Today is my last day at the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office of Philadelphia (AACO). After almost four years at the Department of Health, first as a research interviewer and now as a program coordinator, I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, people and identity. I can honestly say the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it. I have been privileged enough to serve my community as an employee for the Philadelphia Department of Health, which has allowed me to serve among some of the greatest civil servants to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens.
To put the problem in the simplest terms, Mayor Kenney, the interests of those highest at risk of contracting HIV continue to be sidelined in the way AACO operates and thinks about creating health equity in Philadelphia for its most vulnerable populations. AACO is one of the most important departments that affect LGBTQ people of color and it is too integral to our lives to continue to run this way. AACO has veered so far from the place I joined that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but cultural competence was never a vital part of AACO’s success, until our 1509 program was implemented. AACO revolved around community agency competition, control and always doing whatever it took to get clients tested for HIV. I am sad to say that as I look around today, these ideologies still continue. In a recent meeting on August 27, 2019 with AACO’s Deputy Director Evelyn Torres, she said, “Antar, too little too late for any plan now,” when I informed her of the importance and best practices on how to market to LGBTQ communities of color. On September 11, 2019, I asked Health Commissioner of Philadelphia Thomas Farely for not 1, not 2, but 3 meetings to discuss HIV programming with gay and trans women of color in this city, and he stated this to me, “I do not want to get involved in this, Antar,” and refused to give me a meeting. I no longer have the pride or belief in our city’s health leadership to create meaningful health outcomes for marginalized populations.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized there was an issue with me giving a city tour to CDC officials on how their policies affect our neighborhoods.
When the history books are written about AACO, they may reflect that the current director, Coleman Terrell, lost hold of the HIV epidemic. I truly believe that this decline in AACO’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
How did AACO get here? AACO has not changed the way it thinks about leadership. Leadership needs to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you are a young white woman, you will be in a position of influence to make effective changes.
It astounds me how little senior management at AACO understand a basic truth: If the community does not trust you, they will eventually start coming after you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or what the “data” says.
I hope this is not too little too late and can be a wake-up call to all the directors in the Philadelphia Health Department. Make the community the focal point of your work. Without community, you will not create a healthier Philadelphia. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how long they have been with the city. And get the culture right, so people will trust us again. People who care only about stats will not sustain this department — or the trust of the citizens of Philadelphia — for very much longer.