I recently interviewed the very busy, delightful and handsome Jose Ramos, to discuss Impulse Group celebrating 10 years in December. Jose is a fierce LGBTQ/HIV activist, leader, Founder and President of Impulse Group, AFH Director of Western Sales, triathlete and former General Manager at Target North Hollywood.
Impulse Group is an international group of volunteers and friends dedicated to promoting healthier sexual lifestyles among gay men.
After we finished our lunch and chocolate chip cookies at Bolt EaHo, Jose shared something I feel compelled to add to this piece. Jose Ramos, at the early age of 14, got involved in a community group of mothers that had lost children to AIDS. This group went to high schools and colleges throughout Ventura County to educate on safe sex and the importance of removing HIV fear and stigma. This was during the AIDS crisis, before he was out to his mother, while living in Ventura County. Jose’s early activism did not completely surprise me. However, it put everything into perspective on what drives him and why he left a General Manager position at a Fortune 100 company to dedicate his life to working in HIV care.
Was there an occurrence or life-shaking experience in your life that inspired you to come up with the idea for Impulse?
Impulse began December 2009. About a year prior to this, on a Friday night, my best friend called and told me he had received an HIV diagnosis from his doctor. Knowing that I had done some work regarding HIV, he asked me what it meant to have HIV anti-bodies in his test. The next day on Saturday, I said let’s go verify this. We went to an AHF Out Of The Closet on Sunset Blvd. in LA. I had no affiliation with AHF, never heard of them, but it was the only testing site open on a Saturday. The test was once again confirmed as positive. My friend went on a self-destructive path for the next three to six months that landed him in the hospital. When he was hospitalized, he had a T-cell count of 18, had lost 35 pounds, his hair was falling out and the doctor told us he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. I took some time off from work and would walk him around Cedar Sinai Hospital in a wheelchair and would feed him cupcakes and chicken soup because he had ulcers and he couldn’t eat that well. That for me was very dramatic, because even though I had talked about AIDS, I had never seen it up close. He made it through and is alive, healthy and thriving. After this experience, it made me think: I live in West Hollywood, he lives in Los Angeles; we have everything here, but people like my friend were getting diagnosed left and right.
I was the General Manager at Target North Hollywood during this experience. Like with many corporate jobs, there was a gap–a void in my personal life for giving back. This experience with my friend really made me think about what I was putting back into the community. I looked into what options there were for giving back. There were the buy a plate to a benefit, give money online, or show up for the Holidays and help feed. I thought to myself, I don’t want to do that. It just did not feel fulfilling to me. I went to Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, who I had the privilege of meeting randomly before through friends. I said hey ‘Michael, I want to volunteer. I want to help in a way beyond money. You and AFH helped my friend. I want to give back. I want to volunteer my counseling skills, my leaderships skills–just don’t make me do paperwork, because it will not get done.’
Michael, still today recalls me saying do not make me do paperwork. Michael linked me to his public health division, which is the division that does mobile testing and counseling around the city. I started volunteering, but it didn’t make sense to me. I’m like, this is not what is missing. I want to volunteer but I don’t want to go through a public health filter. I wanted to be able to talk to my friends as a gay man, about who we are, our health and sex. So I pulled back and thought to myself, what if there is a peer to peer movement? What if I went out to West Hollywood with my friends and started talking about sex? What if I go to a bathhouse with a couple of people and talk about condom use? I just kept wondering what if.
I went back to Michael who, by the way, had and continues to be a great mentor, and I said ‘there is something missing. It needs to be more social. It needs to be the community for the community.’
That was the first time Michael asked me, ‘Why don’t you start a social movement?” I remember wondering, ‘What is the social movement?’ I went back home and I still couldn’t understand what he meant at that time but now I understand.
Where did the very first meetings take place and who was involved?
The first Impulse meetings happened at my kitchen table with about seven of my friends. I called them and said, ‘Hey, I am creating a group of volunteers to go out into the community to talk about sex and HIV.’
I was also working at this time. I had a full-time job. All I wanted to do at this time was give about maybe 5 to 10 hours a week a week. I kept thinking, ‘How cool would it be to have a volunteer-based group that could get out into the community where we could talk about sex, talk about HIV, talk about drugs, talk about loneliness? How cool would it be that we could still have our careers and give back more than just money?’
Why the name Impulse?
The name came because we felt that there was this very short time when we are about to have sex, that we may have the impulse to use protection or not; to ask questions about sexual health or not. It’s a split second when you make a decision about your health. Knowing that there is that urge, that impulse to act on your desires, we thought that the name “Impulse” fit really well with how we could help with moment of instinct–that split second. We wanted to empower gay men to make the best decision.
How did Impulse transition from an idea to a movement?
When Impulse launched, everyone thought Michael Weinstein just handed me all this money. This doesn’t happen that way. Anyone who works in non-profit understands that. What Michael did do was tell me to go with the idea I had shared with him. We started doing recruiting for money. We did body shots at Mickey’s for $1. I was pimping all of my volunteers for $1 and we even considered having car washes. What I realized early on was that most of our time as a volunteer group that worked full-time was going into recruiting money. Michael noticed this and said ‘Don’t worry about recruiting money. Just put that aside.” I think he said, ‘AHF will fund $10,000 for you guys to do an event. Don’t worry about the finances. Worry about what you want to say in bringing gay men together.’
Six months into it, Michael says, ‘You need to do something already. Come on!’
So he pushed me to do an event with the team on the rooftop of the AHF Worldwide.
In prepping for the initial event, I remember working with the group and discussing that we needed to package the message in a way that would be attractive and appealing to young, gay, sexually active men. We weren’t selling cupcakes. What we were trying to sell, no one wanted to buy. it was a conversation about knowing your HIV status; talking freely about sex; being informed and removing stigma and fear from HIV. What we wanted was to create a setting they would be more at ease in so that we could engage them. I said let’s give them what they want and what they would expect from a hip Weho party. We created flashy invites, hired the It DJ, invited the right influencers and then hoped people would show up. We were expecting 80 people and we got over 600 people to show up.
Michael Weinstein saw this turnout and he said that there was potential.
The second year, Impulse received $100,000.00 and a billboard campaign on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. I remember the first time I saw one of the billboards from the Power Up campaign. I said, ‘Wow!’ I think I wanted to cry. I was like, ‘Oh My God!’
Impulse LA was the only chapter we had for about 5 years. Everyone thinks that we opened other chapters in other cities and countries immediately. However, that was not what happened. Mexico City was the second city and it was Michael who initiated that effort and idea.
What are the goals of Impulse?
Ten years ago, and still today, there are three simple goals: we want to engage, we want to support and we want to connect gay men globally.
Have the goals changed in the last ten years?
When we began our work, it was more around HIV and condom use. However, we’ve evolved in the last ten years, and are expanding how we engage, support and connect. Our new mission also reflects this.
Our engagement today is more focused on meeting people where they are. What type of support do they actually need once we’ve engaged them? Is it around drug use? Is it around depression?? Is it around HIV as well? The one thing that has become very clear to me is that there is a lot of disconnection among gay men. Impulse targets its work primarily towards gay men. We have been criticized for this. However, our issues need specialized attention as well. I look at the suicide rates among gay men, the depression and the loneliness, and think, ‘We have a lot of work to do.’
Is Impulse achieving its goals?
Absolutely! Impulse is a social movement group that is continually evolving. Impulse’s growth and impact is seen at our exceptionally attended events, in our social media platforms, content, views, followers, interactions and in the partnerships that we continue to build in each community that we are in.
How many Impulse chapters are there currently?
We currently have 25 chapters internationally.
Did you ever foresee Impulse being an international movement?
I did not! When Mexico City happened, which was the second chapter, it was close to my heart. One-because there was a true need, and two-because I’m Mexican and it just felt good to be there and give back in this way. The third city was Miami. What Mexico City and Miami both shared were great chapter leaders. Alex Reyes in Mexico City and AJ Alegria in Miami. They each established Impulse in ways that had and continue to have a great impact on our mission. I think that having Impulse in LA for five years, where the foundation was built and having two really strong cities that followed what made opening the other 22-cities much easier to launch. It was just such a great experience to give my vision to someone else and see them make it their own and make it shine. Next was Atlanta. I always say that the pillars of Impulse for the first seven-years were Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami and Atlanta.
Did you ever foresee Impulse turning 10?
No and to be honest the first 5-years, it was not as that easy. It felt dark sometimes with some of early criticism. I questioned why I was doing this and sometimes the attacks were personal. It required a lot of time and I had to put my career aside at Target. I gave up promotions so that I could grow Impulse because it was really what I felt. In the last recent two years, I had not really stopped to look at how fast Impulse was growing. But now going into our 10th year celebration, I reflect and see how it’s been incredible. I never looked at Impulse and thought–I want one more. I just kept going and did what felt right, followed my passion and my genuine care for the community.
What can you tell me about the 10-year celebration?
Impulse will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on December 1, 2019, during World AIDS Day-Sunday at the beautiful Wilshire Ebell Theater. We chose World AIDS Day because it is a day that is significant to the work that we do. The first part of the celebration will be for a smaller group of people with a few speeches, the premiere a short documentary about Impulse and myself and a formal recognition of the original board of Impulse–the seven men that sat at my kitchen table and the current board.
We will then move to the theater where there will be a free concert at 7:30pm, hosted by Billy Porter, Emmy Award Winner and star of the FX hit show, “Pose”. Faith Evans, Daya, and Ms. Shalae will also all be performing at the concert.
Tell me a little about having Billy Porter host this event.
I am a huge fan of Billy Porter and the show Pose. His spirit, his energy and so much about the show Pose reminded me of Impulse in some ways. We are the House of Impulse. I am the mama, we have mamas all over the globe and what we want is for the children to thrive and grow.
How can people get tickets to the free concert?
Just go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/impulse-world-aids-day-10-year-anniversary-tickets-79189103741
What’s next for Impulse?
I think it’s to continue to engage, support and connect. Ten years in, it’s clear to me that we have to support in a way that really makes an impact. Meeting the people we engage where they are- be it drug addiction, a mental health issue or anything that maybe is creating a pain point.
Another thing is to have Impulse Group be more vocal about what they think, what they believe in and to continue to find its voice on what they think is lacking even if it pisses people off. While we have said a lot in the past, we have also been criticized for not being clear. I don’t agree with that but I hear it.
What you will you be wearing to the 10-Year celebration?
Nothing too stuffy, something fitted-maybe John Varvatos hahaha!