AIDS Organization Leader Paul Kawata
After a close friend died in the early 1980s, during the dawn of AIDS, Paul Kawata became involved in HIV/AIDS issues. Today, as Executive Director since 1989 of the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), he is the longest serving and surviving AIDS-organization Executive Director in the United States. NMAC is the only national nonprofit that focuses on HIV/AIDS among racial and ethnic minorities. It provides support to community-based organizations through trainings, on-site technical assistance, conferences, publications, and other services. Paul oversees the general operation of NMAC, works to raise funds from major donors, and serves as the public face of the organization during events such as its annual United States Conference on AIDS. More than 70 percent of U.S. HIV/AIDS cases are among minorities; thus, Paul says his organization’s work is greatly needed. Read more about Paul Kawata and the National Minority AIDS Council in this week’s Nonprofit Spotlight.
The National Minority AIDS Council
Paul Akio Kawata
M.A. in Urban Planning
University of the Pacific
Los Angeles, CA
B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa)
National Minority AIDS Council
National AIDS Network
Founding Executive Director
Office of the Mayor
Japanese Sansei (third generation)
About the non-profit
The National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) was founded in 1987 to develop leadership within communities of color to address challenges of HIV/AIDS.
The agency has fulfilled this mission by leveraging and building the capacity of community-based organizations (CBOs) delivering HIV/AIDS primary care, prevention and other related services in minority communities with a unique array of programs and services, including a public policy education program; national and regional conferences; treatment and research programs and trainings; numerous publications; and a website: www.nmac.org.
NMAC, which also serves as a member association for HIV/AIDS organizations, provides its constituents a powerful voice in Washington, DC, advocating for sound HIV/AIDS policy.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
I oversee the general operation of the agency, and serve as the primary lead in fundraising efforts with our major donors.
For many, I am the face of NMAC, particularly during our signature event, the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), the largest AIDS-related meeting held each year in this country. This year’s USCA will take place in Palm Springs, CA, from November 4-7.
Most notable milestones
I am the longest serving and surviving AIDS executive director in the country.
When I took over NMAC in 1989, I was charged with closing down its operations. I felt there was a need to continue the agency’s work raising awareness around the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS in communities of color, and opted to keep the agency open, covering payroll with my own money.
When I took over, I changed the mission of the agency. Instead of raising awareness about the AIDS epidemic on minorities, NMAC would assist the agencies assisting communities of color. Many of these community-based organizations had received grants to provide HIV/AIDS services; but did not have the capacity or knowledge necessary to deliver their services effectively to their clients and/or to navigate the bureaucratic demands and obligations associated with government funding.
Through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NMAC was able to provide these organizations the technical assistance they needed, through trainings, onsite consultant visits and publications, electronic and printed.
In 1993, I headed the work involved with the purchase of the agency’s headquarters building, located in Washington, DC’s historic U Street corridor. This move not only helped strengthen the agency financially; but also improved a formerly underserved area of the District. The building was refurbished over a period three years, with NMAC moving into the premises in 1996.
Another milestone of note: I was awarded the Citizen of the Biennium Award, by the Japanese American Citizen’s League, in 1999.
What’s the niche?
Most discussion of HIV/AIDS is this country focuses on the impact of the epidemic abroad. NMAC is the only national nonprofit dedicated to addresses the impact of HIV/AIDS in communities of color, which have been hardest hit since the epidemic began three decades earlier. NMAC fulfills this mission by leveraging local resources in communities of color to address the challenges they face around HIV/AIDS.
The need for this work cannot be overstated. Minorities bear over 70 percent of the HIV/AIDS burden in this country. Though African Americans represent less than 13 percent of the US population, they account for over 50 percent of the all new HIV cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year. Latinos, whose population is roughly equal to that of African Americans, also have a high incidence rate of HIV, representing nearly 20 percent of all new HIV cases. Asian and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans also continue to report a disproportionately high number of HIV/AIDS cases.
The agency’s programs and services, which include trainings, conferences, publications and internet information, are geared to helping minority community-based organizations deliver services more efficiently and effectively those living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Funding is the biggest challenge faced by NMAC – and all HIV/AIDS nonprofits for that matter. The reason is simple: there is serious donor fatigue around AIDS. People expected there to be a cure by now. Indeed, many mistakenly believe that the drug treatment is a cure.
Though effective in extending the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS, anti-retrovirals are not a cure. They also cannot help those Americans who do not know their status, or do have access to health care.
From 2000 until the Democratic takeover of Congress is 2006, NMAC, and many AIDS organizations for that matter, had to work around the Bush administration, which cut or flat funded many health care programs, particularly those associated with HIV/AIDS.
What’s in store for the future?
Unfortunately, a cure of AIDS anytime soon is unlikely. There will continue to be a need for an agency like NMAC that will speak out and fight for people living with HIV/AIDS and to support organizations working to prevent future infections.
Best way to stay ahead
NMAC is committed to the “wow” factor in all that it does, whether it is putting on a training or providing a cutting-edge website. That way, we help our constituents – the community-based organizations serving minority communities hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic – build their capacity to provide services and save lives. That is the way we stay competitive.
Guiding principle in life
Courage. I cannot overstate my belief in the transformative powers of speaking truth to power, especially in the face of overwhelming odds.
Yardstick of success
The yardstick of NMAC’s failure and success begins and ends with our constituents whether or not they are doing well. We are successful only when they are. If they are failing to reach their goals, then we know we have to do something different.
Goal yet to be achieved
I want to be here for the cure.
Best practical advice
Remember that none us can do this work alone. You need mentors from whom you can learn and help you traverse this rough terrain called life.
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
My parents have been, and continue to be, extraordinarily supportive of me and my work. As second generation Japanese Americans, I know it must be difficult for them in some ways to deal with having a son who runs an AIDS organization. Culturally, it is a bit of out the ordinary. But I know they are very proud of what I do.
I’ve had many mentors; but the one I look to most is Dr. Beny Primm, Executive Director of the Addiction Research Treatment Corporation and NMAC’s Emeritus Chairperson. In addition to his professional achievements, I’ve always admired how he lives his life with dignity and grace and stays true to what he believes.
More over, my mentors are those loved ones I have lost to HIV and in whose memories I continued to do this work.
What motivated you to get started?
I first became involved in HIV/AIDS issues following the death of a very dear friend. This happened in the early 1980s, when everyone felt helpless in the face of AIDS. I do not like feeling helpless and needed to do something to stop this disease.
Like best about what you do?
What I like best is the fact that we feel we are making a difference – that our work helps others save lives.
Like least about what you do?
What I like least about the work I do is that people are still dying from AIDS. Despite the innovations in treatment, AIDS is still a terminal disease.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a dentist. As a child, I was taught to be quiet and passive; these were the hallmarks of Japanese culture at the time.
I had a mentor who was a dentist who was loud, outrageous and fun. He was the exact opposite of most adults I knew and I wanted to be just like him. Of course, being a kid, I thought his personality was the result of his profession!
What was your first job?
My first job was picking strawberries and it was just awful. Since the strawberries on the farm where I worked were for a jam manufacturer, you had to remove the green stem before placing them in the quart boxes. Filling one little box took forever! What was worse – you didn’t earn money by the box. You received 35 cents for each flat, which was composed of 20 strawberry filled boxes!
Biggest pastime outside of work
I love Brazil and travel there as often as possible.
Person most interested in meeting?
I would love to meet Bill Gates because of everything he has done to combat AIDS in the world
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
Outside of Bill Gates, I would love to meet Steve Jobs. I love Apple products and I’m fascinated by how he constantly has the ability to wow the American public with his new and innovative technologies and toys.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I’m the longest living national HIV/AIDS executive director in the United States.
- I am one of the founders of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA), the first national organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of those living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS. I am the only surviving founding member.
- I’m an avid reader of trash fiction.
Three characteristics that describe you
- I remember that I have been here since the early days of HIV/AIDS. I was in the room when it began; I will be in the room when it ends.
Three greatest passions
- Fighting AIDS and ensuring there is a response in the community to this epidemic.
- Fashion. I don’t know; but I totally love it.
- I love to engender courage in others. Watching them become more confident in themselves is life changing – for them and me.
“The Best Little Boy in the World” by Andrew Tobias
I support causes that ensure the liberation of people: civil rights and civil justice issues.
Who would you like to be contacted by?
Organizations interested in funding HIV/AIDS efforts.
Interview by Vanessa Chan
Introduction by Preeti Aroon
Edited by Valerie Enriquez