Echo Inducts Jeremy Bright into Hall of Fame

Class of 2017

By Staff, November 2017 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2017 here.

In 2014, Jeremy Bright was hired by the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS as its testing and men’s program manager tasked with overseeing the center’s HIV testing program and building a community outreach program.

His mission: recruit volunteers to distribute condoms in bars. His resources: three remaining volunteers from the previous project and one staff member who was interested in being involved. The result: IGNITE Your Status was born (fing out more in “Igniting the Conversation” here.)

According to Bright, IGNITE started with a conversation in the lobby of Southwest Center with four passionate members of the community who answered the question, “What do you want this project to do?”

This laid the foundation for the new volunteer-led outreach group.

“Our mission [is] to normalize the conversations around safer sex and HIV in the Phoenix LGBTQ Community,” Bright said. “We still needed to hand out condoms – someone was giving us money to do that – but the founding [IGNITE] crew members felt we could do more and wanted to spark a dialog about HIV in a really fun and community-centric way while doing it. Right out of the gate, we were striving to do more.”

Three years later, IGNITE has a planning council, a dedicated crew of nearly 70 volunteers and some much more specific goals.

“We have some hard numbers we measure … But some of the work we do around stigma, normalizing conversations around HIV and addressing feelings of isolation faced by people living with HIV are often softer measurements,” Bright explained. “Now that we have a stronger footing and recurring events in the community, we’re working toward formalizing longer-term measurements of actual effectiveness against the HIV epidemic.”

Since IGNITE’s inception, Bright reports that it’s grown from distributing 20,000 condoms a year to more than 180,000 condoms. Southwest Center has also seen an increase in testing from 150 people a month to over 550 people a month.

“Those are huge increases and definitely reflect the impact of the work from our amazing crew members and also our community’s willingness to embrace the work we’re doing,” Bright said.

Bright’s role has also evolved with the successes IGNITE has experienced. Today, he’s the center’s director of marketing and community outreach, and he now splits his time between community outreach (75 percent) and marketing for the center (25 percent), based on funding allocations.

“Those are huge increases and definitely reflect the impact of the work from our amazing crew members and also our community’s willingness to embrace the work we’re doing,” Bright said.

Bright’s role has also evolved with the successes IGNITE has experienced. Today, he’s the center’s director of marketing and community outreach, and he now splits his time between community outreach (75 percent) and marketing for the center (25 percent), based on funding.

“I think everyone’s role in a nonprofit is ever-evolving … HIV testing and treatment methods change quickly and new funding comes in that can cause you to shift how you work. It keeps things fluid and interesting. The work continually evolves – but the common theme is to stay flexible, adapt, and keep a strong focus on the mission.

While you won’t catch Bright in the spotlight or poised as the face of IGNITE (unless he’s in drag as his alter ego, Rainbow Bright, raising money for a good cause), he has humbly asserted that he’s motivated by work that feels mission-focused and meaningful, and that he feels good about what he’s doing right now. Which is, as he puts it, a perfect storm, one where his professional experiences were finally aligned with his passions, that had been brewing for many years.

“When I was living in Richmond, Va., I was 21 and had a boyfriend who dumped me hard,” Bright recalled. “I went to a friend’s house to cry it out and, while sitting on his patio, he told me, ‘at least you don’t have to get out there and date while you’re HIV-Positive.’”

This was the first person to ever disclose their status to Bright.

“What was even more mind-blowing, was his partner was negative,” he continued. “It was the ’90s … I was just beginning to try to figure this world out, and that really blew my mind at the time. However, while watching them hold each other and smile, they showed me an amazing side of love that inspired me to get more involved to help people like these friends.”

Bright I knew some people who said they volunteered at an AIDS organization downtown, so one day he just walked in and said he wanted to help. And he’s been involved in some way around the cause ever since.

“There are amazing HIV organizations in Phoenix, but there are a number of reasons why a person who is living with, or at risk for, HIV may not feel comfortable walking into any of these organizations on their own,” he said. “IGNITE has the opportunity to meet people where they’re at and bring the “person-next-door” approach to normalize those conversations and get people more engaged in their sexual health – without it feeling like a lecture, a chore or too clinical. In a nutshell – I feel we aim to step outside of the agencies, into the community, to let people know it’s OK to know your status and IGNITE it – whatever it is.”

Web-Exclusive Q&A with Jeremy Bright

EchoLet’s take it back to where it all began, sort of. You’re originally from Virginia Beach, what brought you to Arizona and what year was this?

Bright: Born and raised in Virginia Beach – I moved to the “big city” of Richmond, Virginia when I was around 20 years old. It was there I worked my first volunteer shift with an AIDS organization. At the time, that work was hospice work – reading and playing board games with folks who were dying of AIDS-related illnesses. It affected me more than I realized at the time. As I moved on to live and volunteer in Fort Worth and Atlanta over the years – I saw the different ways the virus affected people – and how we approached HIV in communities as testing and treatment for the virus improved. I moved to Phoenix in 2012, chasing a dying relationship that lasted all of 2 weeks after arriving in the Valley. So, I started finding the things I wanted back in my life and began volunteering with Aunt Ritas. There, I helped to create an “I Know Mine” campaign that you may remember seeing in the bars around National HIV Testing Day, circa 2014(ish). I loved the way that campaign showcased and empowered our amazing bar staff to stand together and support one message of getting tested. That campaign couldn’t have worked without a spirit of community – and it showed me a touching side of Phoenix as a new resident when the bars came together to support it. It was also the first time I ever designed urinal screens for people to see the testing messaging while hovering over a urinal (photo attached). I like firsts!

EchoDo you have any family you’d like to introduce our readers to? Mom/Dad? Partner? Pet?

Bright: My family’s pretty cool. I was born the son to a Director of Juvenile Probation and a Social Worker, and I have a sister who’s now a school teacher. I really admire the work my parents did to advocate for troubled youth for over 40 years. Fun fact: my mom also had a side gig as a Sex-Ed teacher when I was a kid – which made me know all about condoms pretty early on and talking about sex regularly. It also made school feel REALLY awkward when mom’s class was in session. I’m sure a therapist would love to get her hands on that.

EchoTell us about the void in the community that IGNITE aims to fill.

Bright: My hope is that IGNITE delivers core HIV services in a fun and exciting way to the community and makes trustworthy introductions for people with Southwest Center or other organizations for ongoing services …

Echo: Was it always the awesome crew of volunteers we always see working in the community today? Will you recap the evolution for us?

Bright: IGNITE started with 4 amazing volunteers and was designed to always be peer-driven with people who are actively part of the community we serve. IGNITE isn’t a program you volunteer for if you need 10 volunteer hours to satisfy some sort of check-box at school or work, and it also isn’t a project where one person is stands out in front as the “face of IGNITE.”

We work together to complement each other as a group and definitely seek people who are looking to be involved in the community longer-term and have some sort of connection to the cause. It’s important to our community that our crew is always smiling, polite, high-spirited, mission focused and invested in the community we serve. It makes such a huge difference when building rapport and delivering services. We have 68 amazing volunteers today, many of which have participated in extensive trainings to grow their own skills to provide HIV Testing, PrEP Navigation and even Chat Group Facilitation. Our volunteers have the flexibility to decide what they want their level of involvement to be and, if you want to do more, we want there to be ways for a person to grow and explore. Each person has a different background – ranging from doctors to strippers to students – and each person’s experiences bring something amazing to the project

Echo: From turnabout shows to support groups and the Phoenix Pride parade to so many recurring events, the IGNITE Crew stays very busy! How do you decide what new events to tackle and/or determine the avenues that are most effective?

Bright: We established a planning council that meets monthly to focus on community needs, funding sources and our crew’s passions to plan our activities. Typically, I’ll bring a list of services we need to provide to the community, along with what kind of budget we’re working with (which is sometimes $0), and from there we brainstorm the heck out of it, leverage partnerships, find funding sources or “angels,” and then determine how we can best support those needs. I have a bit of an advantage in that I’m dedicated to this 50 to 60 hours a week and it’s also my background, but the crew is never short of amazing ideas they also bring to the table. I feel strongly that our approach needs to always be community-centric and we need to give to our community in some way before we ask anyone to engage in our mission. This year, we had the ability to add a new monthly testing event to our calendar – and so we created Drama-Rama! It’s a free monthly movie night where we not only show an LGBTQ film favorite, but we have a live drag show before the movie and a chill environment with bean bag chairs for people to relax and get comfy. Oh – and we also provide HIV testing, condoms and The PrEP Guy is there to answer questions during the show. I think the secret is in the approach. Instead of spending our budget printing our logo on pens, pads of paper or whatever other kinds of swag you may pick up (and throw away) at a festival – we try to leverage and maximize our spending to build budget-friendly programs for the community first, and then inject our mission into it as seamlessly as possible. While we need to do the work – I also feel strongly that it’s our role to create an engaging spirit around the work we do to IGNITE the community and normalize the conversations around safer sex and HIV. That kind of participation and community focus goes a long way to build synergy and excitement within our own Crew and rapport within the community for the work. On the surface, it looks like we’re out there having a lot of fun – but we’re actually getting an incredible amount of work done while really enjoying the time spent with our community. It’s been a really innovative way to approach this work to align with what HIV looks like in 2017.

Echo: Let’s clear up any confusion: Who are IGNITE’S events aimed at? Who all is invited?

Bright: Today, our primary focus is serving Phoenix’s LGBTQ community – regardless of a person’s HIV status. From there, if we host an event like our Monday Night Chats, Monthly Mixers, Dinners or Drama-Rama and we love to see our entire community come together to participate with us and we try to keep things as fluid as possible … We try to keep a range of activities on our calendar that meet the needs of underserved populations, mainstream populations and little in-between for our amazing LGBTQ community.

Echo: What would you consider your greatest feat?

Bright: Personally, my greatest feat was learning to be an HIV tester. From finger sticks to performing blood draws – I can honestly say these are things I NEVER saw in my future. I still can’t look when someone else is drawing my blood, yet I can draw blood for 30 tests a day. Who knew! But beyond the blood factor, the even greater feat was facing the challenge of giving a positive HIV result. I can remember every face, every reaction, every tear, and every ounce of bravery from individuals during those moments in the testing rooms. I’ve known friends who found out their status from a cold letter from the blood bank, from lab results delivered on a mobile app, and even grumpy testers who needed to keep up with the 4 hour backup in the waiting room. It’s important to me that those moments are a sacred time for that person, where nothing else in the world matters. And even if your heart is shredding inside while listening to the person’s story – I strongly believe that every effort needs to be made to ensure the positive diagnosis is treated with dignity, hope and support for the person. A person is never just a number – but a member of my community – and I’m humbled that I’ve had the opportunity to provide help and resources to some pretty amazing people.

Echo: Who are some of your role models/inspirations and why?

Bright: Kirk Baxter is one of the reasons I love working for Southwest Center and he has definitely made an incredible impact on the spirit of IGNITE. Over 25 years ago, Kirk saw a community of people who had nowhere to turn, and he faced the adversity head-on and established a place of hope that had a strong spirit of helping people first. No egos and no office politics (at the time, there was no office to have politics), just purely a mission focused on people. His love for the community is what made Body Positive and Southwest Center a stand-out in the community, full of love and hope. Each month, we hold our planning council meetings on the floor of my living room, around a coffee table as a tribute to our grassroot origins. Being able to see him and work alongside of him is an incredible honor and beyond inspiring. The torch of his founding spirit is something we hope we continue to carry with the same spirit and love that Kirk has always had for our community. I admire him more than words could ever say.

Echo: Do you consider yourself a role model? Why/why not?

Bright: I’ve been asked this before and I think struggle with that label because, for me, it can imply a hierarchy or class, and I really love collaboration. I work alongside so many amazing people that bring such incredible sets of skills, talents and passions to the table with varying levels of experience, background or education. I love to work from a place where we embrace and develop each other’s strengths and come together to support each other’s weaknesses. Then, I feel, we get to create something spectacular, together! #TeamWorkMakesTheDreamWork

Echo: What advice do you have for anyone looking to dedicate more time to a cause they feel passionately about?

Bright: Do it. Today. Determine what you feel is a reasonable contribution of your time each month and stick with it! Most people don’t give their last dime in cash donations to a non-profit – and you should have a budget for your time as well. That’ll keep your non-profit from burning you out – but it’ll also keep you accountable, reliable and continually giving. We need people we can build a relationship with and look forward to seeing each month!

Echo: Where do you see yourself five years from now? And where do you see IGNITE five years from now?

Bright: That’s a tough question – I’m not sure. I’m not motivated by money or prestige, rather I’m more motivated with work that feels mission-focused and meaningful. So I doubt I’d have my sights set on anything that removes me too much from hands-on interaction with the community. I don’t have an urge to keep climbing for the sake of climbing. I’d rather know I’m kicking ass right where I’m supposed to be – and for the most part – I feel good about what I’m doing right now. I hope IGNITE is still a big part of this five year peek into the future. We have a lot more work to do and there’s a really exciting momentum that I’d like to see continue. If this peek into the future should also include a wish-list, I’d love to see a team of PrEP Navigators leading a funded program that provides wide-spread access to PrEP and medical services to the people who need it – including to our undocumented friends. We have all the tools to stop new HIV infections – and now we need to cut the red tape to get wide-spread access to both prevention tools and treatment to everyone. A mobile testing van would be pretty incredible, too, so we’re able to increase our number of testing locations.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017! Meet the rest of the inductees here.