Friday, February 27, 2009

Inspiring us with the facts, and his feelings

By Steve Villano

The first time I met Dan Brenner was over 25 years ago in law school.

I was a student, and he, a guest lecturer, in my Communications Law class, which could sometimes be a bit boring. Except, of course, when Dan Brenner taught. There was no time for boredom. His mind raced so fast, his humor was so relentlessly smart, that if you snoozed, you’d lose.

Fifteen years later, when I was hired to head Cable Positive, I saw Dan again at the National Cable Show in New Orleans. I went up to him at the Cable Positive Board of Directors meeting where I would be introduced, and whispered in his ear.

“I’m the only person in the entire Cable industry who’s ever been your student in law school,” I said, catching him off guard for a nano-second, watching his gentle eyes smile before his warp-speed wit went into action. “And, I must have done a good job,” he said, “because you’ve chosen not to practice Communications Law.”

In fact, Dan did a very good job, which is no surprise to all of us who know, admire and love him. Whether working as Counsel to former FCC Commissioner Mark Fowler, as General Counsel for NCTA over the past 16 years, or as a leading voice on Cable Positive’s Board for the past decade, Dan Brenner’s brilliance in his work was only eclipsed by his compelling compassion.

In venues outside of Cable Positive, it was easy to be distracted by Dan’s intelligence and how devastatingly funny he could be, with a few carefully chosen words and nuances. Cable Positive benefited by both of those gifts of his, but they took a back seat to his passion for the organization’s mission and his deep feeling for individuals—around the world—living with HIV. Yes, Dan was our General Counsel at Cable Positive and our strategic advisor on how best to present our programs to Cable industry CEOs. But he is far more than that.

Dan Brenner represents the heart-and-soul of Cable Positive and why the industry’s commitment to fighting AIDS is so unique. He has always understood intuitively—long before he worked meticulously with staff developing our “One-for-One Program” of domestic and international anti-retroviral drug assistance—how a rich and powerful industry can direct its vast resources to help people in need of assistance.

I always respected and admired how he challenged me constantly at Cable Positive, but I loved the fact that, through our work with him in fighting HIV/AIDS, he has been fearless in acting on his deep feelings for others, inspiring all of us along the way.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulating More Interest in Fighting AIDS

What if every dollar lost in the stock market or the real estate market over the first 30 days of Barack Obama’s presidency represented a new HIV infection among our nation’s most important infrastructure, our people?

Would the emergency response have been as swift? Would all of the centers of economic, political and media power have been galvanized to stop the rapid spread of the disease?

I hope so. But even my quiet confidence in President Obama’s commitment to devote more resources and attention to battling HIV/AIDS in the United States wrestles with my worry that the 28-year long AIDS crisis has already taken a back seat to more pazzazy, prime-time problems. The collapse of banks, auto companies, 401K plans, State budgets, and real estate values have been sweeping enough to engender enormous and essential multi-billion dollar bailouts. But what about HIV/AIDS, which continues to infect one new person in the U.S., every 9 ½ minutes?

In a new set of HIV/AIDS related statistics just released by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), 1.7 million individuals are estimated to be infected with the HIV virus, including nearly 600,000 who have already died of the disease. In the last year for which we have complete records, 2007, another 14, 561 people died AIDS related deaths, and more than 56,000 became newly infected with HIV.

Sure, I can take some solace that help is beginning to trickle down, since the stimulus bill (the Recovery Act) signed by President Obama this week, included $10 billion for NIH to expand biomedical research in AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and heart disease. And, I know that the $86.6 billion allocated over the next two years to help states pay for their Medicaid programs, will assist many lower-income people living with HIV. Those are all essential and long overdue, along with huge increases in HIV prevention funding.

But, what’s real always has a way of purifying promises. In 2008, total US federal funding to combat HIV was $23.3 billion, or, considerably less than the bailout given to insurance giant AIG. Of that AIDS money, only 4 percent went toward prevention, and 25 percent of the total amount went to fighting AIDS abroad.

That is simply not good enough to do the work ahead of us in fighting HIV/AIDS. In many American cities and states, citizens who never owned stocks or 401K plans or homes of their own, are faced with the quiet catastrophes every day of struggling with HIV in a society that has lost interest in them, faster than it was lost from bank accounts.

With hundreds of billions of dollars being used to rebuild this country’s collapsing institutions, jobs & infrastructure, attention must be paid to rebuilding the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS—and the President’s State of the Union address next week would be a good place to start.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hard Times, Heightened Help

by Steve Villano

Bill Gates has set the bar high once again, for philanthropists and donors.

In 2008, the assets of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations decreased by 20 percent, dropping from $38 billion down to $31 billion. Spending by the Gates Foundation during 2008—on life & death matters like AIDS, Malaria, TB, and education—was at $3.3 billion. So, what is Bill Gates doing in the face of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression? He is increasing giving, up to $3.8 billion.

To Gates, the reason is simple and direct: people with money need to give more, not less, when times are hard, since suffering is dramatically increasing.

“Foundations provide something unique when they work on behalf of the poor, who have no market power, or when they work in areas like health or education, where the market does not naturally work toward the right goals. . . “Gates wrote in his first Annual Letter, published just last month, that “These investments are high risk, and high reward. But the reward isn’t measured by financial gain; its measured by the number of lives saved or people lifted out of poverty.”

Economic hard times are not the time for foundations and corporations to make the lives of the people their generosity serves even harder. If giving and generosity follow such a trickle-down trail, Gates argues, then “we will come out of the economic downturn in a world that is even more unequal, with greater inequalities in health and education, and few opportunities for people to improve their lives.”

The exact same practical philosophy applies to Cable Positive and our many corporate supporters in the telecommunications industry. Cable Positive is unique within the entire global business community: no other industry has designated one specific public health crisis as its mission to fight with the powerful weapons at its exclusive disposal—valuable television airtime, the talent and access of top people in the industry, and the money necessary to serve local communities and thousands of cable employees around the country. Over the past 17 years, the Cable industry has donated nearly $2 billion of airtime and some $20 million dollars to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Now, more than ever before in the organization’s history, we need more resources from our donors, not less, as our programs—like our brand new Youth AIDS Media Institute, funded by the Motorola Foundation—are reaching more and more people, in the most highly affected communities. Cable Positive has truly become—like C-SPAN—a public service of the cable industry. Now is clearly not the time to pull back on those efforts, but to follow the sound advice of Bill Gates: “I am impressed by individuals who continue to give generously even in these difficult times.”