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Jeff McElhaney

How did you get interested in social change?

It more or less found me. I had my first sexual experience with someone of the same gender in the early 80s, when AIDS was just coming onto the radar screens of the medical world and then, the public at large. Literally, the Monday after my first same-sex experience, a weekly news magazine in a grocery store checkout screamed out at me with a cover article entitled, “The New Gay Cancer.” It was before the virus had even been discovered and AIDS had a name. It scared me into a heightened awareness and a need to learn everything I could about this new danger, as it was indeed life and death. Needless to say, it also created a lot of fear and shame and self-loathing around coming out as a gay man in general. A frightening time to say the least.

Describe some of your efforts around AIDS Activism.

I graduated from UNC in 1983 with a degree in advertising. I was lucky enough to land a job in a big ad firm in Baltimore the week after graduation. My student portfolio, which won me the entry-level creative job there, was full of fun and meaningful products like MTV, Vogue Magazine, Sony Walkman and critical social issues like gun control and homelessness. Unfortunately, the daily reality of my new job involved writing brochures for insurance and investment companies, and IRA rate ads for banks and image ads for military contractors to the US Government. To say I was bored and disillusioned would be an understatement. I felt unchallenged and had a burning need to put my talents to use for more interesting things. Causes especially interested me as they had no budgets to speak of and relied on donated services of professionals. I went looking for orgs who needed my wares.

Why is this cause so important to you?

My first sexual encounter with a man turned into my first relationship with a man once I moved from NC to Balto. When a test for HIV was developed in 1985, both my partner and I eagerly took the test, then not covered by insurance, at a local clinic. I tested HIV-negative. He tested HIV-positive. I considered this a calling to what kind of extracurricular cause and client to dedicate myself to. (Postscript: My partner took his own life in 1995 when he started seeing a decline in health and as it turned out, a mere few months before the approval of the so-called cocktail therapies for the suppression of the virus which worked fairly well and have greatly improved since then.)

How and why did you get involved in this cause and come to start this community?

I was terrified for my partner’s well being, as HIV/AIDS was then a clear-cut death sentence. I also struggled with the specter of being infected with a killer virus from the very person I loved the most in the world. That created a lot of pent-up anxiety and helplessness and oddly, energy to strike back and do something to feel like I was part of a movement to counter the spread of the disease. Some many of us were just crippled by fear and everyone, even health authorities, seemed to lack clear and consistent information about what to do to prevent it. A public-health scare calls for a awareness campaign. While at a gay bar, I noticed a very DIY but charming poster for a small, newly formed group encouraging gay men to wear condoms every time they had sex. The poster featured a group of gay men conversing at a bar with one guy wearing a latex sheath over his entire body. There was a fishbowl of free condoms underneath it on the bar. I knew then I found an org with guts and a sense of humor and a desire to create educational materials that got notice. An ideal client, in my book. And my talents and desire to help matched their objectives perfectly. For several weeks after, I hunkered down and created a dozen or so HIV/AIDS prevention ad/poster concepts. I even proposed, and showed them mocked-up examples of, a way to enclose the free condoms inside a small matchbook, emblazoned with cute and disarming safe-sex messages like “Sleep With A Lifeguard Tonight” and “Prevent transmission-fluid leaks.” with their 1-800 hotline on the inside. The head of the org loved the work and had just received a government grant to create more education materials. The timing was perfect.

How has your work affected your community and others?

Since this was one of the very first safe-sex ad campaigns aimed at gay men, the work received a whole lot of attention by not just gay but the mainstream press, both locally and nationally. This of course, is what we call “earned media” (meaning: free!) and great amplified the reach and depth of our messaging. Pretty soon, AIDS orgs from all over the world came calling asking for these materials. We developed versions of all the ads and promo items (condom matchbooks) where we left the client and contact info blank so those orgs could overprint their own local info there and tailor them for their audiences. This became a sudden and unexpected source of income for the Baltimore AIDS org and they grew much faster since they became a clearinghouse for a wide range of safe-sex education materials.

In the ensuing years, I had created a name for myself with HIV/AIDS ad campaigns and was tapped to do dozens of projects from AIDS orgs around the country, the State of Maryland, the American Red Cross, and others. To this day, I still do work in this category. Just in September my little firm, Brand-Aid Creative, created a TV, print and online campaign for AIDS Walk here in Washington. (View that work here: ) And for the past year I have been creating a landmark ad campaign for the CDC aimed at gay/bi men (their first aimed exclusively at this audience, sadly, after 30 years of the disease) which includes 5 TV spots, a dozen+ print ads, posters and online banners, plus a long-format video and may collateral pieces. It will be unveiled in early 2014.

What advice would you give to others trying to start their own social change projects?

Start small. Baby steps are perfectly OK. Find an org in your area or start one of your own and just give it a couple of hours a week at first. Tap your contacts list and social media networks and you’ll be surprised by the reaction and feedback you get. I know it’s easier said than done, but we all have trained skills or hobby skills that lend themselves to skills that non-profits need and value. Put those to work for the betterment of the world around you, however tiny they may seem. You may also inspire others around you to do the same.

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