Jane Shull, longtime CEO of FIGHT, is retiring but doesn’t intend to slow down

A white woman smiles at the camera. She has gray hair that is sits just above her shoulders and bangs. She wears a gray suit jacket and black shirt with a blue and white necklace near the collar.
Jane Shull. (Photo: Courtesy of Holly Clark Photography)

“I was raised in a family of Jewish liberals who were activists, right?” shrugged Jane Shull when asked what inspired her to pursue a career as a community advocate. Shull’s father previously served as the national director of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political organization that promotes progressive policies. Her mother worked for a housing developer who was building racially integrated developments.

“Those were the values I was raised in,” Shull added, noting that she later chose to attend Brandeis University because the college was guided by similar principles. She eventually got a Master of Social Work degree from Temple University. Today, Shull noted, the majority of social work majors become therapists — but her educational path intentionally focused on community organizing.

Shull organized tenants in a working class suburb in Boston before moving to Philadelphia and partnering with her husband, Ed Schultz, who founded the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in 1973, to revitalize neighborhoods by teaching about civic engagement. She served as the organization’s director from 1983 through 1991.

“I didn’t know anyone who talked about careers — ever,” she said about her experiences of community organizing. “It’s just the work — the work of social change.”

Following the need
The idea to start Philadelphia FIGHT emerged when John Turner, an openly gay physician who was treating HIV/AIDS in the ’80s, learned that the American Foundation for AIDS Research would fund newly forming community-based research organizations. Shull — who had gotten to know Turner while helping to care for and support her friend Bill Way (the namesake for William Way LGBT Community Center), who was his patient — joined forces with Turner to bring FIGHT to life.

Shull spent her nights after work writing up necessary information for the grant application while Turner sought board members before the nonprofit officially launched. FIGHT’s first project was to create an observational database — a research tool that’s still often used in HIV/AIDS studies today. The organization also joined other national networks for HIV/AIDS research. Shull initially continued to support FIGHT as a volunteer then joined the staff as the executive director after receiving enough funding to create a permanent position in 1991.

“There was certainly a lot of insecurity about this in the beginning,” Shull said about accepting the position. “I didn’t know if this was going to succeed or not, and I didn’t prefer to be the person in leadership.”

After more than 30 years growing the organization, Shull recently announced that she plans to retire this year. Her legacy is an organization that was built from the ground up which has continually expanded to meet the needs of its community and will evolve again in the coming years.

“I think we follow the need,” she said about her team’s desire to serve its community in ways that addressed their asks. It’s their ideas that have led to new services and offerings.

In its first few years, FiGHT helped to connect community members with trials, interventions and treatment programs and then launched Project TEACH — a peer-education program that aims to empower patients to understand and partner in their treatment paths. That program has since expanded to offer a specific curriculum for formerly incarcerated people, those seeking faith-based perspectives, family members, frontline workers, Spanish speakers and young adults. Shull believes Project TEACH has served approximately 8,000 people to date.

“In those days, the hospitals were all running as fast as they could in the other direction. They absolutely did not want to have anything to do with AIDS. They thought they would be an AIDS-identified hospital and that nobody would come,” she said, underlining that many of the physicians treated patients “on the down-low” even throughout the ’90s.

When FIGHT’s clients dreamed of a treatment center that would bring more dignity and compassion, Shull and her team accomplished what is often impossible by breaking into the healthcare industry without experience, without ties to an academic or hospital institution and without opening a for-profit business. 

Shull, who taught at the college level before she got too busy, said she appreciated the opportunity to work with students because “it’s the future” but also because it challenged her to think about leadership challenges differently.

“Every once in a while, I was like, ‘OK, well, I’m having this issue here. What do you think we should do? And they wouldn’t necessarily come up with the same answer,” she said. “The goal is to teach everybody, help them learn.”

Shull is retiring from FIGHT but doesn’t plan to stop working and might get back to teaching in a way that echoes back to her past.

“I’m thinking maybe that there’s a way to revive the institute that my husband had started that I was running that was doing a lot of this work,” she said — noting that she’s been thinking of partnerships that could serve nontraditional college students or of creating a website for resources to live.

“We used to do actual classes in neighborhoods for communities trying to figure out how to get what they want,” she said about the Institute for the Study of Civic Values. 

“There’s just a desperate need for civic education,” she noted. “People in many places don’t understand the methods of democracy. And so now they’re just vulnerable to dictatorial fascist movements. I don’t think that’s as true in Philadelphia, but I still think it might be important.”

What’s next for FIGHT?
In 2017, Philadelphia FIGHT was named in a report by Philadelphia Committee on Human Relations as an organization that perpetuated racism in the Gayborhood. FIGHT workers protested — asking the committee to remove the report. Some participants noted that the protest was organized by upper level staff and others noted that it was an attempt to clear FIGHT’s name.

Shull said she has one regret from that time — that she didn’t “yell and scream at a few people” to help them see the tangible impact FIGHT has had on communities of color and their dedication to building healthcare systems without regard for pay.

“This might be a terrible idea if I had done it,” she admitted.

Some of those who spoke against FIGHT at the time believed Shull’s responses to the allegations lacked accountability. An additional allegation of racism has emerged associated with the termination of an employee more recently.

“We never lost the trust of the community,” Shull said when asked about how the organization attempted to learn and grow following that experience. “We’re still serving all those patients who we were serving. That’s what it’s about.”

FIGHT became a Federally Qualified Health Center in 2013 and has expanded its healthcare offerings over the past decade. The organization now provides more specialized services, such as gender-affirming care, in a way that’s more intentional than it has in the past. During the height of COVID, FIGHT cared for even broader members of the community as testers and vaccine providers.

“We’re gonna go on being a health center,” she said. “I think there’s no question about that.”

Shull will continue to support FIGHT and plans to spend some of her time fundraising for the organization now that she won’t be so burdened by paperwork and administrative duties. She’s a non-voting member of the search committee seeking her replacement and believes the most important quality for candidates is that they aren’t threatened by other people’s good ideas.

“There’ll be some evolving that will go on. You don’t want to have a memorial to the past,” she said about continually innovating the way FIGHT addresses the community’s needs.

“The thing ending the epidemic is that it can’t mean only stopping new infections. It has to include that — but what do you do with all these people with HIV?” she said, underlining that even with today’s successful treatment and prevention programs, there are systemic barriers to quality of life that need to be addressed.

“A lot of people die,” she said about the stress and sadness of working in HIV/AIDS advocacy. “But I’m sort of someone who punches a wall, goes outside, takes a walk, and gets back to work — because you have to keep going.”

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