PREP for Life
Sharen I. Duke, Executive Director and CEO of The Alliance, talks PREP Cycle 50 graduation ceremony & goals for the future
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
“Change starts off small, but it can lead to more positive change,” MPowerment trainer at The Alliance for Positive Change, Brandon Lee [A&U, March 2018] said in a recent interview. He believes in giving people second and even third chances, in order to help them make that positive change in their lives.
Sharen I. Duke also believes in second chances and positive changes. A lifetime New Yorker, Duke has served as the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of The Alliance for Positive Change (formerly known as the AIDS Service Center of New York City, ASCNYC) since it was founded in 1990. Throughout the years, Duke has helped the nonprofit grow into one of the city’s premier multi-service, multi-staff, multi-lingual, multi-million-dollar organizations serving thousands of New Yorkers living with HIV and/or chronic health conditions.
An advocate fighting on behalf of low-income New Yorkers, Duke has received several awards for her work in HIV and at The Alliance, where she implemented pioneer peer education programs. “Our goal is about positive change and second chances, helping people overcome addiction, access medical care, escape homelessness, rejoin the workforce. It has been a really beautiful evolution [and] it’s been my honor to be part of it,” Duke says, reflecting on her years leading The Alliance.
Commenting on her choosing to work in HIV and AIDS, Duke says, “I got my Master’s in public health [from Columbia University] in the late eighties, and my first job was with the NYC Department of Health, dealing with HIV services.” She reminds that in the late eighties people were going to too many memorials, because too many of their friends were dying from AIDS-related causes. “There were no treatments. There was bigotry and stigma. And I just felt compelled to do something.” Having a public health background, she thought that a way to address HIV was to bring together the medical community, the activist community and the people living with the virus, to help create big-impact programs addressing the public health crisis. “And so for me it was just a natural evolution to do HIV work,” she adds.
She points out that, in order to do such work, one doesn’t have to live with the virus, but one does need to have a personal connection to the work, in some way. “You do have to want to help people improve their lives,” Duke explains, in order to “make positive changes towards health, recovery and self-sufficiency,” as they say at The Alliance.
The organization helps New Yorkers living with HIV and chronic conditions “feel better, live better and do better.” It helps people “feel better” by building medical community partnerships with large medical facilities, such as hospitals, to ensure that clients have access to medical care. It helps people “live better” by offering clients the full spectrum of harm reduction services—from syringe exchange all the way to abstinence and outpatient help treatment services. The Alliance also helps people “do better” through its peer program.
Duke has pioneered a peer education program through which New Yorkers living with HIV and chronic conditions could re-enter the workplace. “When they choose to go back into their own lives, they choose to give back to others,” she comments speaking of those completing the program. In turn, the peer education and training program provides individuals with the skills, tools, and the knowledge they need to give back and help the community. Some of those enrolled in the peer education program are, themselves, living with HIV or hepatitis or other medical conditions. They have navigated the health system and overcome addiction and homelessness; therefore, they can become role models to others. “They are living proof that positive change can and does happen,” Duke says. “The beauty of this peer program is that it is cyclical. Oftentimes, yesterday’s client becomes tomorrow’s teacher.”
The Alliance peer program is the core or the foundational training in a series of programs towards certification. The Alliance peer program graduates become community health workers. “Graduates can apply for three internships The Alliance has to offer,” Duke explains. “Depending on availability, skills and interest, some get placed with The Alliance, while others get placed externally. Some get full-time employment. So the internship is a platform for job readiness skills, and it also counts toward their certification, if they choose to go ahead and get NYS certification as peer educators.”
The peer program has evolved over time. It was first called Peer Leadership Program. “And then, what we found was that a majority of people who were taking the training had histories of addiction, and were in early recovery or long-term recovery. And so we realized that not only did we need to provide information around HIV prevention and care, but that we also needed to incorporate real-life prevention and recovery support—hence, the transition from Peer Leadership to Peer Recovery Education Program, or PREP. Some [PREP graduates] go on to get full-time employment.” She adds, “And I’d also like to say, I’m very proud that of my 170 full time staff, almost thirty percent are former graduates of the PREP program.”
PREP is “an immersive program.” That means, participants meet three days a week, six hours a day for eight weeks. “Through that immersion the participants become a support group amongst themselves. They learn from each other and they support one another,” Duke says. In the process, participants become part of a community that lives on beyond graduation day. That consistency contributes to their further success.
What sets The Alliance for Positive Change apart is its offering of a full package of services for peer education, from group training to individual support and job placement, as a part of a compendium of services. What sets The Alliance apart is its peer educators, the PREP graduates, and the goals they have for themselves, and for the organization they were trained by and some now work for. I met a few of these individuals, during their last day of final presentations, right before the graduation ceremony.
Most of them ended up at The Alliance referred by a friend or by someone they knew. All of them were eager and happy to graduate, and held tightly big dreams for their future—to work for The Alliance as peer educators, to start their own HIV education programs, to start a new job that they’d been offered in part because they’re taking the PREP program, mostly, to have fun at and enjoy their graduation ceremony. All of them were emotional and thankful, in particular to Ms. Joyce (Joyce Myricks, trainer at The Alliance) who had guided them throughout the PREP program.
“Every graduation is extremely emotional for me, because I get really invested in the trainees that come here,” Myricks says. “I want so much for the trainees to see [in themselves] what I see in them, [because] I see so much potential in them. And this is my life’s work. I heal them, but to be honest, being with them heals me every day. I’m a recovery addict, and every day they validate my reason for staying clean.” She came to The Alliance some ten years ago, to take the class herself and she never left. “The Alliance for Positive Change is for anybody who’s recovering from addiction. [Also,] individuals who come here [and] who are HIV-positive often say they feel that this was the first time that they can exhale, because you’re walking around feeling like you can’t breathe, because you don’t want anybody to know your status, and here that stigma doesn’t exist. And once you can get rid of that, you can start discovering other positive things about yourself and investing in other things about yourself.”
The Alliance has offered the peer education program twice a year, usually in spring (March through May), and then again in the fall (September through November), for more than two decades. This past May, The Alliance celebrated its PREP Cycle 50 graduation ceremony.
Sharen Duke has never missed a PREP graduation ceremony. “We are a community agency that has been fighting to distinguish ourselves not only as a service provider but as a center for peer training,” she comments. “The training is something that we have been doing for twenty-five years, but the public perception is that we’re a service agency, and so it’s been very hard for us to get resources to support the training work that we do. We actually created an organization called Peer Training, Inc. And the mission of PTI is exclusively around offering peer training and placement of peer graduates into both part-time and full-time employment. And so, this fiftieth cycle of graduates is a milestone for us, and we’re very excited and proud to be a part of this work.” She reminds that a significant portion of The Alliance work is ending the AIDS epidemic, which the organization tries to achieve by creating a peer workforce. “And so, this fiftieth graduation cycle is a beautiful illustration of the impact that we’re having, helping to transform lives in New York City.”
The graduation event took place on May 29, at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and was a true graduation ceremony. Graduates got to wear caps and gowns. Their families, friends and colleagues got to attend and celebrate with them.
There were also a few keynote speakers. Johanne Morne, Director of NYHDOH AIDS Institute, talked about “making that promise to ourselves, not about achieving perfection but being the best that we can be” and about “the ability to create change” as well as “the role of the AIDS Institute in the fight” against HIV and AIDS, ending the opioid epidemic, hepatitis C, and the power of peer work “to build futures.” Hon. Mark Levine, NYC Council, took time to thank everybody, in particular the supporters, the family and friends of the graduates, for their role and reminded that we “need peers on the frontline to end the epidemic.” He also reminded, “These are really challenging times in our country. We have to fight back. You give me hope.” In his closing remarks, Patrick Maher, Esq., The Alliance Board Secretary, with a nod to the graduates, offered a quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. It says, “if you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re heading.” He then shared his belief that “together we will make a positive change for those in need.” Also sharing a few thoughts were Duke and also David Nager, Director of Photography at The Alliance, as well as prior graduates.
Nager, who has photographed almost everybody at The Alliance over the years, offered a visual, emotional look back at the amazing evolution of members of The Alliance over the years—present graduates as well as past graduates, some of them now full-time employees. There was also a video with interviews of people who have graduated over the years.
The graduation ceremony was, indeed, a wonderful celebration. As Duke describes it, the event is “a way for us to take a look back to where we came from and a look ahead to growing the impact of peer educators as community leaders in public health battles across the city.”
Learn more about The Alliance by visiting online at www.alliance.nyc.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor, is a writer, photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography. Visit her online at alinaoswald.com.