Bringing a Social Work Perspective to a Premier LGBTQ+ Research Institute

Jagadīśa-devaśrī Dācus

Jagadīśa-devaśrī Dācus (Ph.D. ’18, Social Welfare) just started his new job as associate director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) at Northwestern University. Now in its fifth year, the institute focuses on research to improve the health of sexual and gender minority communities, and Dācus will support its research agenda, working closely with the director and senior faculty on strategic planning and creating the infrastructure for significant research. He brings a wealth of experience and a distinct perspective on LGBTQ+ health. 

The institute has about a dozen core faulty members, most of whom are trained in medicine or psychology. Dācus is the only member of the core faculty to hold a Ph.D. in social welfare. His background gives him a helpful vantage point. “As a social worker, I think about what is done with the knowledge; I always think about the end user,” Dācus said. “We are an applied discipline, primarily through practice.”

Dācus has worked in and with nonprofit organizations throughout his career. “I have very strong connections to community, and I understand what it's like to go out and engage community in ways that may be different from people from other disciplines,” he said. “We're a helping profession and that provides an entree into building rapport and networking, being able to address salient issues, and talk about how we can build partnerships and collaboration. So, I'll be an ambassador for the institute.”

In an interview with The Graduate Center, Dācus described his ambitions and the experiences, including his Ph.D., that prepared him for this next step in his career.  

He’s especially interested in seeing more intersectional research at the center. He said, “One of the things that's come out of the COVID experience has been that lots of aspects of marginalized people's lives have come to the forefront. A lot of LGBTQ+ research focuses on disease prevention. But it's also really important to talk about all the other areas: biopsychosocial and spiritual needs that LGBTQ+ individuals and populations have. Mental health is huge. In thinking about mental health for racial and ethnic minority LGBTQ+ persons, the research will be different from folks who are not racially and ethnically diverse. As a person of color, as a Black man, it's important to me that the institute really bring these things to the fore.”

Dācus began his career in social work when he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley and interned at Oakland's first AIDS service organization. He continued community work in HIV after graduation and later earned a master’s in social work at Columbia University focusing on LGBTQ+ youth. Dācus said, “I was doing community mobilization. I was working with directors and programs that were serving young people in northern Manhattan, providing HIV prevention services. And then at the same time I was providing clinical services at the only one of the kind transgender youth clinic.” 

He comes to his new position at Northwestern University from a postdoctoral role at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Dācus spent 11 years in the field between receiving his M.S.W. and applying to The Graduate Center for his Ph.D. 

“In the mid 2000’s, I became involved in CDC-funded, evidence-based intervention work on capacity-building with nonprofits, government agencies, and other entities engaged in HIV prevention with primarily Black and African American populations nationally,” he said. “I was training service providers how to implement these interventions. And part of that was helping them understand the behavioral science behind the interventions, so they could implement them with fidelity and efficacy. Through that experience, I started coming into contact with other social workers who were doing research, a large majority of whom were Black social workers doing HIV prevention research. 

I realized I wanted to do this work. I wanted to get a Ph.D. and gain the skills and knowledge to conduct my own research, understanding that people like me are severely underrepresented in HIV, hepatitis, and HIV prevention research, but also in research across the board.”

He was accepted into a research fellowship that was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to cultivate underrepresented researchers of color in the field of HIV prevention. One of the goals was for fellows to apply to doctoral programs so that they could become researchers. 

“When I started going through the program at The Graduate Center, I was in my final year of the research fellowship and already had a clear research agenda,” he said.  

Dācus said his time at The Graduate Center “helped affirm that I had the capacity to do the work, that I could grow into it, that I could contribute to the field and the various areas in which I can do research. It also provided me with a very strong foundation that I've been able to build upon. I chose The Graduate Center program because I wanted to conduct independent research and the program really facilitated that.” 

Submitted on: APR 5, 2021

Category: Alumni News | Diversity | GCstories | General GC News | Social Welfare | Voices of the GC