NAMES Project Foundation, director to be honored with CURE’s Open Heart Award

World-AIDS-Day-art-BJames Russell  |  Staff Writer

Julie Rhoad has been involved in AIDS activism since the 1980s when, as a stage manager for theater companies across the country, she saw her friends and colleagues dying from a mysterious disease. As an artist and a lesbian who lost friends, she had a keen awareness of the unfolding AIDS epidemic, and she felt an obligation to participate.

She wanted to commemorate her friends and educate the public about HIV/AIDS. But where could she turn?

Rhoad found the NAMES Project Foundation in the mid-1990s, first serving as a volunteer and later as a member of the board. In 2001, she became the foundation’s executive director and CEO, a position she has held ever since.

NAMES Project, the custodian of The AIDS Memorial Quilt, will receive the 2014 Open Heart Award from CURE and Health Services of North Texas on World AIDS Day, Monday, Dec. 1, in recognition of the organization’s preservation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Rhoad will accept the award in memoriam for “all of the people who lost their lives,” she said this week.
CURE advisory board member Tyler Sweatman called Rhoad “calm, kind and engaging.” And whether she likes it or not Sweatman said, Rhoad is the face of the organization. “She is a representative of NAMES [as much as] NAMES is representative of her,” he said.

Her dedication is evident “especially when you get her talking, she’s a walking Wikipedia of facts and figures,” he added.

The NAMES Project began in 1987 in San Francisco with a small group of friends and family members wanting to memorialize loved ones who died from AIDS-related complications. The quilt was born following a vigil where placards bearing the names of those who had died of AIDS were put on San Francisco City Hall.

In seeking a permanent memorial, organizers fundraised for what became the Quilt; now comprising nearly 50,000 personalized 3-foot-by-6-foot panels. Portions of the Quilt tour internationally as part of the group’s educational mission.

“There isn’t a day when the Quilt isn’t on the road,” Rhoad said.
NAMES grew, and it also moved to Atlanta, a hub of civil rights history and home to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

“We’re in the home of the modern civil rights movement,” Rhoad said. “Civil rights [now] include a spectrum of issues, among them LGBTQ rights.”

Rhoad said she loves sharing the Quilt, especially with younger generations. “Young people may not be aware of the Quilt at first. But when they learn, it’s compelling [to hear their responses],” she said. “I’ve had some ask, ‘What if AIDS hit people who were in power first? Would we still be talking about it?’”


Julie Rhoad

After 15 years, Rhoad said she’s seen what works and what doesn’t when displaying the Quilt. For younger generations who have not experienced the devastation of AIDS, smaller displays help convey the Quilt’s importance, she said.

“We do the smaller exhibits because a vast majority of young people need to see the honest and emotional side of the Quilt,” she said. “The smaller exhibits are humanizing for a new generation. They show people are not statistics but humans. This premiere cultural document also tells a story. It has a potency and also give all generations time to think about AIDS’ impact 30 years later.”

Even if the display doesn’t make everyone an activist, Rhoad said she hopes the Quilt will still have an impact. But she’s skeptical about people who don’t get involved.

“If we pay attention, it is almost impossible to not be engaged in causes. Why wouldn’t  anyone want to be engaged?”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 28, 2014.