Yale grad's essay blasts SFAF
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A senior essay by a recent Yale graduate blasts the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, questioning the nonprofit spending millions of dollars to establish a health center in the Castro targeting gay and bi men, and indicating that many staffers feel dismissed by the nonprofit's leadership team.
The analysis by Daniel Dangaran doesn't name the AIDS foundation, but it's clearly about the organization, which, with a budget last fiscal year of about $24 million, is the largest AIDS-based nonprofit in the city.
Neil Giuliano, SFAF's CEO since 2010, indicated the essay was heavily flawed but confirmed that Dangaran spent weeks at the agency last summer. He offered little in the way of corrections and acknowledged there have been problems at the foundation.
"Any time you're working with a diverse group of people in an often tough service delivery kind of work, you're going to fall short of meeting people's expectations from time to time," Giuliano said in an interview this week. "We understand that, and we always strive to do a better job."
SFAF, which was founded in 1982 and offers services ranging from syringe exchange to HIV testing, serves thousands of people a year as it works to cut new HIV infections in San Francisco.
Dangaran, who submitted the 59-page essay to fulfill a senior requirement for a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology, didn't respond to multiple interview requests about the piece, which is dated April 23 and titled, "This Place Needs Some Harm Reduction: An Ethnographic Critical Analysis of an HIV/AIDS Service Nonprofit in San Francisco."
The essay was provided to the Bay Area Reporter anonymously in late May.
Dangaran interviewed 32 AIDS foundation staffers as well as three people on the leadership team, which Dangaran defines as having four members: The CEO, the vice presidents of philanthropy and public affairs and of human resources, and the chief financial officer.
Additionally, Dangaran spent 250 hours of observation over nine weeks in the summer of 2014; "observed the administration" and 13 of SFAF's 14 programs and services; attended meetings, workshops, and other activities; and volunteered with the foundation's needle exchange sites and other services. (Dangaran said the 14th program was conducted in Spanish, which Dangaran doesn't speak.)
Questions over men's center
Since 2012, SFAF has been working to open a new men's health and wellness center at 470 Castro Street.
Dangaran quotes an AIDS foundation discussion group leader as saying clients were "appalled" that SFAF was "renovating a building for millions of dollars that we don't own, and that could've housed every homeless, HIV-positive person in the city."
The former Yale student quotes another person as saying, "Gay men get nice, clean, pretty facilities. Folks who use drugs, who may be brown, may live on the streets, may be dirty, like, good fucking luck if they're gonna get thought about in however the agency moves forward."
At an SFAF board meeting last summer, Dangaran wrote, a leadership team member asked the board for a $4 million increase on projections for the center, which already had a fundraising campaign goal of $10 million.
The increase "was granted with minimal discussion," Dangaran wrote.
"Even so," the agency's leadership team "has flat-lined or reduced the funding of their various prevention services, for the most part," Dangaran wrote. "Their counseling program and prevention services experienced reduced funding, and the increase in needle exchange and housing and financial benefits were due to additional contract funding, not organization funding."
In the essay, Dangaran expressed sympathy for staff.
"Most of the staffers seemed proud to be doing their work, even though their clients brought such difficult lived realities to the table."
However, during Dangaran's time at the organization, "it became clear" that the nonprofit's leadership "does not share the understanding and sympathy for their diverse clientele that many staff members of the programs and services department so evidently hold in their hearts."
For example, one staffer is quoted as saying needle exchange workers felt like the AIDS foundation's "red-headed stepchildren."
Dangaran also wrote that harm reduction, which typically refers to not insisting people completely abstain from drugs or alcohol, "is in a tenuous position" with the AIDS foundation, "because it attempts to challenge certain behaviors – and certain stigmatization of race, class, gender identity – that remain strongly rooted in the primarily white, middle class, cisgender leadership of the organization."
Of the staff Dangaran interviewed, 20 felt leadership team members "didn't prioritize or value their work."
One staffer quoted in the essay said, "As far as the upper leadership team, I think they're very disconnected. ... They have no idea what the programs are doing – not just ours, but every program – or what their needs are."
The staffer suggested that change had resulted from economic shifts.
"The bad economy forced the fact that we had to have a board of directors that could bring in a lot of money, because we were losing funds from a lot of other sources. ... But the board of directors and upper management is very disconnected."
(Dangaran used pseudonyms for SFAF staffers. The B.A.R. strives to avoid unnamed sources and used only a limited selection of anonymous quotes for this story.)
Among other recommendations, Dangaran suggests that a "newly founded transgender group" at the foundation "needs to be its own standing program, and expand in size and capacity," adding "Transgender women deserve to be a high priority of any HIV/AIDS service organization because of the disproportional risk of HIV transmission that they face, especially given the overlapping demographics of trans sex workers and drug users."
The AIDS foundation didn't make any clients available to talk to the B.A.R.
SFAF irked by findings
The study and its findings have clearly upset the nonprofit.
In response to an emailed interview request, James Loduca, the agency's vice president of philanthropy and public affairs, tried to dissuade the B.A.R. from writing about the essay.
"I'm surprised the B.A.R. would consider a grad student's draft thesis newsworthy. We've followed up with Daniel and his professor to point out the many inaccuracies and factual errors in the essay. We were assured it was a draft that would be revised, although we're unsure of the timing of that," he said.
Nothing on the essay provided to the paper indicates it's a draft.
Loduca declined to provide the list of revisions he mentioned, saying in a text exchange, "Neil can highlight some of the glaring factual errors in the paper when you chat ... "
In emailed comments before the interview, Giuliano said he was "happy" to talk about the essay, but the statement he included would be "all I have to say about it."
"We're talking about an undergrad college student's paper," he added.
In his statement, Giuliano said, in part, that SFAF "was not provided an opportunity to fact-check the student's thesis paper prior to initial circulation, and the student has since referred to this version as a draft."
As Loduca had suggested, Giuliano added that the copy the AIDS foundation got contained "a number of significant factual errors."
He noted as an example that Dangaran wrote, "On the account of discrimination and bias, three different executive assistants to the CEO actually sued the organization for discrimination based on gender, and won their cases."
Giuliano said that "the foundation has never been sued by former employees for gender bias and discrimination." The B.A.R. wasn't able to find any record of the lawsuits that Dangaran mentioned.
Other than the apparent non-existent lawsuits, though, it's not clear what in Dangaran's paper is inaccurate.
Asked in an interview if there were other errors he wanted to talk about, Giuliano said, "No."
He also said he didn't yet know whether there are any specific changes he'd make at his agency.
"We don't really look at it that way," Giuliano said. "It's an opportunity to learn. It's an opportunity to grow. So we appreciate that. That's a good opportunity, and we're going to take it."
The nonprofit, which has 140 employees, is "always" working to be "as inclusive and reflective of the diversity that is San Francisco as we can," he said.
Giuliano also said he's receptive to hearing staffers' concerns.
"I have an open door policy here," he said. "I receive feedback from people throughout the organization all the time."
That includes criticism from people who feel that they're not listened to.
"Usually they share that when I'm listening to them," he said.
The B.A.R. contacted several current and former staff of the AIDS foundation, but none provided comment for this story.
Giuliano said Dangaran, who'd had a desk outside his office, interviewed him for about 20 minutes. Among other things, Dangaran talked to him about life as the gay former mayor of Tempe, Arizona.
Dangaran, a self-described "dark-skinned, Filipino-black gay Yale student" wrote there had been "no predetermined agenda" when embarking on the project.
Asked in an email exchange what had made him decide to give Dangaran so much access, Giuliano said, "We believe in continuous learning and supporting students in their academic work, fully aware of and open to the critical inquiry that comes with that commitment.
"One can't support a student's learning experience if one limits their ability to inquire; openness and transparency are core values at SFAF."
The nonprofit has given students similar access before, and it would do so again, he said.
Support for research
Dangaran said in the essay that it wouldn't be circulated beyond Yale's departments of anthropology; women's, gender, and sexuality studies; fellowship staff; "acknowledged mentors;" and the AIDS foundation "because of commitments to privacy."
The Cohen Summer Public Service Fellowship, the John Linck and Alanne Headland Linck Fellowship, and the Solomon Research Fellowship in LGBT studies, which are all associated with Yale, provided funding for the research, Dangaran said.
The B.A.R. wasn't able to confirm the Cohen fellowship's support.
In response to an email, Kathryn Harbinson, a senior administrative assistant at Yale's Ezra Stiles College Master's Office, wrote, "I can confirm that Daniel did receive a 2014 Linck Fellowship" from the college "to conduct an ethnographic study of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation."
Yale's website lists Dangaran as a 2014 Solomon fellow.
In the essay's acknowledgements, Dangaran credited numerous people, including anthropology staff and others, for their assistance. None of them responded to the B.A.R.'s interview requests.
Marleen Cullen, who works in the anthropology department, said Dangaran had been an anthropology major at Yale College, where undergraduates go, and had graduated "recently," although she wasn't permitted to say exactly when.
Dangaran's Linkedin profile, which uses gender-neutral pronouns, says the former Yale student attended Yale University from 2011 to 2015, graduating with honors.
Castro health center
In October 2012, SFAF announced plans to merge its Magnet health center; the Stonewall Project, which provides drug counseling programs; and the Stop AIDS Project, which focuses on HIV prevention, into one location. The agency had hoped to move into the space, which is at 470 Castro Street, in October 2013.
From the outside, at least, it looks like most of the work on the building is done, but Giuliano said this week that he didn't know when the health center would open or what the total cost would be.
"It's not done, but we're making good progress," he said, despite delays. "... The community is going to be really, really well served."
Giuliano suggested the slow movement has been related to other development going on.
There's "a lot of construction going on in the community, and ours is one," he said.
AIDS foundation staff have previously talked about getting licensing for the facility as another factor in the timeline. Asked about that, Giuliano said there have been "different kinds of delays." There's "no one reason," he said, but "a combination of a lot of different things."