When New York's Patricia “Pat” Shelton says she is getting involved, get involved is what she does. I first met Pat in 1992, the year I made the decision that HIV was not going to take my life or the life of my child. Women weren’t considered at risk of becoming HIV-positive and few were even being tested for the disease. At the time that meant women weren’t being diagnosed until their disease progressed to AIDS related illnesses like Pneumocystis pneumonia; or their children developed symptoms.
We met at a women’s support group, where Pat shared one afternoon that she was still in shock from receiving her diagnosis a year earlier.
Already, Pat was on the pathway to become an educator, activist, outreach worker, consumer advocate, and the many other titles she still carries today. Together we mobilized other women, and formed a network for skills development and improving representation. The second goal was due to us realizing there was no parity inclusion and representation for women of color in any of the decision making bodies — policy, advocacy, research — that were impacting the lives of people living with HIV. Pat started her volunteer work in 1995 and by 1998 she had become a peer educator. She had come forward as a woman living with HIV and given interviews to various TV, radio, and print media entities. She was then featured as one of the women the documentary films, Seen and not Heard and AIDS an Untold War Against Black Women (by Cyrille Phipps) .
Pat was, by then a sought after speaker who made appearances across the country. For example, she was the keynote speaker at a conference in 2003 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Due to her tireless work Pat was also asked to present at a general meeting at United Nation advocating for the inclusion of women in decision making, particularly in countries where HIV was the leading cause of death for our female peers.
At the point that Pat provided a presentation to the 2008 Ryan White Grantee and Clinical Update Conference in Washington D.C., she was on well on her own journey to becoming part of decision making bodies addressing women of color living with HIV. Her part in the movement was making a difference in her own life — and in her community.
Pat's work has saturated throughout Harlem; as a peer educator, she worked at Settlement Health Medical Center Inc (where she just celebrated 8 years), Body Positive, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, Boriken Neighborhood Health Center, and The Women's Institute at GMHC, all local community based organizations serving women of color with various health disparities impacting their lives. In fact, Pat's work, and her presence, became a necessary resource for the women of color served by these organizations, as she shared her wealth of knowledge from her years of experience and the trainings she had carried out.
Pat has also been involved with projects developed by harm reduction programs due to her history as both a substance user and a partner of one. In these projects, Pat shares that personal experience, talking about her first love and her introduction to drugs through him.
Pat and her work have been featured on Huffington Post, HIV Equal Online, Living Positive TV, Manhattan Times, Bronx Free Press, POZ, and the Brian Lehrer Show (for World AIDS Day, Pat appeared with Joseph Lunievicz, Deputy Executive Director of Programs at ACRIA). In 2014, she was honored by SisterLove with the 2020 Leading Women’s Society Award for her determination, strength, and hard-working leadership in the HIV/AIDS community for the past 20-plus years.
Pat wrote a piece for HIV Equal Online a couple of years ago. She talked about aging while living alone (her partner of 25 years passed away eight years ago), dealing the “4 H’s” (Hepatitis C, High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol and HIV), and menopause. “Living on social security,” she added, “means the lifestyle I once had is gone. Depression lives with me now. My body is changing, I'm losing my hair and I am too tired to give my apartment the attention it needs.” But, as she always does, Pat concluded on a positive note, saying, “At the end of the day, I'm blessed to be still here.”
Now 63, Pat embraces her accomplishments but she also is that silent storm that carries with it the reason she got involved in the first place, 24 years ago. She educated herself — and then her peers — because women of color had no voice in the movement. Today, she holds that decision making capacity she fought so hard for. She serves on New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute’s consumer advisory committee for care and treatment guidelines (and the committee oversee the quality of care). Pat says that when she looks at the quality of her life today — and she sees the impact that she has made in the lives of many other women — she gives thanks for the opportunity.
We, on the other hand, give thanks for Pat Shelton.