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A long walk

 | 
AIDS Walk founder marks 20 years of fighting HIV/AIDS.

By Ret Boney

In sixth grade, Craig Miller set up a booth at a local mall, collected thousands of signatures opposing the clubbing of baby seals in Canada, and sent them to the Canadian ambassador.

“That was the first overtly political action I took,” he says.

That passion to fight injustice and create change later led Miller to start the AIDS Walk phenomenon, raising awareness and more than $250 million for the epidemic through some 60 walks in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other cities over the last two decades.

On May 15, Miller’s 20th AIDS Walk New York hopes to draw 45,000 walkers and beat last year’s record total of $5.6 million to benefit the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a nonprofit service provider in New York City, along with some 50 additional local AIDS services groups.

The first AIDS Walk took place in 1985 to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles, and was Miller’s way of fighting back during a frightening and uncertain time, he says.

“I felt directly, personally threatened by the epidemic,” he says.  “I felt I was a member of a community that was not only under attack for reasons of conservative politics, but now under attack from some viral force.  I was intent on fighting back.”

At the time, Miller was 25 and honing his grassroots organizing skills by running campaigns for a state senator and a congressman from Los Angeles.

Having grown up in a liberal Jewish family in a conservative, white neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, Miller knew what it felt like to be different.

And with a father who was appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to run the city’s community development efforts, and a mother who taught public school, Miller knew politics and how to motivate people.

Disappointed with the policies of the Reagan administration, and believing the government was shirking its responsibility to address the mushrooming AIDS epidemic, Miller jumped in.

“It became clear to me that this administration was not going to meet its obligation to treat this public health emergency,” he says.  “The idea of an AIDS Walk emerged from recognition that we needed to band together as best we could and fill the gap left by the government.”

Miller, a native of Los Angeles, hoped the walk would raise money for the local AIDS services agency, show support for people suffering with the disease and let government know that people expected it to respond.

“People with AIDS were absolutely being ostracized and vilified,” he says.  “It was important to show that’s not how the great middle of America thinks.”

Craig Miller

Job: President and CEO, MZA Events, Los Angeles

Born: 1959, Los Angeles

Family: Single; nephews, ages 16, 11 and 9

Hobbies: Hiking in Utah mountains, horseback riding, spending time with nephews

Recommended reading: “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell; “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” by Randy Shilts; “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck

Inspiration: Martin Luther King Jr.; Harvey Milk, first openly gay supervisor for city of San Francisco, assassinated in 1978.

About 4,000 people, mostly gay and lesbian, showed up for that first walk, which raised $673,000 in contributions, more than six times the goal and about double the annual budget of AIDS Project Los Angeles, which received the proceeds.

Over the next two years, Miller organized walks in New York and San Francisco and began consulting with other communities interested in organizing their own walks, beginning 20 years of annual events that have included more than a million people across the country.

He also formed a company that year, which later became MZA Events, to produce AIDS Walks and “make the greatest possible difference in a wide range of social issues.”

Today, MZA has about 25 full-time employees and a payroll double that to cover events, and raises money for causes like breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and colon and prostate cancer, and consults for political campaigns at the congressional and state levels.

Miller says that, on average, charities working with MZA net about 70 percent to 75 percent of the money raised.

“For a business organization, we really are rather extraordinarily unproprietary,” he says.  “We’ve spent a great deal of time urging others to have their own walks and showing them how to do it.  We are activists at heart.  We care greatly about the end results of our work.”

Since 1981, more than 500,000 Americans have died of AIDS, and Miller says the crisis continues today, with some 900,000 people living with disease and 40,000 more people contracting it each year, three in 10 of them women and more than half under age 25.

And while the stigmatization of people with AIDS has lessened, Miller says there’s still a need to raise money, show compassion for those infected with the virus and combat a recent complacency and lack of intensity in prevention messages, especially from the government.

“I walked through 25 battle-zone blocks in New York City, ground zero for the epidemic,” he says.  “I saw terrific ads for what shoes I should buy, what Broadway shows I should see and for where I should eat.  But I didn’t see a thing about the HIV epidemic that’s ravaging that neighborhood.”

Another challenge, Miller says, is the recent drop in the success of AIDS fundraising in general, which can lead some fundraisers to decrease investment, and that in turn can compromise the quality of their campaigns.

“It can bring about a virulent self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.  “Our response has been to work harder and work smarter and find new ways to engage the public and keep our message cutting edge and crisp and don’t let up on our intensity.”

Twenty years and 60 walks later, Miller believes his AIDS Walks are still successful, with interest and contributions remaining high.

And if the need is still there in another 20 years, as Miller expects it will be, he will likely still be walking.

“My upbringing instilled in me the notion that we ought to try to use our lives to make a difference,” he says.  “I’m fortunate to have certain skills and abilities.  How can I use those to do something that’s really useful and consequential?”

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