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Departing Chair charts AIDS Foundation's future

Thu 1 Nov 2007 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Hoani Jeremy Lambert With a number of high-profile NZAF staff resignations hitting the headlines in recent months, will Jeremy Lambert's early departure from the Foundation's Trust Board be seen as another bad omen? Not according to Lambert: "The NZ AIDS Foundation will always be bigger than the individuals within it and I am just one of those individuals," he says. "I have been contributing to the work of the Foundation for just over eleven years, which is admittedly quite a short period of time when you look at some of the other people working within the Foundation. "I am incredibly proud, not of what I have done personally, but of what this board has achieved, particularly given the position of the board around two and a half years ago." He says he is still intensely committed to the work of the NZAF - and by inference the process of change shouldered by Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier. "HIV is the number one health issue for gay men... but some of the other issues have been a lot harder to deal with, particularly our recent restructuring decisions. They are decisions that had to be made because as a board we came under pressure, and quite rightfully so, to be improving the performance of the organisation to try to reduce the HIV figures. You can't deal to an epidemic like HIV by playing around with the edges." IN DEFENCE OF THE FOUNDATION Lambert is in full defensive mode as he fronts up to the changes and criticisms that have been so clearly unsettling the Foundation in recent months. "We needed to make substantial change. We needed to have a better focus on social marketing, moving away from some of those old health promotion models. We needed to make some big calls. We needed to say 'actually this epidemic in New Zealand is affecting gay white men more than anyone else.' And that means that, while we are not going to ignore other parts of the community... you know, we have to make some tough calls and say 'look if its affecting that community the most then our resources need to be focussed in that area the most.' And they are calls that I will never resile from. "The Foundation is in a process of fundamental change, particularly around Gay Men's Health. Until recently it was focusing on the passion of individuals, probably in spite of the structure of the organisation. And that really is at the heart of the restructuring. We were relying largely on the one-off efforts of passionate staff who had deep roots into the community. However, the structure of the organisation wasn't necessarily supporting their passion for that work all that well." Lambert is equally emphatic that the Foundation cannot operate successfully in a vacuum. "What we are trying to do is show that the Foundation is there to provide leadership around the epidemic, but unless the wider community supports us in our work, as it did in the late 80s and early 90s, this task is not going to be successfully achieved. The Foundation needs to define its role within the community, then the community really needs to assist us in taking up the challenge." Several years ago it appeared that a gap was forming between the Foundation and the loosely-knit community of men who have sex with men, that the Foundation and its messages were increasingly ignored by, or irrelevant to, a new breed of New Zealand men who have sex with men. But Lambert isn't sure that was really the case. "I don't know if it was a fair criticism, to this day I am still uncertain about the role of identity politics and how we best address the HIV epidemic, because I think we have to be sensible about the differences between orientation, behaviour and identity. And what I am still concerned about is that a lot of the people in the community who are the most critical of the performance of the Foundation are largely gay-identifying men and we still don't know whether that group are necessarily the ones that we are missing the target with... whether or not they are men who are necessarily engaged with our community, I think the jury is still out." But Lambert acknowledges that there may have to be some sleight of hand if the Foundation is to engage at-risk men. “Some of the big issues we are going to have to face over the next few years is that maybe messages from the NZ AIDS Foundation are not going to be all that compelling to those who are most at risk. Maybe we need to step back and you might start to see campaigns from the Foundation that don't actually have the NZ AIDS Foundation written on them. It's not because they don't trust us as an organisation, its just the reality of our challenge which means that these men are particularly complex, they may not be active in our community, they might be gay-identifying but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are the men within our catchment with whom we are used to dealing on a day to day basis." How important will community-connected gay people be in this process? "I think they are going to be extremely important, but probably in a different way than they have been in the past. I have a passion for gay men's health and I think that is the other challenge for the NZ AIDS Foundation of the future: Can you address the issue of HIV with gay men without looking more holistically at some of the challenges of gay men's health. We have sort of played around the edges of this in the past with small campaigns, around syphilis for instance, but I think we might need to think a little more seriously about what are the effects of drug and alcohol use on the ability of gay men to make sensible decisions around their sexual health. If guys are getting out of it, is this going to be compromising the decisions they make around safe sex? We have given people safe sex packs when they leave the big dance parties in the past, but is that really going to address the issue properly? I think that is really where the challenge is for us in the community and in the future that is perhaps where I would like to see the gay-identifying community coming together. "It isn't just around HIV, it's around gay men's health more holistically, and certainly that's where I would like to be more active in the future." The NZ AIDS Foundation is not going to be able to address HIV on its own, Lambert believes. "They must look to partners and the various roles that others can play to assist the Foundation in its work. One of those partners might be an as yet unformed project Lambert clearly has in mind for his post-NZAF years. "I'm looking to other opportunities in gay men's health, to provide leadership, guidance and expertise in areas outside HIV." PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE Lambert may be stepping down from the Board, looking for new challenges, but he says he is not stepping away from the NZAF. "I am going to carry on being involved in the Foundation because I am very passionate about the work that it does.” His final days as Chair draw to a close on November 24th, when he oversees the election of new board members, but he will remain on board a while to facilitate a smooth hand-over. "I have made an offer to stay on until the board meeting in February, to make sure that the new board is able to make a considered decision around who the next chair might be and because the Christmas/New Year period is obviously quite a busy time for the Foundation with the number of events we have over that period including Queen of the Whole Universe and the Big Gay Out. So I look forward to spending more time with staff and volunteers and my fellow trust board members over the summer period." What advice will he give the new board members about their function, the job they are there to do? "The board of the NZAF is there to provide leadership to the rest of the organisation, and provide the organisation with some vision. It is also responsible for monitoring the performance of the chief executive and seeing that the interests of the organisation are being looked after.” And he believes the board must continue to be aware of its purpose and the community of men at risk of contracting HIV which it serves. “Board members must always be looking at their raison d'etre. The temptation is to be distracted. But they must stay focussed on the Foundation's core outcomes which are to stop the transmission of HIV, to support people who are living with the virus, and to increase the participation of the public and of our communities in helping to fight HIV. They must try to avoid being too inwardly focussed." It appears that Lambert is taking his own advice, remaining connected but acknowledging that there are also "some broader issues around gay men's health that I think I can make a greater contribution to in the future... and I'd like to do that." Jay Bennie - 1st November 2007    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Thursday, 1st November 2007 - 3:10pm

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