By Laurie Newell
Laurie Newell has worked with the United Nations since 1998, at UNON, the UN System Staff College and UNFPA. Since 2006, she has led and managed UN Cares the UN system workplace programme on HIV and its related projects, including UN for All. Laurie has lived and worked on 4 continents and lives with her family in New York, though Canada still feels like home.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was living in Vancouver, Canada, completing a Bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia. I shared a small apartment, the top floor of an old house, with a friend and in the house next door, our neighbours were a man and woman in their 30s with a young son. I don’t even remember their names now. We did not know each other well, but were friendly when we met.One day, from our kitchen window, I noticed a flip chart on their back porch, with the header “Care Team” on it. A small group was meeting, it turned out, to plan how to care for our neighbour at the end of her life. She was living with HIV, in a time before anti-retroviral treatment, and she had entered the stage of AIDS.
I learned later that she had been advocate at international conferences for more HIV-related research relevant to women.
Though we had not been close, as I began to see how vulnerable I had been in high school, my neighbour’s death became a catalyst for my own involvement as a volunteer in HIV-related education in the city – through AIDS Vancouver, their Women’s project, a new organization called YouthCO, as well as the fundraising work of AIDS Walk. I spoke and did condom demonstrations in schools, gave out condoms in bars, met with young people incarcerated in a detention facility and helped facilitate planning meetings at the International AIDS Conference held in Vancouver in 1996.
The work felt urgent and I knew that if I could enable one other young person to be proactive in protecting themselves, then it was worth it.
So, in the early 2000s, when UNFPA needed someone to participate in an inter-agency working group on HIV in the workplace, I had the motivation and the background to step up. That work grew into an opportunity to lead the establishment of UN Cares – and then to lead the programme itself.
Since 2005 UN Cares has gone from being an idea floated at a meeting to being a well-recognized global programme that transmits the organization’s commitment to caring for and supporting its staff.
We have heard anecdotally from colleagues who say that hearing a UN colleague talk about their experience of living with HIV, prompted them to get tested – and some discovered they were also living with HIV – and knew they could seek and find support in the organization.
While the United Nations – made up of an ever-changing pool of more than 150,000 personnel globally – will never be a perfect workplace when it comes to HIV, the work of UN Cares team members – in an important collaboration with UN Plus – has succeeded in changing the conversation over the past decade. The willingness of HIV-positive UN staff to talk about their personal experience has repeatedly been cited as the most powerful aspect of the face-to-face learning sessions offered through UN Cares teams. The participation of UN Plus members has been central to the impact of UN Cares.
As late as 2014, a user of the UN Cares e-course on HIV in the workplace wrote in the evaluation form, “This is the first time I am learning about HIV.”
While the work will never be completely done, everyone involved should be proud of how far we have come.