Dear Portland: Meet Tyler TerMeer

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IMG_2552 Photo by Melanie Davis
By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
When I walked into the Hotel Monaco the Saturday morning of Pride weekend to meet with Cascade AIDS Project’s new Executive Director (ED), Tyler Termeer, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, as is typical of first-time meetings. CAP’s Board had looked long and hard for a person to fill some very big shoes, as Michael Kaplan continues to cast a long, legendary shadow on the beloved nonprofit. Helmed in Kaplan’s wake by a talented board and a very talented Peter Parisot, the need for an ED was certainly there, but it never felt terribly urgent. The Art Auction was a success and a redesigned and reimagined AIDS Walk hit the ground running. When I shook TerMeer’s hand that drizzly Northwest morning, I knew CAP made the right choice. First, his resume: TerMeer last served as the Director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition and the Director of Public Policy and Government Relations for AIDS Resource Center Ohio—in that role, he developed the organization’s public policy and advocacy programs, and secured OAC as the leading voice on the intersection of HIV and health reform throughout Ohio communities. TerMeer also served as Director of Men’s and Youth Programs at Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix, Arizona; Prevention Manager at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), where he was responsible for leading a team in building the capacity of state health departments in addressing the epidemic among gay men and transgender populations and for managing NASTAD’s prevention with positives, biomedical, and linkage to care portfolios; and on the national Board of Trustees for National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA), National Quality Center (NQC), and Advocates for Youth. Throughout his work, TerMeer has become known for mobilizing communities to create social change at the local, state, and national levels — the White House recognized him as one of the nation’s Newly Emerging LGBT leaders. TerMeer and his partner, Tim, relocated to Portland from Columbus, Ohio — and TerMeer officially took the helm at CAP on July 16. “This city is beautiful,†TerMeer says. “Coming from Ohio, where I’m used to year-round cold and very flat landscapes, Portland is much more beautiful than I anticipated. You see the pictures, but you never know for sure — Portland has certainly exceeded my expectations. And the community has been so welcoming, which has been really great. So many people have reached out to me; it’s exciting to see how supportive people are of CAP and how excited they are to see someone coming into this position.†In researching TerMeer before our interview, I noticed a common thread throughout his work — a real dedication to community-driven social change. I press him to mine his history and to talk about his proudest moments. “From the time I learned I was positive,†he says. “There was always this need for programs that were supportive of people living with HIV that were designed very thoughtfully and inclusive of what people living with HIV really wanted. I think often organizations can find themselves planning what they think is best for people, and they don’t always meaningfully involve the voices of the people they’re serving. My work in Ohio has always been important to me—even after I left [to Arizona] and then went back—because the community there was really thoughtful about how they included those voices. That wasn’t always the case when I started — when I found out I was positive, I was this young man, very vulnerable and raw, as most people are after their diagnosis. And I really wanted to find a place where I could interact with people who were going through the same things I was going through and who were in my age demographic. While I found that community of people, I noticed quickly that people my own age — as a young adult — living with HIV didn’t really have a safe space. And while the service organizations welcomed them, there weren’t places for people to grow in terms of learning about their disease or to evolve and grow into the next wave of leaders and leadership in the epidemic.†TerMeer pauses  as an angry taxi blares its horn outside on SW Washington. “As I was working and finding my own comfort, I became very excited about a creating a platform for young people to becoming engaged in the epidemic, not only to be a leader in their own health care, but to form them as new leaders in the fight against HIV. One of my proudest moments and programs has been the creation of a leadership summit I designed for young adults — it just celebrated its eighth year in Ohio, and I replicated that program again when I was in Arizona. It’s a weekend retreat where young people gather, and these are people who may not spend another moment talking about their HIV status — outside the conference — because they don’t feel comfortable with that, especially in rural parts of Ohio and in Arizona. It’s an amazing weekend — you see someone blossom, where they’ve taken down the layers of the walls they use to protect themselves. They feel more comfortable talking about their status and their care, and then we find ways to keep them engaged throughout the year. My work really started in social justice. I noticed this lack of services in my own community for young people; and the longer I worked, the more my eyes were opened to the overall impact that the epidemic was having on all of our communities. I spent my time in Ohio and Arizona, and even in DC on the national level, really fighting for the communities who are disproportionately impacted by the epidemic.†TerMeer, on the appeal of Cascade AIDS Project: “One of the things that is the most challenging with the epidemic — we work so hard to bring awareness each and every day, to make sure folks know their status, and if they are positive they get linked to care as quickly as possible, but until we address so many of the other drivers of the epidemic, it’s really a difficult battle to win. That was one of the things that was so appealing to me about CAP. CAP is an organization I’ve known about for years; I’m close colleagues with Michael Kaplan from our work on several boards together, and in the community. CAP has programs that work to return people to education, to the workforce, that address homelessness. Rent Well is nationally renowned. We have these in place so we’re not setting folks up for failure in the system. It’s a broader approach, and that’s what’s powerful about CAP’s model, they work hand in hand with clients to make sure they’re not headed for a rougher road ahead. And they’re not just addressing poverty and homelessness, they’re also addressing discriminatory practices and the new health care system, and combating homophobia and transphobia that are impacting the community — all these things are interlocked and fueling the epidemic.†There’s just such a solid staff at CAP — they’re well educated and they’re passionate about making a difference. And many of them have moved on to such amazing things in their careers, I think that speaks to a really solid organization, when you can launch amazing leaders like that.†After so many years of work and education, infections are still on the rise. Why? “That’s a long, complicated answer,†TerMeer begins. “We worked so hard and for so long to try to turn the tide of discrimination and stigma associated with the disease, and medication has advanced and made peoples’ lives much more long and manageable — when they have ongoing access to care and medication. The big difference is that people of a younger generation haven’t necessarily lived in a day when people were very sick and dying — and I see that all the time, but it’s not something that we can blame them for. We swung the pendulum almost too far in trying to address some of the issues we were facing, and now communities are silent about an epidemic that is really seeing the second wave among many populations, just one of which is our younger demographic.†It’s scary because I have been living with HIV for ten years, and I went my first several years without knowing anyone my own age who was that sick or who was dying. But in the last three or four years, I have seen people my own age who were getting tested for the very first time — probably much later than they ever should have accessed their first HIV test, and not only were they finding out they were HIV positive, they were being handed an AIDS diagnosis — they were sick, they had pneumonia, they had complications that weren’t necessary in an age where we have a rapid HIV test and where they can get easy access to medication very quickly.†I think it’s all of those things, and I wish it was different. You see the media every now and then try to have small conversations, but it always phases out so quickly. For some generations, they have these very impactful moments — where they had their Pedro Zamora or their Magic Johnson or their whoever, and this younger generation hasn’t had this person who has meant so much to them, they haven’t had to see someone very publicly become ill or have to talk about their diagnosis at a time when stigma was so much more real and intense. Not to say that it isn’t very real in many communities, but I think it’s taken a different form for so many people.†After a thirty minute conversation and enough information to fill a short book, I’m more convinced than ever that TerMeer and CAP are the right fit. “Tyler is going to be a terrific addition to the leadership at CAP. He brings a wealth of experience, talent and enthusiasm to the role,†says Charles Washington, President, CAP Board of Directors. “We believe that Tyler is the right person to help CAP navigate the changing landscape of healthcare and to ensure that CAP is best positioned to continue to serve our entire community.†I couldn’t have said it better myself.