By Kelly Donohue, November 2020 Issue.
Chuck Peterson considers himself to be a collaborative leader who wants to work together with organizations from all sectors to eliminate the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Arizona.
The Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS has just hired him as its new executive director to achieve exactly this.
Peterson, who has spent many years serving in the nonprofit sector in Minnesota, was drawn to his new position when he learned of the latitude of services that The Southwest Center offers to its clients — as well as the organization’s aspirations to expand their care and become a well-known safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Too often, I watched the LGBTQ+ community in Minnesota not receive the best care possible, through a variety of stigma, discrimination, and a lack of access to care,” Peterson said.
According to Peterson, Arizona has a higher infection rate for HIV/AIDS than Minnesota. Yet after meeting with Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and other virus experts in the state, he discovered that the two states are very similar in terms of support, commitment to raising funds, focusing on those who are impacted disproportionately and overall ending the epidemic.
That being said, there’s one statistic that has stuck with him during his life of advocacy: 50% of young, gay Black men are more likely to become HIV positive within this lifetime because of stigmas and discrimination that impede access to healthcare and education.
“We see communities of color here in Arizona being impacted disproportionately and at a higher rate than the white community, and that was the same in Minnesota,” Peterson said. “We’re really looking into how to stop that trend.”
This national problem is exacerbated within the southwest region, which is why it is one of Peterson’s most pivotal concerns as he becomes acclimated to his new role.
A new life in Phoenix
After spending so much time serving communities in Minnesota, Peterson knew that his new role at The Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS would not only satisfy his love for learning, but also his need for a little fun in the sun.
“I am a continuous learner, and I’ve never run a healthcare clinic before,” Peterson said. “And also, to get out of the weather I was enduring in Minnesota.”
He said that he’s also impressed by The Southwest Center’s quick response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The organization’s quick moves to support at-home virus testing and remote peer groups within the community impressed Peterson and excited him for the position.
“The Center has been a leader in looking at new ways of delivering services remotely that I don’t think anybody in the HIV/AIDS field had ever thought of.” Peterson said.
As far as his plans for the upcoming year?
Peterson is looking forward to getting to know the Phoenix community throughout the next few months, as well as learning more from the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities about potential gaps in healthcare and wellness services that the Southwest Center can fill.
The new executive director also said that he’s interested in learning “where the community would like to see the Southwest Center go, and then take all that information and really dive deep into strategic planning early next year.”
Peterson has a vision of transitioning the Southwest Center to an LGBTQ+ wellness center, as well as strengthening the center’s level of transgender care and support. Making the resource more accessible to Arizonans in general is a top priority, Peterson said.
Strengthening the organization’s financial and human resources foundations is also a key goal of his for the upcoming year.
“Our staff is our greatest asset,” Peterson said. “If it wasn’t for them, the Southwest Center wouldn’t exist.”
Joining the fight against
Peterson has had plenty of professional experience within the nonprofit sector, but philanthropic work wasn’t always a part of his career plan.
When his best friend was dying of AIDS in the early 1990s, Peterson, along with two of his other friends, served as his primary caregiver. The experience opened his eyes to the reality of the AIDS epidemic and inspired him to work to create a solution.
“It was my first exposure in a deeper sense of the effects of AIDS during the early stages of the epidemic," Peterson said.
During this same time, a Minneapolis adult foster care home that was providing end-of-life care for people living with HIV was actively looking for someone to fill their executive director position. When Peterson heard of this, he threw his hat in the ring and was selected to fulfill the role.
Although he had never led an organization like it before this time, Peterson was excited to begin serving a more professional role within the HIV/AIDS community. Yet he soon learned that working with people who were actively being kicked out of their homes was oftentimes a more upsetting job.
“It was a pretty stressful period at the agency. I certainly saw my fair share of losses,” Peterson said. “After four years of that, I was kind of burned out because of the stress of that environment.”
Peterson ended up leaving that position and beginning work as vice president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations organization, where he focused on professional development and public policy work. It was there that he concentrated on creating incentives for people and corporations to give to nonprofits.
He later switched gears and began serving on Clare Housing’s board of directors, where he eventually became board chair and eventually executive director. He ended up spending seven years with the organization, which makes affordable housing available for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“It was probably one of the most amazing jobs I’ve ever had in my life,” Peterson said. “We were a permanent supportive housing program for people with HIV/AIDS and served an extremely low-income homeless population.”
Peterson said that Clare Housing’s initiative was successful because it didn’t require sobriety and supplemented their work with a trauma-informed approach. During his tenure, he nearly doubled the organization’s housing capacity by building two low-income housing tax credit apartment buildings and tripled its scattered site housing program. He also helped provide the organization’s community care homes with 24/7 support for people who couldn’t live independently.
When Peterson began working at the organization, Clare Housing was providing shelter for about 100 people. By the time he left, Peterson said, the organization was housing close to 1,200.
Beyond what he was able to achieve within the Clare Housing agency, Peterson shared another accomplishment that he’s proud of: in 2017, he was able to help pass legislation in Minnesota to create a statewide plan to end the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The bill, HF 2047, laid out a cohesive plan to end the epidemic by reducing the number of HIV/AIDS diagnoses and providing more treatment, among other solutions.
“It really felt good to have that unanimous support between parties to advance the work in Minnesota to end the epidemic,” Peterson said. “It was a community effort.”
Peterson said it was hard to leave after serving in that position for about seven years, but realized that it was time for someone else to take over in his place.
Working together to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic
If there’s one thing you should know about Chuck Peterson, it’s that he’s not only a passionate learner, but a coactive leader. The new executive director began his work at the Southwest Center toward the end of August and is already proud of the work his colleagues have achieved.
“The staff here is so resilient and so committed to the mission,” Peterson said. “I am inspired every day that I talk to people on our team, and also within the community.”
Overall, Peterson is looking forward to networking with new people and agencies that share his same goals and seeing where Phoenix’s key players can intersect to fight the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Phoenix Fast Track Cities Initiative has a goal of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic within Arizona by 2030. Peterson was able to achieve a similar goal in Minnesota in late 2018 and is working to meet with those leading the effort in the future. However, he knows that it will take more than just one program to combat the crisis at hand.
“We’re all in this together,” Peterson said. “It’s not one single person or agency that’s going to end this epidemic, it’s the collective.”
Peterson thinks it will be important for all of Phoenix’s HIV/AIDS programs to work together and move in the same direction in the future. By reinforcing each other’s missions rather than splitting up resources, Peterson said, the organizations will be less likely to “dilute their impact” within the community.
“I am incredibly passionate about ending this epidemic,” Peterson said. “I’ve seen it from the beginning and would really like to see it end within my lifetime. Anything that I can do to help advance that goal, I want to be a part of.”