In honor of World AIDS Day, we are sharing a Q&A with CEO David Waters about how our early days of serving people living with HIV/AIDS still inform the agency’s work and David’s leadership.
In 1989, like most young gay men, David was anxious about the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS, which was a deadly disease in the early years of the epidemic. Through his work in the restaurant industry, he was introduced to a volunteer-led community effort to deliver hot, nutritious meals to isolated community members devastated by HIV/AIDS. Joining the cause helped David come to terms with his own fears about the illness and feel useful in the face of so much sadness and uncertainty.
When David thinks back to that time, he pictures his best friend on the beach in Provincetown, standing arm in arm with a group of young, tan, and vibrant men. Two years later, eight of the ten men would be dead. “That’s what it was like then,” David says. “People in their twenties and thirties aren’t supposed to go to that many funerals.”
David eventually left the restaurant industry to work full-time at Community Servings, first as director of development and since 1999 as CEO. In 2004, Community Servings’ mission expanded to serve clients with a range of critical or chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Today, about 13 percent of the agency’s more than 6,000 clients have a primary diagnosis of HIV/AIDS.
Community Servings was officially incorporated in 1990 and initially delivered meals to about 30 people living with HIV/AIDS in the Boston area. What about those clients do you keep in mind when you think about our clients today?
What comes to mind is a friend of mine, a very talented graphic designer, who was a coworker in a previous job. Fast forward 10 years, and a mutual friend calls me and says that our friend is dying. His family disowned him, and in the last two months of his life, his partner left him because he couldn’t cope. When we started delivering meals to him, he said: “You are my angels of mercy.” We were the only ones willing to go into his house and bring him food.
I think that the relationship with our clients is sacred. I often say that the meal is a gift that the community is bringing to you. You’re receiving food and appropriate nutrients, but also the message that you’re not forgotten. Many people face a combination of illness and other challenges in their lives. It’s all very unfair. We show up for them and say: You’re not alone. We’re here for you, and we’ve made this beautiful meal for you.
What approaches to food are still in place today from those early days?
One of the first “aha” moments for me was that when people are feeling sick, they have no appetite. And if you bring them mediocre food, which is what you might expect from a large-scale meals program that’s free, they’re not going to eat it. The first barrier in our work is always how to motivate someone who has no appetite to eat. They’re not going to recover, they’re not going to get healthy, if they don’t eat. Our approach to that is delicious, appetizing food.
Over time we also have grown to see food justice as an important part of our work. We keep our purchasing dollars local and make sure that there isn’t food going into the waste system that could be otherwise used.
As a society, we’ve gotten away from cooking the way our ancestors did. But at Community Servings, that’s how we cook—from scratch, using whole foods, and with respect for both the food and the recipient.
You’ve said that Community Servings is an antidote to the negativity in the world. Can you give a sense of when you first observed that and how that still influences the organization?
Early on, I felt it, but I didn’t know if other people did too. Over the last 10 or so years, everybody says how special this place is. Employees say they’ve worked in other nonprofits, and they weren’t like this. Volunteers or guests in the building say they’ve never been in a place where there are so many people smiling or making eye contact.
I’ve always wanted Community Servings to be a joyful, safe, and welcoming place. It’s very validating when you realize that it’s manifesting. It’s special to have that, so you must cherish and perpetuate it. Now I talk about it more because I think that when you name something, it really becomes part of the culture.
Do you have any early mentors who continue to help you think about how to lead today?
Joan Parker, who served on the board for two decades, was one of my best friends. She was extremely passionate about Community Servings and loved problem solving. I’d bring her a problem, and we’d tease it out together. She taught me not to be defensive if I made a mistake. I now say to new colleagues that the one thing I can guarantee during your time here is that you will make a mistake, because you’re human. Most of us are taught that we’re not supposed to make mistakes or there’s shame associated with making a mistake. Joan taught me that she was ready to help me when I made a mistake. And I realized, and I tell this to others, that the real mistake is hiding a misstep because it always comes back to haunt you. If you feel safe enough to bring it forward, then we can all dive in and fix it.
I also think about Sheila Decter, the founder of Community Servings, who is very practical in her political activism around progressive Jewish causes and social justice. I didn’t come to this work as a social justice person. I came first as a restaurateur and a gay man and then probably as an entrepreneur and social entrepreneur, but I’ve learned over the years, thank God, to better understand where I am woefully naïve. After the murder of George Floyd, we talked a lot about it here. I learned that many of my colleagues, particularly my Black colleagues, were experiencing a lot of trauma and continue to. The realization for me was how many people face racism every day and how stressful that is. It brought white privilege to life for me in a way that I don’t think I understood previously. And so now I talk about it more so I can continue to learn. I credit other inspired staff for making it a bigger part of our conversation.
Are there business lessons learned from those first years that have continued to help you resolve challenges and make decisions?
I often say that I run three small businesses. I run a traditional human service agency that helps low-income individuals living with critical and chronic illnesses. That business also tracks public health data. I run a foodservice business that produces meals. And I run a small marketing firm. In the early years, we discovered that if I unilaterally said we’re going to change a process, it would always come back to haunt me, as I would miss some unanticipated impact. We learned that you must bring everybody together and not make a change without all the players at the table. That kind of process flow came early, and I think ultimately made us very good at making meals, but also prepped us to bring on new projects and evolve quickly.
We have a culture of innovation and evolution and aiming to be best in class in everything we do. On the left hand, we can keep the meals program running. And on the right hand, we can develop a job-training program and a local foods program, conduct important research, and expand our business operations.
What has and hasn’t changed about Community Servings’ clients and how Community Servings provides for them?
The AIDS epidemic started with white men, but quickly moved into communities of color. And then we realized that there are similarities among all people facing chronic disease. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Boston or Worcester, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island. In all these cases, the basic need is the same. We have clients who are scared and isolated. Many are food insecure and lack access to fresh, healthy foods. They have had bad things happen to them out of no fault of their own. They are people just like you and me who are dealing with everyday life challenges on top of trying to manage chronic illnesses and complex diet needs.
We step in and say we want to be part of the solution for you—words they don’t often hear. The system is opaque. It expects them to speak English, be literate, fight for themselves, fight for their kids, navigate irrational healthcare systems, all while understanding the intricacies of nutrition. And we say we’re going to respect and care for you and bring you the nutrition you need to be healthier every week. That kind of steady presence is what we’ve provided since we were founded. Thirty-four years later, our true north is still the same.