Civil Rights & Social Action / Disease & Disorders / Educational / Youth Development

Creating a First of it’s Kind National Monument

The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980’s changed the world.  Over 650,000 lives were lost during the epidemic.  There were no treatments for the virus and those that came in the years to follow, were aggressive and often did incredible damage to the body.  This is the story of a survivor.  But not of his times through the crisis; it is the story of how he has decided to help the world never forget those souls.

Bobby Heller, an advertising and branding expert, was at the forefront of the crisis.  He lost nearly every one of his friends to the virus.  His life would be forever altered during those years, but it would be twenty years before he would have the opportunity to do something.  He was asked to join the Board of the Foundation for a National AIDS Monument, which would create an experience to immortalize, honor and educate.  I sat down with him to have him tell me about how he is making an impact.

The AIDS crisis launched gays into the spotlight.  They were faced with an invisible enemy, destroying a generation.  They bound together and fought.  There was no government assistance or even acknowledgment in the early days.  Men and women were having their lives torn apart and our leaders were not there to help.  Humanity had been challenged and it was losing.  But that fight, that power, that unity rose up and began to push the limits.  Riots, marches and political maneuvering had begun and would not stop.  This spurred the fastest moving civil rights movement in modern history.

Today, the landscape is very different.  In the US, the LGBTQ community has rights and protections.  There are HIV treatments that don’t cause serious long term effects and the virus can be kept at bay for years or even indefinitely.  There is PrEP and PEP that can help those unaffected by the virus add an extra layer of protection to their sex life.  But through these advances and triumphs, the history and significance of what happened has started to get lost.  If we do not understand our past, we cannot be prepared for our future.

The Foundation for a National AIDS Monument wants to make sure the legacy of those that died will be remembered and to honor those that cared for the them and survived with an experience designed by Daniel Tobin of the Urban Art Projects.  “Our Board members’ personal experiences motivated us to establish a landmark work of art and a one-of-a-kind digital monument which allow people not only to remember their friends and loved ones, but also to recognize the people and organizations who cared and advocated for the sick,” said Mark Lehman, the Foundation’s Board Chair. “We want to make sure that these inspirational and emotional stories are captured, shared and passed down to younger generations.”

The monument will be a technological marvel.  Combining augmented reality, with lights and sound, the AIDS Monument will go beyond “a boulder and a bench”.  It will be an interactive exhibit, filled with love, memories and a way to connect a dark era in history to our bright future.

The Foundation is working closely with the city of West Hollywood to produce the first ever AIDS Monument.  West Hollywood has worked closely with the foundation in developing and to reserve a space for the monument, centrally, within the city.  “The creation of an AIDS monument in West Hollywood is deeply personal for those of us who lived through the horror.  This project will bring us together as a community to grieve, remember, honor our heroes and teach about what happened when plague hit Southern California,” said West Hollywood Councilmember John J. Duran.

All the pieces were falling into place.  If this story is not told now, it never will.  The me and women that lived through the crisis are getting older and our stories, our history, is being lost.  “It was so shocking and abominable if we cannot tell our story, then it will be lost forever.” Heller says, “This is our last chance to control the narrative of our social fabric.”  So Bobby worked with John Gile, a philanthropist in Los Angeles, to find a way to raise the money needed.

John wanted to create a fundraising event that would reach across society and involve all peoples.  He devised the Photo 15 event, a photo auction that brought in the artistic community and brought together people from all different backgrounds for a common cause.  To raise money for a monument like the world has never seen.  He and Bobby Heller had their beacon, a way to branch out and tell their stories.  They raised over $400,000 at the inaugural event.  They have not raised all the money yet, but they are well on their way.

I was fortunate enough to attend the event last year and I was blown away by how many people were there.  We all came together to support a cause that had impacted us all and we drew on that collective emotion hoping to create something beautiful.

This year, on October 6th, 2016, they will be holding Photo 16 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, CA.  It will feature over 80 iconic photographs from some of the finest photographers in the world, including Bruce Weber, Antonio Lopez, Herb Ritts, Michael Childers, Dennis Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Paela Hanson, Francois Nars, Timothy White, Greg Gorman and Christopher Makos.  If you can, please attend.  This cause is about preserving history and teaching our children what happened, so they may prevent it from ever occurring again.

Tickets to Photo 16 can be purchased at

If you are unable to attend but would still like to place bids on artwork, you can do so through Paddle8 at

“To me personally, standing up and doing this social conscious action has been the most moving and best experience of his life.  Anyone that hasn’t tried it, must find their passion and do it.” – Bobby Heller

You can also see artist renderings of the AIDS Monument on their website

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