Do you feel like your experience at Madison sort of galvanized you to return to Chicago? Was it even a given that you'd go back to Chicago, or did you consider other options? Were you ready and eager to get back to work?
Chicago and I are in a long-term relationship. And no matter how I try to get away, Chicago is like Effie White in Dreamgirls: "And I am telling you I'm not going." And I've become OK with it.
While I was in Madison, I got a call about this position. When I was in Chicago, I had participated in a focus group about how they would develop this PrEP project. After that group, the co-principal investigator, Margo Bell, pulled me to the side, and she said, "If we get this, I want you to be our project director." So around February of the semester of graduation, I got a call from Dr. Bell. She said, "We got it. I cannot imagine anybody other than you in the role. Would you be interested?"
I had to do a lot of soul searching. I was really trying to explore a whole lot of other options and thinking about other things. But I understood what she was saying, and I understood the significance of my being in that position. At the end of the day, I felt like I was called back to do it. So I was like, OK, that is what I'm going to do.
I actually started the gig before graduation. April 1, I started part-time, just helping with protocol development; and then I graduated May 17, and that was a Sunday. May 19 was my first full day at work.
I would like to mention the second project that I work on. It's designed to tailor CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]-approved evidence-based interventions known as d-up for the House/Ball community in Chicago. TheBody.com reposted the piece about the House/Ball community that I wrote some time ago, when I was with Positively Aware.
I will be very honest in saying that I really didn't want to have a whole lot to do with it at first. My principal investigators were working on it together, and they asked me if I would consider being the project director for it, in conjunction with the study that I'm working on. They were really not anticipating receiving funding for it the first time they applied. So I figured, well, I've committed two years to this project. If they don't get funded and they try to submit it again, I'll be on my way out, and blah, blah. I was kind of like, it's not going to happen anyway. So, OK, fine.
My reasons for not wanting to be involved had to do with what I'd learned about the politics of how they do research. And when I say they, I'm being very specific with respect to talking about the investigators that I work with, and the people with whom they work. The politics are a little too much for me, and I didn't think that I could work and be my best in this space, if that makes sense.
Well, then it happened. I still was not excited about it; I was still like, whatever. Right? Well, we have our first focus group, with a group of house parents from within the community. And the first question we ask is: How serious is HIV in your community?
One of the house parents said, "It's very serious, when I am going to three or four funerals a month in the Midwest for young men where we know what happened to them, but nobody's talking about it." That broke the ground for a conversation that broke my heart; it caused me to feel bad about my initial reaction to the project itself. Because I immediately saw, or felt, the need for such a project to happen in this community. And I saw the investment of the community -- they realize that something needs to be done, but they don't really know what to do.
What I like about this project is that it's written as intravention rather than an intervention, where you're actually utilizing the community itself to conduct the intervention. So it has become my pride and joy, really, because I enjoy conversing with the community. I enjoy the relationship that I've begun to build with the community.
I see myself becoming this different kind of researcher, which is beautiful for me. Because I have ideals about research and researchers, etc. I understand that, for our community, there's a huge disconnect with the research community. And I now see myself as being able to sort of make a bridge, and I'm very conscious of that relationship and the way that I act inside of that relationship. Because I don't want to do anything that could damage it. I feel like we're building bridges in ways that have not been built before in this city.