Spotlight: Michael Baker

Michael Baker
Michael Baker

1.  Tell us a little bit about how you got started in the Atlanta non-profit community?

My work in the non-profit world began in 2001, when I served as the LGBT Liaison for Mayor Franklin’s first campaign. I was working for a retired oncologist then, and he had connections with the Mayor’s campaign. Shortly after that campaign, I was approached by Jeff Graham who was, at the time, the Executive Director of AIDS Survival Project, about serving on the agency’s Board. I enjoyed my time on the ASP Board, and Jeff tells me I was fairly decent at fundraising. My proudest moment on the Board was the gala celebration for AIDS Survival Project’s 15th anniversary.

2.  How did you get started with Positive Impact?  What do you do with the company today?

Again, it goes back to Jeff Graham. He had a brief stint at Positive Impact, and just as Jeff was getting ready to begin work with Georgia Equality in 2008, he asked me to consider applying for the position of Director of Advancement at Positive Impact. I was initially skeptical, and after a tasty dinner with Jeff, I decided to give it a shot. I was shocked when I got the job! (And, I have to add, so grateful that Jeff had believed in me when I had little faith in myself.) I am still the Director of Advancement. I often joke that I’m in sales because the main focus of the job is in fundraising, but I also handle the messaging of the agency, communications, and I work closely with the Board of Directors and the Executive Director (my boss, Paul Plate) to ensure the agency is on track with its mission. I staff two Board level committees (Fundraising and Marketing and PR Committees), and I write many of the smaller grants and help with the larger grants. I am often the person who attends public events on behalf of the agency, as well. I have to say it is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had, though it can at times be stressful.

3.  What services does Positive Impact offer to the community, and how much are services?

In general, all services are provided free of charge. Positive Impact provides culturally competent mental health counseling (individual, couples, and group therapy), a psychiatric clinic, a licensed intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment program and risk-reduction services for the HIV affected. The agency also offers free HIV testing to anyone, and STD screening to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. (There are certain income restrictions for mental health and substance abuse services, with sliding scale fees for someone making more than 300% of the Federal poverty level, which is about $22,000 for a single individual. Group counseling is free for anyone affected by HIV.)

4.  Working in HIV prevention must be very difficult, but incredibly rewarding at the same time.  Can you tell us the most rewarding experience you have had?

I like to think that I work in the HIV care field, and HIV prevention is one part of my work life. I mean, we have a whole division (MISTER) that does the prevention work. I just help raise the funds to keep the operation going. And, to me, that part is the most rewarding. This agency now provides services to over 5,000 individuals each year! I expect we’ll serve nearly 6,000 clients in 2011. How often do you get to say that you’ve helped that many folks? I don’t do the counseling, or the prevention work, or the substance abuse treatment, but I feel like I’ve played a small part in helping a few folks in the Atlanta area. If I had to say a particular experience, I feel good anytime a friend or acquaintance calls me up and asks for help… and I can actually get them help.

5.  Where did you go to school?  Did you plan on going into non-profit?

I’m still in school, actually. I’m currently enrolled as a non-traditional student at Georgia State University. (I predict the Panthers are going to sweep the BCS this year! Or something.) I used to beat myself up for not going to college, but I feel like I’m better positioned to handle the stress of college life as an adult, and I take my classes seriously. I feel like that gives me an advantage in school and work balance. Growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I never felt qualified, but now that I’ve done this work and I’m doing well in school, I’m starting to believe that I can actually be that lawyer I want to be. (I want to be Denny Crane, from Boston Legal, when I grow up!)

6.  What is next for Positive Impact?  Is there any big plans or  events the community should be looking out for in the near future?

Wow. There is so much on the horizon for us! Obviously, we’re excited about being a part of the AIDS Walk on October 16. If you still want to help, you can! You can join the team by visiting http://aidswalkatlanta.kintera.org/positiveimpact and thanks to the good folks at AIDS Walk Atlanta and 5K Run, fully 100% of what you raise will go directly to support the agency’s many programs! Just remember that any effort you make is infinitely more helpful to our clients than no effort at all. And, later this year, I am excited to announce that we will be working with Will Pollock and ARTvision on December 1 at the Phillip Rush Center. There is quite a bit else going on behind the scenes, so keep checking back with us.

7.  What are some of the other accomplishments you have personally achieved in fighting against the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

I’m personally very proud of being a member of the Emory HOPE Clinic HIV preventative vaccine trial right now. The only way this epidemic will stop is when we find a vaccine, and right here in our own backyard, they are working on just that as well as a therapeutic vaccine for HIV. I have also participated in a study at the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta, which is another great organization doing amazing research to help stop HIV.

8.  If you could say anything to our local elected officials, what would you want to tell them right now?

We have some really amazing local elected officials, and I would just urge all of them to keep their eye on the prize. Those of us doing the work in HIV need more resources, and I know that a lot of elected officials fight hard for that money… but it will take more. I hope that our state can find the money to eliminate the waiting list for HIV medications. I hope that the government will continue to support and even increase funding for the many HIV services offered through the Ryan White Care Act program. More and more people are without jobs and without health insurance, and now is not the time to cut back on support.

9.  Growing up as a strong gay male, you have still faced much adversity, including a very severe hate crime this past year.  There  are many people in the LGBT community who have felt bullied or have been attacked.  How do you deal with something like this?

I don’t always feel I was particularly strong growing up. I had a suicide attempt when I was 15 because I felt so alone as a gay youth. I fought it, honestly. But the truth of the matter is I didn’t know what it meant to be gay. Once I had that realization that changed my perspective on life. I can still remember the sense of relief, and the tears I shed, when I finally accepted who I was. I finally figured out that being gay meant I could see the world in a different perspective, and that was a gift, not a curse. As for the experience in St. Lucia, all I can say is that when you’re the recipient of violence, protect yourself… realize that protecting yourself means getting out of the situation alive. Once you do, let your friends and family help you, because you will need help. And to that point, I felt like the luckiest man alive because Todd, Nick and I had so much community, family and amazing friendships to support us as we recovered.

10.  If you could send a message to the LGBT youth, what would it be?

I think it has been said so well, time and time again: It gets better. It really does. Just be yourself, live your life, love your life, and realize that someday you will look back and see every little step that made you who you are, were steps that you had to take to get there. I also have to say that I look at the LGBT youth now and I think… what a fierce group of warriors! Being a student at 34, I am so impressed with many of our youth on campus.

11.  You have been in a healthy relationship with your partner for a  while now, do you think dating in Atlanta is harder then other cities?  How do you make your relationship thrive?

I think Atlanta gets a bad rap for dating, honestly. I’ve lived here since 1999, and I’ve had several really amazing relationships. I think, too, that we also have to learn that being single isn’t bad. Before I met Nick, I took a purposeful two-year break, and had Nick not come along, I probably would still be single because I really loved my life. And, maybe that’s it right there: having a relationship shouldn’t be the placeholder for your life; have a life and then add the relationship. As for making my relationship thrive, I am willing to risk sharing my open and honest feelings with Nick. We communicate together very well, we forgive each other easily, we compromise for each other, and we never miss an opportunity to complement one another. That’s probably my favorite part: finding something nice to say to each other each day. It’s easy, and it makes you feel so good! (It should probably be noted I’m not an expert on relationships, nor am I a licensed marriage counselor. Be sure to check with your own counselor about relationship advice. Results may vary.)

12.  Where do we stand currently with HIV/AIDS medical advancements?   Are there any organizations that offer assistance to people living with HIV but lack insurance or are low-income?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, I’m concerned that we’ve sort of peaked out on new HIV medications. I hear that it is becoming more difficult to find the next best new medicine. On the other hand, we had the recent exciting news that the HOPE Clinic had received permission to expand its HIV vaccine research. Will that be the cure? I don’t really know. I hope it is. As for organizations in Atlanta… wow. There are so many! Any of the Ryan White funded organizations will have services for people with low income and no insurance. Positive Impact currently provides on-site mental health care with eight other AIDS service organizations in Atlanta, including AID Atlanta and AID Gwinnett (both of which can provide primary care), Grady IDP, City of Refuge in the West End, and several others.

13.  How do you like to spend your down time?

I don’t get much downtime, but lately you’ll find me cooking dinner with Nick and my friends, going out for dinner or the symphony, reading a good book (on politics, history, law or biology), or obsessed with my Netflix membership on Apple TV. I’m also fond of a good glass of champagne out on the town, or just at home. Oh, and Project Runway or RuPaul’s Drag Race. (I’m pretty gay.)

14.  Which song is stuck on repeat on your iPod right now?

It’s a tie between Leona Lewis’s new single “Collide” (Steamweaver Penguin Mix), Allegri’s “Miserere” (classical), Florence & The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”, and anything by Pink or Lady Gaga.

13.  Atlanta Field Day is a very unique event, how did you come up with the concept of this? 

Well, I have a group of great friends who happen to be very competitive… I’m not.  Not even a little.  No way… In fact I would say I am the MOST uncompetitive of them all… of ANYONE, really! Atlanta Field Day is very different in terms of fundraisers, I mean, there are rules, and referees, and tickets, and T Shirts, and races, and points and awards… it is a lot of organization.  I spend a lot of time developing it, and planning it out, and bouncing ideas off of people.

14.  Anything else you wish to throw in?

I would like to thank David Magazine for their support – this is the 2nd year you have been a Media Sponsor and I so appreciate it… now I got to go!  I have 50 hula-hoops to make, I need to find 60 cowboy hats, and do you know how hard it is to find green polyester bike coach shorts?

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