Recognizing a Community Legend

Steve Wakefield
Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Steve Wakefield, the former Director of External Relations at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), cultivated and spearheaded strategic partnerships with organizations and stakeholders across the globe. Wakefield, as he is known by his colleagues, community members, and friends, utilized his voice to advocate for the needs of underrepresented, underserved populations in medical research for over 35 years. Throughout his service at the HVTN, Wakefield developed various programs to increase community participation in HIV clinical trials. Of particular significance to chronically underserved African American communities, Wakefield served as a pivotal member of the HIV Prevention Trials Network’s Black Caucus, a group that advocates for the meaningful inclusion of Black people in some of the most significant studies exploring HIV prevention interventions in Black men who have sex with men and transgender women. Wakefield also founded the Legacy Project, a program which works to address racial and ethnic disparities in HIV clinical trials participation in the US. Though he retired from the HVTN in 2020, Wakefield still advocates for marginalized communities, serving on various committees such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) AIDS Vaccine Research Subcommittee.

I recently sat down with Wakefield to get his insight on how people new to public health can enhance their skills in public speaking, communicating HIV research science, and public health leadership. Despite his evident skill as a presenter, Wakefield was clear: “I don’t think of myself as a great public speaker but as someone who doesn’t mind talking to people about the things that are important to me…The most important piece is making sure we communicate in language that lay community members can understand and is culturally relevant to who they are, with the goal of bettering lives.” Wakefield continued by highlighting his educational background in teaching speech and his studies in psychology as tools he has leaned on throughout his career. Specifically, he recalls utilizing techniques teachers employ, such as the teach-back method to build an understanding of HIV science among community members.

As the conversation progressed, Wakefield elaborated on some of the notable experiences in public health that helped shape his skills. Wakefield recalled three experiences that played a crucial role in developing his public health career. He cited the history of public service in his family, resulting in public service being an “instilled value” in his life. He also spoke about participating in research meetings where he learned the importance of voicing his concerns about how research was being conducted, even if he did not always have the scientific language to articulate his point or provide a solution. Wakefield then mentioned that his most fundamental experience was serving on the Chicago Board of Health for eight years. Serving on the board was where he began to recognize that if he wanted others to address HIV, he could not only speak about and raise concerns regarding HIV. In Wakefield’s words: “I couldn’t just be the HIV guy.” He understood that there were various issues people on the board were concerned about, including food safety, water reclamation, and low birth rates in Chicago. This realization shaped Wakefield’s approach to public health as he began to develop an understanding that he was acting in service of the community in which he lived, not only the disease or expertise area that he held. From that moment, he promoted a holistic approach to addressing HIV as a public health issue.

When asked what methods or practices he utilized to hone his skills in public speaking and translating science to lay communities, Wakefield’s response illuminated the character and integrity which helped cement his legacy as a community leader. He stated the most important things are to remain teachable, maintain your humility, and strive to express the needs of your community while ignoring how people (particularly academics) perceive your credentials. Wakefield shared his experience voicing his concerns at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) meeting in Washington, DC. During the meeting, a scientist questioned his qualifications to address the gathered body of researchers and academics. Wakefield responded bluntly to the scientist:

“What’s important is this is human subjects research. I am a human, and if we don’t put the human subjects at the forefront of what we’re doing, we may never get to the answers that are going to help us provide scientific and medical responses in an HIV epidemic.” From that day forward, Wakefield used this answer as his constant mantra. His mission was to remind scientists that his community were the human subjects, and they needed to be heard. Likewise, he continues to champion that having expertise in being human is more than enough to voice your concerns in any setting.

As the conversation shifted to his outlook for the future, Wakefield spoke candidly concerning what he thought would be the most serious public health issues in HIV research in the coming years. Wakefield was clear in his belief that the HIV epidemic will further coalesce with the COVID-19 pandemic within the next five years. He stated: “We have not mastered the COVID-19 pandemic, and we don’t know how long COVID will remain a part of our lives. These large pandemics impact the infrastructure and safety of the globe, not just our country.” Wakefield firmly believes we will not get ourselves out of the COVID-19 pandemic or HIV epidemic by isolating. “The tools that we have to address public health crises must have a global response,” he stated. Wakefield explained that we need to find ways to cooperate across public health entities, so they are all arriving at solutions together. Eventually, Wakefield spoke about some of the major ethical dilemmas facing HIV research in the coming years. He emphatically stated that the most pressing ethical dilemma of the next five years was the same dilemma that remained throughout the 40 years of the HIV epidemic:

“We forget we are fighting a virus, and we expect our solutions for that fight to be biomedical in a system that says there is a hierarchy of humans [meaning] some humans are more valuable than others. Our ethical dilemma is we have to overcome that system…. The solutions should be available to folks without regard to their resources. The public health mission is what is going to be best for the entire public.” Wakefield concluded his response by reiterating the need to focus on public health solutions that value human life instead of valuing only those humans who can afford to live better.

Finally, when asked what advice he would give to people looking to advance themselves as public health practitioners, Wakefield spoke from a perspective of culturally shared wisdom. He encourages people to reflect on the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Wakefield then underscored that public health issues are interwoven throughout our society. Hence, he stated: “The circumstances that negatively impact issues I am passionate about, will also negatively impact issues that are passions of others.” He ended our conversation with a reminder of the importance of moving forward as best as you can, and having confidence in the abilities you possess, while reiterating not to place too much stake in others’ evaluation of you. “If you’ve done well, know you’ve done well. Don’t be overtaken by shame, regret, or mistakes.”

Louis Shackelford is the External Relations Project Manager for the HVTN