is an international group championing research—and investment in research—for a rectal microbicide. We are a big proponent of male condoms, but we’re really interested in all sorts of new ways for people to protect themselves.
Our female condom campaign has an explicit section on how the female condom can be used for anal intercourse and among gay men, recognizing that it can offer a new choice for men who find think the male condom is cumbersome or who want to try something new. It’s unfortunate that it’s called the female condom, because it’s really a new condom option for receptive partners.
What do you enjoy most about your role as vice president for policy and communications at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago?
It is an enormous privilege to work every day on a cause that I am so passionate about, and on behalf of people like me who are living with HIV. I think we all bring our baggage to work, and I think it’s important that we do, because it informs our work to make sure that it’s targeted in the right ways. There is always a lot to do, but it’s all very rewarding, and it’s all on a scale to help our community. So that’s a great privilege.
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