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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Wakefield takes nat´l AIDS post
by Robert Schultz
2000-02-09

This article shared 1458 times since Wed Feb 9, 2000
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"I can talk to anybody on the face of this planet about gay and lesbian health," said Steve Wakefield.

When Steve assumes his new responsibilities in Seattle, he will have plenty of opportunities to speak to people around the globe about LBGT health issues. Wakefield, a Chicago native, will soon assume responsibilities as the Director of Community Education of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network ( HVTN ) project. The HVTN project is part of the Infections Diseases Program of the Clinical Research Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Wakefield will be responsible for helping communities that will benefit from HIV vaccine trials articulate their needs and concerns to the research community, and their respective government and non-governmental agencies.

"I get a chance to work with people on the participant issues to make sure they're not guinea pigs," Wakefield explained. Wakefield responsibilities include making "sure they ( communities ) know what is going on with the research, and that they get to advocate for the questions that are important to them around the research."

Wakefield has been a key player in the development of some of Chicago's leading gay and lesbian institutions, particularly those organizations engaged in AIDS services in Chicago.

Karen Fishman, the former executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago from 1991-", called Wakefield, "a really important leader in AIDS services." Since 1994 Wakefield has been employed with the Night Ministry, an organization devoted to street outreach and shelters for homeless and runaway youth. The Night Ministry has always been an advocate for LBGT youth, and Wakefield was its executive director for a year. Wakefield also headed the Night Ministry on an interim basis when his predecessor, the Rev. Tom Behrens, took a sabbatical in 1995.

Prior to becoming part of its staff as the acting executive director, for two years Wakefield was involved as a volunteer at the Howard Brown Health Center, and for four years was on its board serving as President, Vice President, and treasurer during the 1980s. Wakefield was the first paid director at Test Positive Aware Network and led the organization as executive director through 1994.

Greg Lindeman, who was active in ACT-UP during the critical years of the AIDS crisis, and was on TPAN's board and the HIV Planning Council, said Wakefield, "kept things going on an even keel during difficult times." Lindeman recalls Wakefield leading TPAN during a period of "great turbulence." Wakefield's community endeavors have garnered him plenty of public scrutiny and praise. "While I saw a lot of success at TPA, it was because the people were able to involve themselves in the mission and understand not only what they were doing for themselves in terms of sharing information, but what they were doing for other people with HIV."

Wakefield's awards include the Frederick Garnett Award for Life Saving Contributions to AIDS Care given by the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, and the Hank Jones Award for Leadership given by the AIDS Pastoral Care Network. He was awarded the Friend for Life Award given by Howard Brown Health Center. Wakefield also received the Joe Alongi Political Action Award given by IMPACT, and the Community Leadership Award given by Men of All Colors Together/Chicago. Wakefield is also a member of the City of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

In the wake of these public accolades, Wakefield says, "I think that if I were to point to an achievement it's been being able to become friends with others who are interested in health issues." Wakefield said he has been able "to begin to mentor them or lead them into work on issues that were important to the health of gay and lesbian people. I was doing volunteer work at Howard Brown. I realized at one point I could spend my life and energy making a corporation rich with the talent that I had or I deal with gay men's health so my involvement with Howard Brown escalated to the point where I left corporate America." It was at this time that Wakefield remembers that a Howard Brown staff member came to a board meeting and said the staff wanted to start a small project called the AIDS Action Project. Wakefield recalled the staff saying, "'It won't last long because there are only a few people affected and we just need a few extra dollars to do it.' That was right at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic we had no idea it was going to grow."

Wakefield's public service has included being on the City of Chicago's Board of Health since 1993. Since 1997 he has been on the AIDS advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health ( NIH ) . Since 1998 Wakefield has been the Board President of the NIH HIV Prevention Research Network National Community Advisory Board. Wakefield has been a consultant to the UN in Uganda and South Africa about community involvement in HIV research. Wakefield's leadership involvement has included work with the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and being a co-founder of Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays.

Lindeman called Wakefield the logical voice on the HIV Planning Council. Lindeman said during the early years of building AIDS services in Chicago Wakefield was the only executive director who interacted in the real world with the clientele of AIDS services. Gay activist Laird Petersen said Wakefield was a good dancer who was always at Crobar on Sunday nights. Lindeman said Wakefield shepherded TPAN through growth stages and urged the peer-oriented TPAN constituency to not be myopically focused exclusively on parochial issues. In other words, Wakefield's vision saw a more global role for the agency so as to impact as many people as possible.

According to Lindeman, Wakefield respected the critical role for ACT-UP's street advocacy during that era. Lindeman praised Wakefield for being able to know when it was time to step away from an endeavor and said Wakefield couldn't be charged with careerism. Fishman agreed that Wakefield is a strong advocate for PWAs who has made a difference for affected communities. Petersen, who was on staff at Horizons Community Services during the early 䚪s, said Wakefield talked about and made agency collaboration happen before it became an important value in social services. Fishman called him "thoughtful" regarding prevention issues, and said his move to work on HIV vaccine issues "makes sense."

When asked about the lessons he has learned in doing this community-oriented gay health work, Wakefield replied, "If you are trying to make a difference there are no limits as long as you maintain integrity." Saying that one of his favorite books is Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Wakefield explained that one of the basic concepts he has learned about integrity is the importance of faith. "If you let your faith guide your life on a day-to-day basis, then the rest falls into place. There is nothing that can't be overcome." Wakefield admitted to succeeding in overcoming issues of lack of self esteem that "that lead me down the path of drug abuse" which he has since overcome.

Wakefield places a premium on cooperation. "You can't do it alone. There are no successes to be held operating as a Lone Ranger. A person can be most successful when they figure out who can work with me on this. Engage them, and then to find a way to make it mutually beneficial not for just what you can get out it but make sure there is a benefit for the other person as well."

Wakefield didn't come out until after college when his career took him to Milwaukee and Louisville, Ky. Upon his return to Chicago, he felt like he was a whole person. Wakefield now jokes that his mother says that the reason he is her only gay child is because he was the only one of his siblings born in Lakeview. His seven years in Milwaukee and Louisville, and when he earned his degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana were the only times until now that he didn't live in Chicago. The most significant change Wakefield has seen in the gay community is the wealth of resources and support systems to help people come out. Wakefield pointed to the "marvelous institutions" like the Metropolitan Sports Association, and the music groups as examples in the depth of social outlets available.

"You can find a group of people who are just like you to help you understand yourself," he said. After that he urges LBGT people to "branch out and explore for people who aren't so much like you." Wakefield said if he wasn't working on gay health issues he would be working on racism. Wakefield is sadden that in some quarters of the gay community announcements that there is a crisis in gay men of color's health are interpreted as trying to pit white gay men against Black gay men. Wakefield's world travels have shown him that in other parts of the world same-gender-loving people have organized their lives differently than Western gays. Wakefield said that in Uganda he met men who had primary emotional and sexual involvement with one another, who were recognized by the community as having such a relationship, even though they had separate households where their female companions and children lived. It's this sensitivity to other ways of being gay that Wakefield has seen in Latin America and Africa that he hopes to use to inform his work as he assumes his global responsibilities.

Leaving Chicago will be hard, he admits, but Wakefield looks forward to being able to bring his vision of community involvement and collaboration to a new forum. HIV vaccine advocacy is something he feels "called to do."

"I used to say that there was only one other person who cared more deeply about Chicago on a day-to-day basis and he decided to be the mayor. It will be a hard move but I'll make new friends and become part of another community," reflects Wakefield.


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