The Activist Elite, A Conversation with Stephaun Elite Wallace

Earlier this past spring PrideIndex had the pleasure of conversing with Stephaun Elite Wallace, our 2023 Esteem Honoree for Outstanding Healthcare Professional, National .

Dr. Stephaun E. Wallace is a research epidemiologist, public health and business consultant, and an internationally recognized public health/social justice leader. He has more than two decades of global experience in public health and human services (HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases) and social justice efforts and more than a decade of experience conducting public health research in global settings. Dr. Wallace is the Founder and Principal of Stephaun Elite Wallace, LLC, an innovation incubator consulting firm that performs organizational development and public health-focused programming nationally through a social justice lens.

Dr. Wallace holds membership in and serves on the board of numerous regional, national, and international organizations, including the International AIDS Society, American Public Health Association, American Bar Association, and National Society of Leadership and Success.

He is currently a Principal Staff Scientist at Fred Hutch, Director of External Relations with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the COVID-19 Prevention Network, and Clinical Assistant Professor and Global Health at the University of Washington.

PrideIndex (PI): Please introduce yourself and tell us about your journey thus far to this point?

Stephaun Wallace (SW): My name is Dr. Stephaun Wallace. I’m originally from Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. I’ve always been fascinated with finance, accounting, computers, law, business, and history since I was a kid. Before I finished high school, I decided to join the military. The goal was to become a military Army JAG Attorney, or a Judge Advocate General, part of the military justice branch. When you think about lawyers, attorneys, and paralegals in the military, they all fall under the JAG corps. I enlisted in the military, specifically the army, before completing high school. I had an outstanding experience in the military overall. I decided to get out and not continue service after my service contract was nearing its end to return to school to pursue other goals and dreams.

While in the military, I lived in a few different places. I’ve lived in Virginia, DC, South Carolina, Texas, and Germany. Upon completing my military service, I moved back to California and finished my first undergraduate degree in psychology. I then ended up moving to Atlanta, Georgia. There, I became aware of the impact of HIV and health inequities in our community in ways that I hadn’t felt I was exposed to before. This exposure, this awakening in Atlanta, led me to respond and want to do something about it. I was about 22 or 23 at the time. I collaborated with a few different community leaders, primarily peers, and some elders, to start an organization called My Brother’s Keeper.

My Brother’s Keeper is a for us, by us HIV prevention organization focused on service and engaging socially young Black, gay, and bisexual men around HIV. I had the pleasure to serve as this organization’s inaugural volunteer Executive Director and help codify its vision and mission. While organizing the infrastructure, we also brought in many resources. The first and second years that I served were in a leadership role. I then stepped back from that role as we had a policy in our bylaws that you cannot be in a leadership role unless you are under the age of 24. I continued my journey by partnering with the CDC and other community groups to help other organizations and learn as much as possible. I immersed myself in this new public health world I was entering.

I started training to understand how behavioral theories provide a framework for many of the interventions the CDC recommended. Community-based organizations implement training to know how HIV counseling and testing are to be conducted and implemented. How social sciences in epidemiology helped to inform the work around public health. I began partnering with AID Atlanta to do work around young men of color funding that they received from the CDC. Then around 2006, I became a staff member of AID Atlanta and helped implement an organization at the Evolution Center and the CDC-funded Evolution Project, another program with a very similar focus to My Brother’s Keeper.

At the same time, I supported training providers who were funded to do HIV counseling and testing. Part of my role was to train them on how to do this work. I did that with providers around the southeast region of the US. I received a lot of acknowledgment about the work happening there. I had worked with the media quite a bit around some of the racial profiling activity in Midtown Atlanta that targeted and focused on Black men. I served on the board of the Atlanta Black Pride organization. I worked with the Human Rights Campaign and other groups to raise awareness about the inequities facing Black people in the South, particularly in the Southeast.

I soon received a communication from a colleague and friend, who had just taken over leadership of an organization in upstate New York, called the MOCHA Center, and he wanted to recruit me to assist him with getting the organization back on track, which I obliged and moved to upstate New York. I ran programs, operations, and research activities outside the MOCHA organization for a few years. In that transition to that organization, I became familiar with research, HIV vaccine research in particular. I did a lot of mobilization work there with faith communities, Black-owned businesses, and other kinds of groups. I also completed a dual master’s degree while there as well.

I then received outreach from the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington. They wanted to recruit me to help support national education programs and lead those programs to support awareness and education about biomedical research, biomedical HIV prevention, research, and communities of color around the US. I took that opportunity and moved to Seattle. Not long after, I started my Ph.D. in Epidemiology and have since transitioned from that division to a new division, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network focusing specifically on trials of HIV vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines, and Tuberculosis vaccines, as well as antibody research, with the goal of ending infectious diseases in communities around the world. I was recruited to a faculty role at the University of Washington. I also served as a Clinical Assistant Professor in global health. I founded an office at The Center for AIDS Research, looking at community engagement concepts and building them as a science. It’s not just something we do, but something we can develop, critique, evaluate, and analyze.

I am a Principal Staff Scientist at Fred Hutch, Director of External Relations with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the COVID-19 Prevention Network, and Clinical Assistant Professor and Global Health at the University of Washington. I have many other titles, but I’m embedded in research. I have a whole research program. One of my studies is looking at building out a communication mechanism to engage in big data research. I do a lot of work internationally, in Latin America, in particular, Brazil, Peru, and Argentina, as well as in southern Africa, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and a few other sites in Uganda. So quite a bit has brought me to this point.

PI: Why is advocacy so important to you?

SW: Advocacy is so critical because science cannot move by itself. Whether that’s laboratory science or bench science, folks who are looking at things through Petri dishes and under microscopes, or whether that’s the clinical trials phase or even social, behavioral science advocacy is so critical because it’s been imperative, it’s been the framework and foundation of the HIV movement in this country. Globally, we would not be here at this place of having, one pill a day for HIV treatment, or even having an HIV prevention product or strategy called, PrEP, with different kinds of products, both an oral pill and now an injectable, version, without advocacy. Advocacy is crucial, and I must recognize that my work is more than just what I do. My work is also how it impacts people. Having people involved and informed to form the work that’s happening and make sure that I give back to the community.

PI: Do you have plans to someday open an agency of your own and build it from the ground up?

SW: I don’t think so. No. I mentor many folks around the country, and a few of them have taken on that mantle to develop community organizations and do that critical work. My role has been as a support and board member, helping them with structure and fund development. Besides law, I found my passion in biomedical research and health policy. I interface quite a bit with the White House and different members of Congress to raise awareness of health issues.

I’m also involved in the house and ball community. I’m the founder of the House of Marc Jacobs and am a legend in the ball community. I also helped to get the ballroom community recognized on national policy documents for the first time ever, so I feel like a lot of my work and where I’m going next is really about helping to open doors and create pathways and strategies for other people to then step into and do something with.

PI: What advice would you offer someone who wants to do what you do?

SW: I would tell them two things. First, that you are worthy and that you are enough. Everything you do and accomplish in life complements who you are, and you don’t need external validation. The second thing I will tell you is not to be like me but to be better.

PI: What do you want people to take away from your work?

SW: There are a few takeaways. We all have a role to play in ensuring the optimal health and wellness of ourselves and our communities. The acknowledgments and accolades are appreciated, but I also recognize that there’s space at the table for everyone to jump in. There are so many people out there who are doing incredible work, and more is needed. There’s more work to do. Racial inequities in this country still impact people economically regarding housing, employment, education and insurance, health, and life. We still have chronic health conditions affecting our communities because of environmental racism, medical racism, and health policies failing our people. We need to do all we can to fight against this because it won’t stop. We have to pick up arms and be ready to fight for what we believe in.

PI: What does the future hold for you?

SW: That’s an excellent question. I spent the majority of my life thinking about this. When I have my trajectory down, the universe, God, however you believe, shows up and says, “No, I’m going to flip it in reverse. We’ve got to move in this direction instead of that direction.” We’re going to move you this way instead of that. Because this work is spiritual, for me, as well, I go where I feel led to be. So, I am still trying to figure out a definitive answer to your question.

PI: Your grandchildren somehow get a hold of this interview and read it online. They tell you that you left out blank. What is that blank?

SW: That blank could be so many things. I think about the opportunities. I use that word intentionally. I’ve had to be there for people in their moment of need. I think about the grace that I’ve had extended for the many times in my life that I’ve made mistakes. I think about the grace I’ve extended to others when they misstep. I think about the people who look up to me and the responsibility I have to be an example to them while simultaneously working not to be aggrandized or put on a pedestal because I am human. I don’t aim or desire to be turned into some deity. I also think about the opportunities I intentionally look to ensure our folks have access to. I’m really intentional about that in my leadership and management style of my team at Fred Hutch, my team at the University of Washington, my team at Yale University, and with my mentees. It’s important that we recognize that empowering people doesn’t mean making clones of ourselves. It means affirming people for who they are and helping to build them to their strengths, not our own.