Someone You Should Know: Howard Brown’s CEO Jamal Edwards

Jamal Edwards is ready to make things happen at Howard Brown Community Health Centers. On June 1, he was installed as President and CEO just as the agency was in the midst of a public scandal.  Prior to that he was one of a few openly gay partners at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP where he represented both domestic and foreign corporations.  Edwards, 34, was born in Detroit and has lived in Ann Arbor, Norfolk, Virginia and in the Washington DC area. He remains committed to “fixing the problems,” as he puts it, “and regaining the trust of the LGBTQI community. “ PrideIndex.com had the pleasure of speaking with Edwards to find out more about his experience and his plans to transform Howard Brown.

PRIDEINDEX: Tell us a little bit about your background in terms of where you attended school, and how you became involved in social service work.

EDWARDS: I am an alumnus of Morehouse College, which has a proud tradition of producing leaders in public service. After graduation from Morehouse, I decided to pursue a career in corporate America, first working in business as a manager and executive for Equifax, Inc.  Then I decided I wanted to make a bigger difference and chose the practice of law.  After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School—another great training ground for leaders—I was attracted to private practice and put aside my plans for public service.  But I never lost the passion and desire to serve others.  While in private practice, I volunteered my time and resources to several public service organizations like Howard Brown Health Center, the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Vital Bridges, the Posse Foundation, etc.  When the opportunity arose for me to serve Howard Brown as an employee, I felt a calling to serve and saw an opportunity to dedicate my professional life to serving those in need.  It was the opportunity and honor of a lifetime for me to serve such a valued institution and such an important time in its rich history.  I am so thrilled to be doing this work!

PI: Do you consider yourself a gay rights activist or advocate?

ED: As the leader of one of Chicago’s largest LGBTQI organizations, I certainly consider myself to be an advocate of gay rights. Similarly, because Howard Brown Health Center is a healthcare and research organization, I am committed to advocating for equality in access to quality healthcare for the LGBTQI community, and all people.  Our mission is focused on eliminating the disparities in healthcare experienced by LGBTQI people.  Eliminating health disparities requires that we advocate for and achieve full equality for our community as well.

PI: How does the Howard Brown organization allocate its resources evenly to ensure that the needs of all LGBTQI people in Chicago are addressed?

ED: We are actively assessing the needs of our patients and clients and the greater community and are working on a plan to more strategically and effectively align our funding sources, development efforts and services with the needs of our community.

PI: Tell us about Howard Brown’s projects or initiatives specifically designed for the African American gay/people of color gay community.

ED: We’ve worked with several organizations in the past to serve the African American LGBTQI Community.  But we haven’t done as good of a job in this regard as we could have.  With new leadership, new direction and a new commitment to promoting the health and wellness of the entire LGBTQI community, we are actively exploring collaborative opportunities with several partners in the community to develop new projects and initiatives to serve all communities of color, including the African American community.

PI: As the CEO of one of the largest LGBTQI organizations in the nation and as an African American gay male do you feel obligated to the African American gay community?

ED: I wouldn’t call it an obligation.  But I do feel a strong sense of responsibility toward my community; to help it and the larger community work more cooperatively to improve the health and wellness of the African American community, locally and nationally. I am looking forward to working with other leaders of the African American community and the LGBTQI community to make sure that all people in need have access to the services and support they deserve and that all people, regardless of how different they might seem to others, have the same opportunity for a healthy future!

PI: Last spring there was a scandal at HB, the board removed the CFO and the CEO resigned, and some in the gay community were surprised and felt betrayed; what are you doing to earn the trust and confidence of the gay community?

ED: My first step was to do the work.  To figure out what went wrong and what we need to do to fix it.  I spent my first few months at Howard Brown Health Center doing that work.  We brought in auditors, investigators and kept our eyes wide open.   We’ve made a lot of progress in a short time.  While we still have some work to do, we are now focusing on creating a culture of transparency, internally and externally.  I started this by providing our entire staff with greater visibility into our finances and into our plans for the future. We’ve also committed to maintaining this culture of transparency throughout the future and, as a result, have had several follow up meetings and communications with staff to keep them informed of our progress and to get their input and support.   I’ve asked them to hold me and our leadership team accountable for our plans and commitments.    And, so far, they’ve been very supportive, even in this very challenging time.   With their support, we intend to offer the same transparency to our patients, clients and the community.  We want the community to know that we are capable, honest and committed to serving them.  Finally, I believe all people want and deserve vision and a plan for a healthy future.  We’ve developed a three year strategic plan to: (1) stabilize our finances and rebuild our reputation; (2) collaborate and partner more effectively with our peers; and (3) expand our capacity to serve more of the needs of our community.

PI: I understand that you’re a single father raising a son, what is it like? Do you plan on having more children?

ED: I am so lucky to have my son. He is almost 2 years old.  He is my reason for being and my reason for doing all that I do.  A smile or hug from him melts my heart and makes all of the hard work and struggle worth it.  My chief goal in life is to make him proud and to set a good example.   Between my commitment to my son and to Howard Brown Health Center, I have my hands quite full!

PI: Any hobbies?

ED: Movies (love scary movies and comedies), dining, travel, swimming, tennis – all of those are fun for me.

PI: What’s next for you?

ED: Only God knows.  I could have never predicted this, and I won’t dare start trying to predict what’s next.

PI: What else would you like to tell us?

ED: I am honored to working with such talented people on behalf of such an amazing and vibrant community.  I don’t take my responsibility lightly and I look forward to making the entire community proud of me and Howard Brown Health Center.

To learn more about the resources at Howard Brown Health Centers visit www.howardbrown.org