Ronald Sy, who helmed AIDS Services in Asian Communities for a dozen years, died of complications of an infection earlier this month. He was 54.
Sy served as executive director of ASIAC from 1998-2010. The organization folded in 2013.
Sy moved back to his native Chicago in 2012 and had been working as a consultant for several nonprofits.
Sy began as director of programs for ASIAC in February 1996. He previously worked at Chicago’s Asian American AIDS Foundation, the only HIV/AIDS service organization in the Midwest focusing on the Asian and Pacific-Islander communities.
ASIAC founding executive director Richard Liu said Sy was the agency’s third employee, hired a year after the organization opened.
“The premise of the organization was developed because the majority of HIV infections in the Asian community were among gay men and men who have sex with men, but those cases were underrepresented in the city of Philadelphia,” Liu said. “The epidemic had devastated African-American and Latino communities, and the Asian community was on the same path, but at an earlier stage. Creating ASIAC was a way to step in in that early stage of what would become a worsened epidemic within the Asian community.”
As director of programs at ASIAC, Sy was tasked with managing programs such as the Gay Asian Community Health Empowerment Project, which fused education, support, advocacy and referrals to improve the quality of life of its target populations. A restructuring change led to his title transitioning to program manager within his first year at ASIAC.
With Liu, Sy co-created Project Assist (Asian Specialized Services in Support & Treatment), which provided everything from client advocacy to case management for people living with HIV/AIDS. He also helped Liu launched Asian Langauge Project, the predecessor of the Language Access Project, which focused on translation services.
Liu and Sy conceived of The Jaded Lounge during their participation in the United States Conference of AIDS.
“We came up with an ‘edu-tainment’ approach and created an LGB-Asian safe and affirming space free of the racism from the LGB community and free from the homophobia from the Asian community,” Liu said.
Monthly Jaded Lounge parties were held at 12th Air Command starting in 1997, with Liu co-hosting as DJ and Sy co-hosting under the drag name “Lola Libido.” Each month’s event would focus on a different aspect of HIV and STD prevention.
“It was a hit from the start and Lola Libido emerged as a star educator,” Liu said. “Ron and I could not believe how successful this outreach event was. The monthly fliers were so much fun to create. Coming up with new themes every month sometimes made us laugh until we fell off our seats. To have success in reaching a hard-to-reach population is something we treasured. And somehow it also lifted the esteem of the gay Asian community in Philadelphia to have an event that was their own.”
Sy also pioneered ASIAC’s Phoenix Project, an outreach initiative targeting commercial sex workers at Asian massage parlors.
Sy was also actively involved in The Collective — a coalition ASIAC formed with groups like Mazzoni Center and GALAEI to address sex and drug use among men who have sex with men of color — and Men of All Colors Together.
In 1998, Liu stepped down as executive director of ASIAC and the board appointed Sy to the position.
Junnie Cross worked as program manager and director of programs from 2007-10. She said Sy understood the pressures his staff faced.
“He was a really kind and generous mentor. He was always very invested in all of the staff,” she said. “He knew that the kind of work we did could take an emotional toll on us, so he was very concerned to make sure we were taking time for ourselves and to create boundaries. He mentored us and taught us ways to do that.”
He also encouraged a positive atmosphere at the office, which helped make for a productive staff, said Cyndi Gutierrez, who worked as a care-outreach specialist and an HIV-testing counselor at ASIAC from 2003-12.
“He wanted to make work fun,” Gutierrez said. “He saw it as, this was a serious job but there was no reason you couldn’t have fun. And that helped us all do a better job basically.”
During Sy’s time at ASIAC, the organization was awarded PGN’s 2000 Lambda Award for Oustanding Health Organization and GlaxoSmithKline’s 2006 Impact Award for Outstanding Health Organization. Sy served as grand marshal of the 2008 Philadelphia Pride Parade and was a runner-up for PGN’s 2010 Person of the Year Award.
When Sy left ASIAC in October 2010, he told PGN he was most proud of his ability to grow Jaded Lounge and diversify the organization’s HIV prevention, testing, counseling and other services. He also noted the group’s efforts to work with community members who speak little to no English and its successful partnership with other HIV/AIDS and LGBT organizations.
Outside of his community work, Sy was a gifted cook and also a talented screenwriter, having studied at Chicago Filmmakers School. He submitted several scripts for film contests and wrote in genres from comedy to horror.
“I read a couple of his scripts and they were absolutely wonderful,” Cross said. “They always were so colorful and had really interesting characters who jumped off the page.”
Cross also moved to Chicago after Philadelphia and kept in touch with Sy, whose giving nature persisted, she said.
“He always wanted to help people whenever he could,” she said. “If anybody needed a part-time job or a place to stay, he would do anything he could. He was very, very giving and cared about his friends and family.”
A funeral was scheduled for March 12 in Chicago, and a local memorial service is being planned for the spring.
Sy is survived by his mother, brother and a wide circle of other family and friends.