We caught up with Midnight for a short interview for his 10-year anniversary at APCOM
Congratulations on your 10-year anniversary at APCOM! How are you feeling?
Thank you! I can’t believe that time has gone by so fast, and that it’s already been a decade for me with APCOM. It’s a shame that we’re right in the middle of the pandemic so we can’t have a proper celebration.
I feel very blessed being able to work and grow with an organisation that I truly believe in. Perhaps that is why I feel that time has gone by so fast.
What are some of the highlights for you in the decade that you’ve been with APCOM?
Gosh, that is a difficult one, as there are so many highlights.
I would like to acknowledge those who have been on the APCOM journey with me from the time I joined, and who are still an integral part of APCOM. Starting with Paul Causey who trained me when I first joined APCOM, and Dédé Oetomo for his chairmanship of APCOM since 2013, and the long-term staff who have helped shaped APCOM to where we are now, including Vaness Kongsakul, Wattana Keiangpa, Inad Rendon and Selvan Anthony. Credits also go to our first Thai Foundation Chair, Tony Sakulpongyuenyong, for the trust he put in our organisation and mandate, when we registered as a foundation in Thailand in 2014 along with Amena Katanyuta, Somchai Phromsombat, and our new Foundation Chair Surasak Chalermsri.
Our team has always been brave and ready to try many new ideas and embrace innovation, to ensure that our communities can actually do their own advocacy, and are equipped with the right information, tools and resources. I am incredibly proud that we started the online HIV testing campaign – TestXXX, began integrating the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for programming. I am also very proud that we were one of the first networks to advocate for combination prevention, including PrEP as a new prevention tool, coordinating countries in our region who are part of the marriage equality movement, and are advocating for LGBTQI economic inclusion, and also recognizing and putting a spotlight on activists/allies/organisations through the HERO Awards, to name a few highlights in the past 10 years.
In addition to our Thai Foundation Board members, the Regional Advisory Group members, and passionate staff, we’re also incredibly fortunate to have on board our Ambassadors, who are supporting our cause. We also have a plethora of other supporters, and partners, and donors without whom we wouldn’t be able to do have the same weight and impact.
Lastly, the past 10 years, we have grown our network, and APCOM is grateful for the leadership and partnerships with country organizations working to alleviate HIV in their community and advance the health, rights and wellbeing of LGBTQI people. My personal highlight was being one of three civil society representatives to speak at the UN General Assembly at the closing of the 2016 High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS. It was so surreal to be saying “As a proud gay man and member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex community,” on that famous podium.
There must also be some low points as well. Would you mind sharing some of these?
As much as I’d like to think that we are always riding the wave, within the 10 years there have been many low points. I take them as a big lesson learned, as I cannot expect or be expected to be good at everything that running an organisation takes, and I didn’t come with the experience of running an organisation. The task at hand can seem pretty daunting: working at regional level and being accountable to the communities on the ground; the politics you have to navigate at international level, and having to present and represent in important forums. As a non-profit organization, our existence is rather precarious because APCOM depends on international donors. In the 10 years I have been with APCOM, I have witnessed that there’s less multi-year core funding to operationalise and build and grow as an organisation, and more emphasis on project deliverables and reporting.
At the beginning of 2019 we had to go through a big restructuring and had to let go of 50 percent of our staff. It was painful, and that is perhaps my lowest point, and I sincerely hope it won’t ever happen again.
What’s the main lessons you’ve learned and that you would like to share with future leaders in the region?
There are so many lessons learned, and there will be more to learn, in particular at this time when the pandemic is forcing us to reassess our work. I see APCOM as an incubator for ideas to materialise for the community to take on leadership roles with both hands. We also have to provide opportunities for staff to assume leadership roles, not be afraid to make mistakes, and not be afraid to ask for help.
I used to think that being a leader is to be more knowledgeable than other staff, and that you always have to ‘lead’, but as I mature I realise that we need many many leaders who together can make positive changes in the world. I also recognized that I needed to improve my soft skills to connect on a more personal level with staff, the network and partners, and not take work so seriously all the time. We do important and difficult work, – but we can also have fun, take a rest, have a laugh or a cry together along the way.
Obviously, APCOM is not one person, it is the culmination of collective dedication and passion from our staff, volunteers, boards, ambassadors as well from our donors, UN partners, governments and country civil society partners as well. We’re forever grateful to Hivos, UNAIDS, UNDP, AusAID, and AFAO that supported APCOM start up phase and recognized the importance of core funding for an organization like ours – such funding is now harder to find but now so important for organizational sustainability. We’re also thankful to our current funding partners; the Global Fund SKPA project, PEPFAR/USAID/EpiC, ViiV Healthcare, Gilead and Voice.
What is next for you at APCOM – perhaps for the next 10 years?
[Laughs] I am excited to be working with our new regional advisory group members and developing the next strategic plan to take APCOM to the next phase, and to ensure that we live up to our motto: Equity. Dignity. Social Justice; to ensure that we work strategically and collectively towards ending AIDS by 2030; and towards achieving key targets on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly on the inclusion of LGBTQI people.
A priority for me will be to continue to push for filling the main gap that we see in our region – made starker during COVID-19, namely that we need a community-led and community-owned funding mechanism for communities working on LGBTQI and HIV issues in Asia and the Pacific, to ensure the resilience and sustainability of activists and organizations to continue to do their important work in the region. I hope that within APCOM, we are providing opportunities for our staff to come up with ideas, find pathways to execute that idea and become the next leaders for the region, and to deepen our engagements with community partners. This year, we will be holding our 5th HERO Awards at the end of the year and in 2022 APCOM will be 15 years old, and we definitely have to celebrate that milestone as well!
No! Despite some low points and an average working week in the excess of 60 hours [laughs], the enthusiasm and daring and innovative approach of our team, volunteers, network, ambassadors and other partners has meant that we have made some real impact in the last 10 years. That alone makes it all worthwhile. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else in the past 10 years.
I guess my one regret would be not having had enough time to learn from our founder, the daring Shivananda Khan OBE, who sadly passed away in 2013. Shiv was not only charismatic, but was not afraid to say what needs to be said, and he was politically savvy – he was such a guru to many leaders that we see in the region now.
In his honour, our Life Time Achievement Award of the HERO Awards is dedicated to him in his name – the Shivananda Khan Award.