A GoPride Interview

David Ernesto Munar

Personal story: David Ernesto Munar has a personal understanding of the population he serves

Mon. March 3, 2014  by Terrence Chappell

It’s my calling to work to better the lives of people affected by HIV. That’s who I am, and that who I’m going to be at Howard Brown.
David Ernesto Munar
Education gives you credentials. Experience implies you are qualified while results means you can get the job done. However, in regards to community service education, experience, and results doesn't automatically mean you have a deep, personal understanding of the populations you serve. David Ernesto Munar has that deep understanding. Twenty years ago Munar was diagnosed HIV+ at Howard Brown Health Center. But Munar's story isn't just about his diagnosis alone, but how he has leveraged his personal story as way to serve others. As CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) ,Munar has worked to serve those diagnosed HIV+ through his advocacy work with the Midwest AIDS Policy Alliance, working in collaboration with other organizations such as Center on Halsted in the fight against AIDS, and overall creating a stronger forefront for conversations and policies surrounding AIDS and HIV+ people. The seasoned advocate brings his experience and personal story full circle by stepping up as the CEO of Howard Brown Health Center.

Munar opens up to ChicagoPride.com about his personal vision for Howard Brown Health Center, how he sees AFC and Howard Brown working together to take innovative approaches to help those diagnosed HIV+, and how it feels to head the same organization that he was diagnosed HIV+ twenty years ago.

TC: (Terrence Chappell) Congratulations on the new role with Howard Brown. How did this come into fruition?

DM: (David Ernesto Munar) How did it come about? That's a good question. I've been working with Howard Brown for a long time. I knew that they were looking for a new leader, and I've been talking to my friends at Howard Brown for a while. So, through that process we started talking more, and I applied for the position without having a whole lot of expectations of how that would go, and the rest is history.

TC: You've also worked with Howard Brown in the past as well.

DM: I've worked with Howard Brown employees for as long as I've been at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. So, I'm very familiar with the organization and the good work that Howard Brown does. I was actually diagnosed with HIV at Howard Brown twenty years ago. So, I've been a client. I've been a research participant. I've supported the Brown Elephant. I've looked to Howard Brown, like many of us, as a leader on health matters for the LGBTQ community.

TC: What's the first thing you want to do once you step in as CEO?

DM: There's so much. First and foremost, I want to reestablish the connection of the organization with its patients, its clients, and the community. Howard Brown is a community-based healthcare provider, and I want to make sure we are listening to the community and our patients, accessing community health needs, and identifying strategies to respond to those needs are fundamental. Restoring a sense of engagement with the community is really important to me. Our mission is to serve, to champion better health for community members however we can. It's important for both the institution and the community.

TC: So, you think there's a problem with Howard Brown's relationship with the community?

DM: I think that the community is not satisfied with the engagement it has received from Howard Brown. I think that's clear. I've heard it from individuals who I've spoken to and those who have spoken to me. I've read it in gay media. I don't think we as Howard Brown should be satisfied with the engagement that we provide the community. Community engagement is not a destination, it's a journey. It's something we have to do continuously.

TC: How do you plan to reengage Howard Brown with the community?

DM: Engagement is multifaceted. We have to share more information about who we are, what we're doing, why we are doing it, and how we're doing it. I think that there are incredibly powerful stories about the work, the people, and the values of Howard Brown that I'm excited to communicate with the larger community, because I'm inspired by it and I think many others will be as well. We also have to listen to the community and understand what the emerging concerns are in the broad spectrum of the community and LGBT health. We also have to learn, we don't have all the answers. There are challenges in our community that are complex and much bigger than any institution.

TC: What are your thoughts on Howard Brown as a healthcare provider?

DM: The organization is poised to become a full-fledged qualified health center, which would be a way to expand its services as well as earn the federal government's stamp of approval. Currently, it has a designation as a federal qualified health center look-a-like. So, it's a step below being a full-fledge qualified health center. I think working with the staff to meet the requirements of a fully qualified federal health center, going through the application process, and trying to move the organization to that next level is an important goal.

TC: It's also no secret that Howard Brown has had some financial hardships in the past.

DM: To improve the financial stability of Howard Brown is my third big goal because the organization has had some challenges. Without a strong financial foundation it's going to be difficult to grow, to be responsive to community needs, and to provide a full continuum of care. It's showing that we're doing everything possible to meet the high standards of nonprofit management including financial sustainability.

TC: What are those challenges?

DM: The challenges that we see around homelessness and marginalization in the LGBTQ youth are examples. That's an enormous systemic, societal problem and Howard Brown and BYC are a part of that response. But we alone are not able to fix this problem by ourselves. We need to listen to the community and understand the realities of the young people who need our assistance. We also need to work collaboratively with lawmakers, and other health, housing, and social service agencies, families, parent groups, schools. It's a very dynamic challenge and one that we are going to have to lead into, try to unravel, and figure out how we can contribute to the appropriate response.

TC: How does it feel to now head the organization you once were a client of 20 years ago?

DM: It's surreal. I gotta tell you the truth. Howard Brown this year is commemorating 40 years of service, and it's my 20th year of living with HIV. Twenty years ago when I received my diagnosis Howard Brown, then located at George and Sheffield, it was one of the hardest experiences of my entire life. It was deeply traumatizing. I was 24-years-old, and I didn't think I'd be alive today. I expected to not make it to age 35. So, to now be preparing to go back to the agency not as a client but as its CEO is remarkable but humbling.

TC: Do you see Howard Brown as more than just a healthcare provider for the community?

DM: I know there's going to be someone at Howard Brown this week who will receive the news I received 20 years ago and be just as terrified, feel just as alone, be just as scared, and be just as needy for compassionate, accurate, and affirming healthcare and emotional support services. So, we bear a big responsibility to provide that excellent clinical experience because it has an enormous impact. Folks who come through our doors deserve the best care possible.

TC: How will your work with Howard Brown differ from your work at AIDS Foundation of Chicago?

DM: Howard Brown is a direct service provider. It's a healthcare provider. Our mission is to provide excellent, continuous health and wellness services for anyone who comes through the door regardless of the ability to pay. We specialize in non-judgmental, compassionate care for the LGBTQ community, but we're not exclusively serving the LGBTQ community. We have a sizable number of clients who receive their HIV care from Howard Brown. It's one of the largest providers of HIV care and AIDS. So, it's a very different organization than AFC in terms of the services it provides and its mission and its position as a nonprofit.

TC: Do you see the two organizations ever overlapping?

DM: I see so much overlap. The entire field of HIV work is being transformed by the new Federal Health Reform Law. So much of my emphasis in the last three years has been understanding the implications of the law and mapping strategies to make sure people affected by HIV can receive maximum benefit because of the law.

TC: And what does that maximum benefit look like?

DM: When I talk about maximum benefit I don't just mean gain coverage for insurance. I mean actual use of their newly minted insurance, so that their health and lives improve. That's the goal in HIV now, and that's exactly the goal at Howard Brown now. Our job is to improve people's lives through health and wellness services.

TC: How do you think the Affordable Health Care law will affect Howard Brown?

DM: I think with the new health reform law there's going to be a tremendous amount of innovation at community health centers like Howard Brown - that's exciting. I envision Howard Brown becoming a leader in identifying those innovative approaches and working with other partners across the city and nation including AFC to bring new models of care to scale.

TC: I'm sure you will be missed at AFC.

DM: I adore AFC. I wasn't looking to leave. This opportunity presented itself and I seized it. I love the staff and the work at AFC. It's been a fantastic place to grow up; I've literally grown up here. It's bittersweet. I'm proud of my accomplishments at AFC. I know that the staff here will carry forward with AFC's mission without missing a beat. I feel capable of stepping down and knowing that the work will continue.

TC: But you will be able to continue your work in HIV at Howard Brown.

DM: I'm very conscious that the fight against AIDS is nowhere near over. We're not close to ending the epidemic. That's why AFC's work must continue. In fact, AFC will need strong partners in the field and I know Howard Brown has been a strong partner and will be an even stronger partner under my leadership.

TC: You mentioned that there's some overlap in AFC and Howard Brown's work. How can the two organizations work together?

DM: We're already working together and have since AFC was founded. I think it will be a mutual, but not exclusive partnership. AFC needs to learn from the best medical providers. Our clients need good medical care. Direct service providers need a strong advocate and a strong entity keeping HIV front and center in the minds and hearts of individuals, foundations, corporations, and the public. I think it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

TC: How has your HIV+ status influenced your work?

DM: At least in my role with AFC it has always been a perspective that has improved my leadership. I can punch in and out of the clock, but HIV is with me morning, noon, and night. It's a part of my identity for better or for worst. It's my calling to work to better the lives of people affected by HIV. That's who I am, and that who I'm going to be at Howard Brown. You kind of bring your whole self. Your experiences, your upbringing, your background, and that's shaped my perspective absolutely.

TC: How do you plan to celebrate your new job?

DM: It's exciting, and it's a big change for me. I want to celebrate the accomplishments. I'm proud of this and excited for this new challenge, but nothing has happened yet. I'm looking forward to the day when I can look back and say collectively with a fantastic staff, the board, and the clients, we achieved these objectives.

Related: David Ernesto Munar to head Howard Brown Health Center

Interviewed by Terrence Chappell