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EP14 Ending the Epidemic by 2020 with Charlie Ferrusi
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey guys, and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I am your host, Deborah Onakomaiya. On the show today, we have Charlie Ferussi, who is an alumni of GPH. While at NYU, he was in the Community in International Health track. He graduated in 2016, and now works as a program manager at the New York Department of Health AIDS Institute. Aside from his several affiliations, he is the president of the Columbia County Young Democrats group, and the CSA Coordinator for the Fulton Stall Market. His public health interests are in transgender health, sexual health education, and local food systems. One fun fact about Charlie was that in 2015, CNN's Sanjay Gupta came to his bedroom to conduct an interview on PrEP. Let's go to our conversation with Charlie. Thank you so much, Charlie, for coming on our show today. It's awesome to have you here.
Charlie Ferussi: Thank you for having me.
Deborah Onakomaiya: You are an alumni of GPH. You graduated a couple of years ago. So, what are you up to?
Charlie Ferussi: So, I currently work as a program manager at the New York State Department of Health at the AIDS Institute. I'm also in a fellowship program with the Elton John AIDS Foundation. I work for a local food co-op, CSA on Thursdays, and I'm also politically involved upstate in the Hudson Valley. So I'm really busy doing all of this work during my nine to five job. And then after five, I'm still really busy.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Can you speak a little bit about your current work at the Department of Health?
Charlie Ferussi: Yeah, so I'm a contract manager, so I manage contracts for hospitals and community health centers across the state. So it's the state department of health, not the city department of health. We work with contracts in Rochester and Buffalo and Albany, so you're really looking at HIV from a different perspective in the rural communities. So I manage contracts, I manage the transgender work group as well internally, and I also do a lot of World AIDS Day event planning.
Deborah Onakomaiya: How did you get involved with the department?
Charlie Ferussi: During the job search process, which is a long part of your second year as a graduate student, I was just throwing my resume at the wall and seeing where it stuck. And I really wanted to work in the government for a few reasons, but mostly because the government has a lot of power. It's not always a lot of activism in the government. And I thought of myself as an activist, but someone who wants to be in the government doing work from the inside to make change happen. So I've found that there's a lot of job security in the government, but also you can make a great deal of change.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Why is the work that you're currently doing very important?
Charlie Ferussi: For the state with the Ending the Epidemic initiative, which is one of the first initiatives that a state department of health has pushed forward to end the epidemic by the end of 2020, that includes all of our community stakeholders, all the community organizations in the state. And it's really a collaborative effort. A huge coalition of people trying to end the AIDS epidemic. And it starts from the department of health. A lot of the funding and the political will or governors behind it initiated the initiative. So it has a lot of will and it has a lot of power, so I think that initiative is incredibly important.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Ending the epidemic. That sounds so raw. A couple, let's say 20 years or 30 years ago, that was probably not even on the radar. What is the most challenging part of working on that project, Ending the Epidemic?
Charlie Ferussi: It's a state plan. It's New York state's plan to end the epidemic and people think New York state has all their ducks in line and everything's going smoothly and we're really progressive, but there's a lot of areas of the state that are really homophobic, really transphobic, really racist. When we're looking at HIV and we're looking at race and gender and sexuality and the ways in which we have to bring down infections there, it becomes a lot more complicated beyond New York City. It is a really interesting concept to get to the end, which is, by the end of 2020 reducing infections to an annual number of 750 in New York state.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So that’s new HIV infections?
Charlie Ferussi: In New York state. So that's our plans to end the epidemic, not like ending AIDS obviously or HIV altogether, but it's... It's a really interesting project for the state because you're really dealing with a lot of different issues beyond what people think just evolve in the city and people's bubbles. And when you start to go into rural New York state, you begin to deal with a lot of issues of access to care, people trying to get on PrEP but not being able to, or people having, trans people having really awful experiences in medical settings or dealing with racism and, and it becomes a whole other can of worms. So there's tons of issues that we deal with our agencies that we contract with. But I don't think everyone's always aware of what New York state is as a whole.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That sounds like a really, really intriguing project to be on. When did this project start?
Charlie Ferussi: It started about 2014, the planning process, it was a task force. I was appointed, Dr. Perry Halkitis was on it.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Shoutout to Dr. Perry.
Charlie Ferussi: He was on the task force along with a lot of other amazing leaders across the state. That happened in 2014, I think the task force was developed and they developed a blueprint. The blueprint was announced in 2015. So since 2015, we've been working against this blueprint that's bringing us to the end of AIDS by the end of 2020. So I'd say we were halfway into our plan, but I don't know where we are in terms of data because a lot of data is so lagged that we don't have data really for even 2016 a lot of the times right now. Data lag. You don't really know where you're at in terms of the end or what our numbers look like. But it's been going on for I think maybe two, two and a half years. We've been involved with the ETE plan.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And you also mentioned that you also are part of a fellowship. Did you want to talk a little bit about that work?
Charlie Ferussi: Sure. Last year, around this time, I applied to a fellowship program, just wanted to get a little bit more leadership experience and mentorship from external folks. So I applied to this fellowship of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It's funded through the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And annually they select 10 fellows to basically get this fellowship, do a year long leadership program and get a small mini grant to do a community service project of our choice back in our hometown. So I'm originally from the Hudson Valley region, so I actually do this project mostly remotely, but I'm home a lot on the weekends doing work. I'm in Columbia County, which is by Albany and Poughkeepsie. So my project, which is called the Link Project, is a project based in the Hudson Valley. And the goal is to really link older people living with HIV and AIDS to younger people, young advocates across the Valley. I'm building these events that bring people together from across different ages to share space and to share conversation, to share food. And we like are catering, like brunches and game nights and movie nights, drag shows, drag brunches, whatever brings people together. And really just building relationships so that a lot of folks who are older, living with HIV or long term survivors suffer from a lot of isolation and loneliness in upstate New York where there's not a lot for them to do and there's a lot of stigmas so they might not even be coming out as being positive. This is a way to get them out of the house and meeting new friends, networking and also for the younger folks to have an opportunity to build new mentors, learn about the older generation, the AIDS epidemic, LGBT history, and a lot of things they don't, would never learn in the school setting or even in their communities. So it's called the Link Project.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Are these high school students or college students?
Charlie Ferussi: Most of the events are open to all ages. I'm trying to focus on getting 18 to 30 and 50 plus. Kind of like the sides of the age group, but not, not too young. I want to be able to expose people to age appropriate conversations, but anyone 50 plus and lots of younger folks, but also I'm welcoming anyone because it's kind of hard to be like, "You can't come to a cross-generational event." So everyone's invited. There's a lot of fun and it's really lighthearted and it's not, a lot of people in my program are doing HIV testing or PrEP work. It's very calculated and data-driven. And this is not really research driven. It's just something that makes sense and doesn't have a lot of research behind like a buddy program or a program surrounding like friendship and community. But I think it's really powerful.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's so cool. And I mean, you graduated two years ago, right? And now you're doing this fellowship, you're working at the State Department of Health. What skills, I mean, looking back at your experience, what skills do you think have made you successful thus far? What skills did you acquire from NYU that have made you successful thus far?
Charlie Ferussi: Just knowing your purpose. I know it sounds corny, but taking the time to really understand like what you're doing and why you're doing it and why you're here and why are you pursuing this program and who you really want to help and how are you going to do it? I think I learned that through the program and it takes time. Some people, you don't just learn overnight, don't figure it out. But I had the privilege of knowing I wanted to do this work, having a lot of passion for it, knowing a lot of people living with HIV and AIDS and them being affected and me as an HIV negative person, deciding I was going to make my career be about this work. But then coming to grad school and meeting a lot of awesome people, just surrounding yourself by friends that are like you and they uplift you and you can laugh with and also take a break with and do self care with. And it's not all about the work but it's about don't drain yourself, keep building yourself up. Don't overwork yourself, even though I seem to be overworking myself all the time. But, just surround yourself by good people, knowing why you're here, reminding yourself with the good work you're doing, being inspired, having a good passion. And also the professors here really were awesome in terms of my development and also better understanding how to apply my skills to a position in the field.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And you know what actual skills, cause you've talked a lot about data and you know, analyzing that, what skills did you have to develop for this, for your current position?
Charlie Ferussi: I think a good sense of a cultural competency was a strong skill to have just, understanding populations. Like not being trans, not being black, not being a person of color. Really just taking the time to learn from actual people and not just in the classroom setting. Actually learning from people, being out in the community, doing the work, being an activist, going to a lecture, just naturally being a good person.
Deborah Onakomaiya: You would think, right?
Charlie Ferussi: But even it's that not everything can be learned in the classroom. I have to just say that. It's like, during a program, I think a real big skill is networking and allowing yourself to broaden yourself outside the program and go to events outside the program, outside the university and really just learn from people doing this work on the ground. Because it looks really different than higher ed and academia make it out to be. When you're doing research, it's very different than doing community based work or organizing. So I definitely took the time to be out of the classroom but also taking all the skills you learn in a classroom. Like having a good background in biostats is hugely important and also gets you a good paying job and especially epidemiology as well. I didn't take, I didn't, I don't use data or epi in my current position but I know friends who have and have gone on to get really good jobs. But I took more of the community assessment classes and skills, cultural competency, advocacy. There's an advocacy class I think that was offered at one of the years LGBT health disparities classes. I took a class in the social work school of social work that was also really great for my career. I went to London with Perry and his class that looked at HIV abroad and all those really more global perspective or community perspective classes were, were really helpful to building good skills for positions like this.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. You've touched on a little bit. Well, what would you say would be one thing for our prospective listeners that want to come to NYU and pursue an MPH. What would you say would be one advice that you would give them or how should they prepare their minds?
Charlie Ferussi: I think it goes really quick so take advantage of it. It's two years, but every class is hugely important. Even the classes you don't think are going to be for you. Going into it, knowing what you want to do, knowing what you want to focus on also really helps to craft your final projects and your work to make sense of your interest areas and what you do your final projects on carries into your professional life afterwards. Cause all, I did all my projects on HIV. I can look back and I did so many different types of projects because I knew what I wanted to do and you were allowed to craft your work to your experience and your interest area. So I had a good sense of knowing what I wanted to do before I came to do a graduate degree, which I think isn't always the case, but it's really important to invest in this degree in various different ways. You want to be sure you're ready. You want to be sure you know what you're going to do, and also contributing in class and contributing in different spaces. You won't be able to do that if you don't come in with a clear mind, an open mind, and a sense of what you want to do here. I also got involved a lot with all of what NYU has to offer and I think going into the school knowing that the program is amazing and this school's amazing, but there's also a lot of great resources here beyond the Global Institute of Public Health. But going to the LGBTQ center, going to the center for multicultural education and programs, and there's a lot to offer here and you can learn so much from everything here. So going in, knowing your purpose, knowing there's a lot to offer is, is definitely, I didn't really realize NYU was all of what it was before you got here and you get really overwhelmed super quickly and you get really anxious.
Deborah Onakomaiya: From your resume alone, you were interviewed by Sanjay Gupta of CNN. First of all, how did that happen, and what was that interview about?
Charlie Ferussi: I think a friend of mine told him to contact me, like the, well CNN to contact me and they needed someone for a PrEP story, and I was doing talks about PrEP and going to workshops, and I was just done with my first year of grad school. Here I was, so I was like halfway done and they needed me for an interview and they told me that Sanjay Gupta was going to come to my apartment and do an interview in my bedroom. So yeah I have a photo I'll show you. So funny. And he came with his team, Ben Tinker and some other folks who, they did a narrative story of it and then they did the actual story. It only one ended up being like a minute long World AIDS Day feature that happened on World AIDS Day. It was filmed in 2014 but it aired in 2015 and it was about PrEP. I wasn't on at the time but I was thinking about going on PrEP, and PrEP is a daily HIV medication you can take to prevent yourself from getting HIV. That was a big hot topic in 2014 and 2015 and so I did the interview and they wanted a bunch of all these really cool cameos, all my friends. I brought all my friends and from the program and we did all these really close shots in Washington Square Park together as a group and they all made it on air, like a national broadcast and everyone was TV stars.
Deborah Onakomaiya: On CNN!
Charlie Ferussi: It was a lot of fun, and you know it wasn't much, it was a little snippet of me. There was a really big narrative story about me and I was 23 at the time of the narrative but the actual video was actually when I was 22 because they, it was a whole year later they actually filmed, they actually aired it. And this is weird how the media works sometimes. They filmed something, they kept it for a year, and I was like, is this ever going to air?
Deborah Onakomaiya: But still, it's Sanjay Gupta. You know, it's so amazing.
Charlie Ferussi: And he goes in my bedroom and we did a lot of content. We'd be, he talked a lot.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Was he cool in person?
Charlie Ferussi: He was super cool. It was really chill. I thought I was going to be passed out on the floor. But it was, it was a lot of fun.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Well yeah, how can students get involved in the plan to end AIDS in New York City, you've become more informed on public health issues, especially with your work in the field. For our listeners, how can they get opportunities to volunteer and be part of that initiative?
Charlie Ferussi: So the AIDS Institute contracts with hundreds of agencies across the state and almost all those AIDS service orgs and a lot of hospitals and a lot of community health centers, LGBT centers, all have a stake in ETE because the Ending the Epidemic initiative basically has been taken on and embraced by all these orgs. So a lot of folks who went on to graduate with me now work in places that are led by the blueprint and the Ending the Epidemic initiative. So they talk about ETE amongst each other. And to me, oddly enough, a lot of people got indirectly involved with ETE because the state government pushed this plan out and everyone's on board who's an AIDS service org, an LGBT org. So basically to get involved with ETE specifically, I mean there's a lot of ways in which you just get involved with HIV AIDS work, which will of course directly impact the end of the epidemic. And that's just to become educated about things like PrEP, things like postexposure prophylaxis, pre exposure prophylaxis, the UequalsU campaign, which is undetectable equals untransmittable. There's a lot of great sources to learn about the current campaigns, the current new technology, the current new prevention methods and really just being aware of those things and being able to tell your friends about them and when folks can use them or how they could access them are really important because there's a lot of miseducation. People don't know, people aren't able to find the best sources of news and information nowadays. So it's really important to have the facts, especially around HIV where it's very specifically data driven information that comes out and all that should be used to our advantage and we should all be helping each other to use the best prevention methods that make sense for us and our friends and our family. And just knowing it and being that one person in a group that knows anything about HIV is really helpful.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I've been so inspired by your work, what you're doing. My final question to you is what motivates you to continue to do this work in this field?
Charlie Ferussi: I think mostly it's just knowing how much disparity there is and waking up every day knowing that we might be making a difference here in New York state, but there's states all across the nation that are actually increased incidence, increased new diagnoses and their epidemics are becoming worse. And so knowing that large disparities even across sub populations exist in this field make me wake up every day knowing that my work is important here. And then once we make a noticeable difference in the state, maybe my work can move on to somewhere else or another jurisdiction. Also just working with really great people. I think the HIV field is just full of a lot of really awesome, inspirational figures and activists that are, that have been doing this work for decades. So it's, I wake up and I'm young, I should be able to keep moving. But people have been in the crux of this work since the early eighties when all their friends were dying and like knowing that a lot of people did a lot of real, real work to get me to be able to do this work the way I do it now. And a lot of them are alive today doing this work still, 30-40 years later and I would look at myself, and I'm like, I can never back down because they did this work when it was a hundred times harder and I'm doing this work as a career. That means I need to fight harder, learn more about what happens so I can better do my work and keep pushing. And if, if folks can do this when, when their friends are dying and their family members are dying and they're still doing this work now, there's no reason why I can't keep pushing for decades and decades and decades.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Thank you so much, Charlie, for coming on our show.
Charlie Ferussi: Thank you so much for having me.