Steinhardt graduate student Staci Barton struggled with her racial identity when she was growing up.
“As a light-skinned black person, my racial identity was always challenged by others,” she said. “People either didn’t think I ‘looked black’ or ‘acted black.’”
Because of this personal experience, she wanted to help other minority groups.
Barton, who is pursuing her Master’s degree in Community and International Public Health, became involved with the Center of Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies the summer before her senior year. As a CAS undergraduate studying Psychology, she started interning for Project Desire — a study conducted by CHIBPS to better understand the sexual behavior of African-American and Latino men living in New York City who have sex with other men.
“I’ve always wanted to work with minority populations and marginalized groups,” she said. “Those are where the health disparities are.”
As an intern, Barton conducted interviews with men ages 13 to 17, whom she asked questions about their sexual behavior and why they may be inclined to engage in unprotected sex. After speaking with these men, she realized she wanted to continue working with these underserved communities.
“Actually hearing about people’s experiences directly from their mouth, completely unfiltered, was very fascinating,” Barton said.
This desire to not only communicate with but also give this group a voice has been the drive behind her role within CHIBPS, where she continued to work after completing her years as a student in the College of Arts and Science.
After she graduated in June, she was hired as a project coordinator of Project 18, also a project designed to learn about young LGBTQ men. Three years later she was promoted to assistant project director, which has given her a larger role in ensuring that the project runs smoothly everyday.
Not only does she conduct many of the participant assessments and HIV tests, but she also contributes to the technical work of the project.
Since Barton became assistant project director, CHIBPS has published one academic article containing the data the project has collected, and is currently working on others. Part of her job is also to select and train the interns, and in recent years P-18 has had as many as 300 intern applicants from from all over the world.
But her most significant impact on the project has been the strong relationships she has developed with the participants. Her colleagues know her as the one who remembers all 600 names of the men in the study. She makes an effort to meet with the same men each time they come in.
“I have guys that I did their appointment when they were 18, and I have done their appointment every six months until they turned 21,” she said.
This effort has contributed to the high retention rate of P-18, which is about 85 percent.
One of the hardest parts of Barton’s job is telling a man he tested positive for HIV, but she does not simply pass along the bad news and leave. Barton said she personally calls centers in the area, gets in a cab with the man and takes him to professionals who can help.
“The experience of doing that has really been incredible, knowing that we are not just collecting data and ignoring the humanity aspect of the project,” she said. “We are helping people as much as we can.”
Barton hopes the study, which is expected to continue at least another five years, will shed more light on the epidemic of HIV and remind people that the issue should not be overlooked.
She said sometimes it is difficult to balance working during the day and attending classes at night. Although Barton plans to continue this type of work in the future, she wants to explore the education aspect. In particular, she would like to play a role in improving sexual health education programs.
“The more comprehensively we understand this epidemic, the better we can reduce the new rates of infection among the community as well as ensure that those who are HIV-positive are as healthy as possible,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 13 print edition. Nicole Brown is a deputy city/state editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.