National AIDS Memorial Grove will commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Ryan White CARE Act as part of the annual Worlds AIDS Day on Wednesday, December 1. During the noon-time event at the Grove, we will honor three individuals who played key roles in securing the passage of the landmark legislation. We recently caught up with Local Unsung Hero Award honoree Laura Thomas and asked her thoughts about the landmark legislation
It’s a little hard to describe my relationship to the Ryan White CARE Act (now called the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act), as it has encompassed my whole professional career, including pointing me towards my choice of profession, saving the lives of people I care deeply about, and also causing me plenty of frustration and heartache.
I got involved in AIDS activism in 1988, when a roommate dragged me to an ACT UP meeting. Through ACT UP, I worked with a lot of local HIV/AIDS service providers planning an action connected to the 6th International Conference on AIDS here in San Francisco in 1990. Later that year, San Francisco formed its first HIV community planning council, as required by the newly-passed Ryan White legislation. Largely because people, including Health Commissioner Pierre Luddington, knew me from my work with the conference I was appointed to the Council as a member of ACT UP. I don’t know that San Francisco was the only Planning Council that seated a member of ACT UP, but it had to have been one of the few that did so. That appointment changed my life, in truly profound ways. It changed where I went to graduate school. It led to several jobs, including my current one. It led to learning a whole host of new skills. It gave me friends and colleagues who I value to this day. I also got to know some really amazing people who are no longer with us, such as Reggie Williams, and much more recently, Terry Young.
Because of the Ryan White legislation, I got graduate degrees in public health and public policy. Because of Ryan White, I got a job working for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and then the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Because of Ryan White, I went to DC a lot. A whole lot. I met Members of Congress, and learned that, as important as they are, the really important people to know are the staffers, who get all the work done. I worked on reauthorizing the legislation four times, each time struggling to maintain San Francisco’s services, defending San Francisco from people who thought we had too much, did too much for people living with HIV, if you can believe that. I became a true believer in the power of community planning. I learned how to write grant proposals. Big ones. Grants for $40 million. I learned about service categories and “hold harmless” and Robert’s Rules of Order, and I learned more acronyms than you can possibly imagine. It’s the only piece of legislation that I have known parts of by heart. But the most important influences on my life, and the ones that continue to inspire me, are the people that I have met because of the Ryan White legislation. The policy makers, the advocates, the bureaucrats, and the consumers. The people living with HIV, who have told us what they needed, sometimes nicely, sometime not so nicely. The Council members, who have given so much time and thought to improving San Francisco’s services. The providers who have put the funds to such good use, saving lives on a daily basis. The friends I’ve made doing this work, the people I have argued with and fought with, the heroes I didn’t know I had – they are what the Ryan White legislation is all about.
Laura Thomas is Deputy State Director, Drug Policy; and co-chair, San Francisco CARE Council. Join us in honoring her on World AIDS Day at the Grove.