By Tiffany Bentley
Known as Gina Marshall when she attended Lafayette, Gina Arias ’93 took on her mother’s maiden name shortly after graduating. Her commitment to family and devotion to empowering women has continued to expand even further into her professional and community life.
Senior community partner coordinator for Bronx Teens Connection, a CDC-funded project under the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Arias is not only making a difference in the Hunts Point and Morrisania neighborhoods of the Bronx, but if successful the project will serve as a model that could be implemented citywide, to reach an even larger number of teens throughout New York City.
The project aims to improve adolescent sexual and reproductive health in the South Bronx. According to Arias, a major component involves implementing evidence-based sexual and reproductive health curricula at local schools and other adolescent-serving organizations and institutions as well as linking youth to quality clinical services. The main goal is to decrease teen birth rates during the five-year span of the project.
Arias focuses on coordinating community engagement and mobilization, which involves directing a team of community advocates and overseeing youth involvement efforts. Both the community and youth advocates work to educate stakeholders, such as elected officials, about the issues.
“We are recruiting youth for a youth leadership team,” Arias says. “They will help to raise awareness on the issues affecting their sexual and reproductive health.”
The project is in its second year. Arias is eager to see how it will help a population she has been working to serve since her days at Lafayette.
An international affairs graduate, Arias wasn’t always certain what she wanted to do after school, but she was always engaged in community-based work.
“I was very involved when I was at Lafayette,” she says. “I didn’t think college should just be about academics.”
A member of Association of Black Collegians, she also volunteered with various programs, including a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Easton. “College should not be an ivory tower where you isolate yourself from the rest of the world,” she says.
An important mentor for her was John McCartney, professor of government and law. “I just adore him,” she says with great appreciation, noting that he helped her to think about politics as a force that requires one to act in the world—beyond simply voting.
A year after graduating from Lafayette, she became involved in health and nutrition education with the Peace Corps in Niger from 1994 to 1996, where she worked with traditional midwives and at the village dispensary.
“That is actually what started my interest in the public health area,” says Arias.
Upon her return from Niger, Arias attended graduate school at Columbia University where she received the Latino Fellowship from the Department of Population and Family Health, School of Public Health. She was able to study full time and earned a dual master’s in international affairs and public health in 2000.
Arias is always paying it forward and sharing her knowledge. She returned to campus last spring to serve on a panel and interact with students at the “Connecting You to Me: Building a Personal Brand” conference sponsored by the McDonogh Network to provide guidance to African American and black students about building a successful career. Her advice to all students: “Try different things. You’re still finding yourself and what you like. You are learning about yourself. Volunteer. There are plenty of venues and a lot of need.”
Her list of mentors continued even further through and beyond her studies.
“When I came to New York City I got involved pretty quickly in the social justice movement,” she says. “I have several beloved mentors from that work.”
Much of her political development she credits to Richie Perez, a former South Bronx teacher who was a leader in the Young Lords Party, a revolutionary activist group, who eventually went on to work as director of political development at the Community Service Society. He died of cancer in 2004.
At Columbia University, Drs. Mindy and Robert Fullilove as well as Dr. Marilyn Aguirre-Molina assisted tremendously in her professional development, says Arias. Another person who ranks high on her inspiration list is Gregg Gonsalves, whom she worked with at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. She calls him a “ fierce HIV/AIDS activist.”
Her roots in activism have continued to inform her current work.
“I am pleased that in a short period of time the Community Action Team has grown to become an active body,” she says. “People seem really engaged in the process. I think it’s been successful thus far with a wide diversity of people in terms of what organizations they represent.”
But her largest mentoring project of all happens to be her son, Khalil Harper Arias, her most boastful accomplishment.