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Brian Risley
Los Angeles, California
 


Brian Risley
  Brian Risley has seen far too many friends and loved ones die from HIV. As an HIV prevention and treatment educator in Los Angeles, he's taking a stand, by helping those who live with the virus understand how they can do so successfully, and by guiding those who don't have the virus toward a better awareness of the steps they can take to keep themselves safe.
"Reinvesting in Hope" A fervent desire to help others is what motivates Brian Risley to keep moving forward. While living in Manhattan, Brian witnessed first hand the deaths of too many good friends -- and the passing of his partner of nine years, Steve -- from complications related to AIDS. The way out of what he describes as a "collective post-traumatic stress disorder" was through hope, action and a belief that he was not powerless in the face of the epidemic.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Brian was influenced by the altruism of fellow members of his Haverford Friends Quaker Meeting. Brian believes that a great deal of his humanitarian character was inherited from his late grandmother, who was a public health nurse for sixty years. After a successful career as a screenwriter and production executive (at Sony Pictures), his goals shifted, and what had been a long-term volunteer commitment to various AIDS organizations became a full-time endeavor.

Brian is currently the lead treatment educator for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), one of the largest HIV service providers in North America. Among many responsibilities, he designs individual treatment/prevention plans and runs a series of well-attended community forums known as "HIV Matters," where top HIV physicians and clinicians present the most current treatment and wellness information to consumers. He also remains committed to working directly with clients, many of whom are dually diagnosed with both hepatitis C and the disease of addiction. For the past eight years, Brian has facilitated the longest-running support group for newly diagnosed HIV-positive people in Los Angeles, "Positively New."

Brian finds hope and purpose in helping to empower others. Seeing people overcome the challenges of HIV and addiction, and watching them rebuild their lives, reaffirms his faith in humanity -- "reinvesting in hope," as he calls it. He believes that an HIV leader must respond to the epidemic with effective, culturally sensitive behavioral and treatment interventions, and that he/she should be compassionate and non-judgmental in dealing with high-risk populations whose behaviors or activities he or she may not necessarily endorse.

Brian continues to write, but instead of penning scripts for studios and production companies, he authors for many local and national publications, including APLA's Impacto, the Kaiser Permanente HIV Health Newsletter and the Being Alive newsletter. Brian is also an avid reader and movie buff, and enjoys spending his spare time at home or traveling with his partner, Jeff, and their two Lhasa Apso dogs.

PRACTICE

How long have you been doing prevention education?

Since about 1996 -- at least eight years now. Prior to that I was facilitating bereavement groups for people who were HIV affected.

"The best thing about my job is working for a non-profit that has a large share of very intelligent, capable people whom I can rely on for information or help."

Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?

I started as a volunteer and now I do it on a full-time basis.

If I were to follow you over the course of a week, what would I see you do at work?

You would see me fulfilling my duties as the treatment educator for AIDS Project Los Angeles. That normally includes counseling clients, many of whom are dealing with co-infection with HIV and hepatitis C and struggling with addiction or poverty. Often, I conduct trainings for staff or clients on topics such as HIV 101, adherence, understanding resistance or new pipeline drugs.

As co-chair of the Hepatitis C Task Force for Los Angeles County, I might be planning our annual Hepatitis C summit or doing advocacy with legislators. You'd probably catch me working at home on a deadline for APLA's Impacto that reaches 23 Spanish-speaking countries, or writing for another publication, like the Kaiser HIV Health or Being Alive newsletter. Frequently, I plan and put on large public-education community forums for APLA called "HIV Matters." Every Wednesday night, from 7:30 to 10 p.m., you would find me facilitating a weekly support and education group for people who are newly diagnosed with HIV.

What's the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is working for a non-profit that has a large share of very intelligent, capable people whom I can rely on for information or help. I appreciate the positive feedback I receive from clients or others that I have helped in some significant way. Just getting a note sent to me saying "thank you" means a great deal.

What's the worst thing about your job?

The constant duplication of paperwork that is necessary to meet funding requirements.

What has been your greatest success in your work?

The greatest success in my work has been getting the best doctors to present to large groups of people, or the advancement and popularity of the newly diagnosed group that I facilitate, which is the longest-running newly diagnosed group in L.A. county.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a prevention educator?

The biggest challenge I face would have to be the number of good people I have helped, but who fall back into self-destructive patterns of crystal meth use, unprotected sex and self-medication of their depression. I am sure other educators can relate.

For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?

Among gay men, the biggest risk factor is crystal meth use and unprotected sex, since the former usually leads to the latter. The loss of inhibition and the over-stimulated dopamine receptors in the brain make crystal and sex a potent, addictive combo. Among communities of color, the persistent stigma against HIV and the taboo around discussing it create risk factors, such as people not getting tested or treated.

Do you think that current HIV prevention efforts are sufficient? Anything you would change?

No, but current or past efforts cannot be discounted. New messages need to be created that are tailor-made for specific, at-risk populations, [messages] that address issues of stigma, self-esteem and alienation.

What is the most important, memorable or useful thing you have learned from the people you work with?

That even in the face of adversity, people have the ability to become empowered and make changes in their lives for the better, by dealing with their depression, getting into a program for substance use, going back to school or running in one of our AIDS marathons, even with a dual diagnosis of AIDS and lymphoma.

I have one client who is an inspiration. After his wife died from AIDS-related complications, he became a crack user and would sleep in the doorway of our client services building, the David Geffen Center. Now, he is almost two years clean and sober, he's gone back to school to get certified as a drug counselor, maintains an undetectable viral load and dresses in a suit when he goes out and does public speaking.

How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?

By reinvesting in hope -- and hope is much easier to invest in and sell in the post-HAART era. I also have to make some time for myself when not working -- mental health activities such as zoning out with my iPod, meditating or hiking. Self care is very important.

If you weren't a prevention educator what would you be?

I would devote my time to writing. I used to have a career as a professional screenwriter. I like narrative storytelling, whether the stories are fictional or true. Perhaps as a balance, I would continue writing on HIV issues for publications while writing movie scripts that I could hopefully sell to the marketplace.

What do you think is the biggest problem people living with HIV face today?

It depends on where the person is at and meeting the person wherever they are. That said, I think access to healthcare is a very big issue. I see a big discrepancy, even in Los Angeles which has a high standard of HIV care, in both access to healthcare and the quality of care. I also see too many people accessing treatment very late, after an AIDS diagnosis or an opportunistic infection.

PERSONAL

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and later, Manhattan for 10 years.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I always wanted to be a writer, as well as an illustrator for children's books.

"The biggest challenge I face would have to be the number of good people I have helped, but who fall back into self-destructive patterns of crystal meth use, unprotected sex and self-medication of their depression."

What kind of work do/did your parents do?

My mother is a retired bacteriologist and my father, a retired financial executive.

When did you decide you wanted to be a prevention educator?

I knew I wanted to be involved when my partner of nine years died of AIDS-related complications in the late 1980s.

What other jobs have you had?

Professional screenwriting. I was also a development/production executive with Sony Pictures.

What made you decide to become a prevention educator?

A shift in priorities. With my partner's support, I was encouraged to pursue the work I was already invested in as a volunteer -- HIV prevention, education and counseling. It doesn't pay nearly as well as the movie business, but it is more soul-satisfying.

Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?

My grandmother (my mother's mother) is an enduring influence. For sixty years, she was a public health nurse, and for a time, chief of nurses at Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in the U.S. She lived an ascetic life, preferring a simple apartment. She rarely wore make up or jewelry. Her life was devoted to helping others. She also did not suffer fools lightly. My mother has also been a good friend and companion. When my late partner, Steve, went into respiratory failure, I called my mother, crying at 5 a.m., and she was on the morning train to New York City to be with us.

Professionally and personally, I would have to say that an influential person in my life has been my clinical supervisor and dear friend, Dr. Mark Katz, for many reasons. He's made a huge contribution since the 1980s, both in educating and helping the HIV community. He's honest, warm, smart and caring. It's rare, I think, to have a very good friend who is also a personal hero.

My partner Jeff is one of the most patient and decent people I know. He has been very supportive of me, something one seeks but doesn't always find in a partner.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy writing, reading, traveling with my partner and playing with our two mischievous Lhasa Apso dogs, Macy and Jack. I have always been a big movie fan, and I prefer projected light over DVDs. My five movies for a desert island: Hitchcock's Notorious because Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant define screen chemistry, The Godfather Part 1 & 2 because narrative filmmaking and acting is rarely this good and involving, The English Patient because it's so damn sweeping and heartbreaking, and Bringing Up Baby because Katherine Hepburn is an original and a comic gem in this.

Do you have a partner?

I do. My partner, Jeff, pardon the cliché, is tall, dark and handsome. He is a senior vice president at Bank of America, but has a good sense of fun, unlike many bankers I have met.

Where do you live? What kind of community is it?

I live in the Silver Lake hills of Los Angeles. It is a diverse, upscale area where many professionals, especially movie industry types, live. The only thing that I dislike about the hilly hood are the mudslides when it rains.

If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would it be?

Sante Fe, New Mexico. It is an absolutely beautiful and rewarding place. There is something about the light, the landscape and the way of life there that is magical. I can't define it -- it's not for everybody -- but I have a sense of humility and belonging there among the mesas and arroyos.

What's the best vacation you ever had?

I went to Italy with my partner, Jeff. He surprised me by booking us into the old world luxury of The Cipriani in Venice and the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio on Lake Como. We had a lot of fun as guests at the big, fat, Italian wedding of friends in Padova.

What's the biggest adventure you ever had?

Going to college at NYU [New York University] and living in New York City from the age of 19 until I was 30. The city was an education in itself -- great museums, great neighborhoods, great food, amazing diversity of people. My late partner and I restored a brownstone apartment in Chelsea to its original 1907 glory, right down to the live gaslights. The best clubs I have ever attended were in New York -- many late nights dancing at the old Studio 54, the Saint, the Sound Factory and Limelight.

What's currently on your bedside table for reading?

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and Plague Time, which is about viruses and disease over the course of history.

What book would you say has had the most impact on you?

Non-fiction: Darwin's Origin of the Species. Fiction: Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?

My taste is pretty eclectic. I like a lot of alternative stuff, jazz and electronic. My heroes are Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. I am very into Damien Rice and Radiohead.

Anything else you think it would be important for people reading this interview to know about you?

It is really important when working with people with HIV to be compassionate and non-judgmental. I deal with every kind of person, so if I have an opinion I simply check it and remain client focused, helping them wherever they may be at.

What was your first reaction when told about this award?

I was very pleased. Dr. Eric Daar [a noted HIV researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles] and Jackie Pitt [a registered nurse] also received awards. I felt honored to be in such great company. The fact that my newly diagnosed group nominated me was really special to me.

Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?

The members of my newly diagnosed group, as well as my friend and mentor, Mark Katz, M.D.

Interview by Keith Green

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