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Rachael Le Mesurier's seven years of change: Part two

Thu 9 Dec 2010 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Rachael Le Mesurier bowed out officially last week after seven years at the helm of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Before she resigned spoke to her in-depth about her thoughts on the history of the Foundation and her seven years as Executive Director as part of our series on the 25 years of the NZAF. Tony Hughes covered off the early history of the NZAF so well in an earlier pair of features, that this piece will concentrate on Le Mesurier's tenure from 2003-2010. Feedback: praise and criticism Rachael Le Mesurier says it's vital that people care and tell the NZAF what they think. "That's what for me being professional means. It means being accountable. It means listening. But it also means not doing everything that someone tells me to do. That is professional." She says throughout the NZAF's history the Executive Director's door has always been open for people to come and talk. "We've always been here. If people want to come and talk they're welcome," she says. "We've always been community-based. Which does mean that we have the rigour and the debate and the discussion - it's always been there, right from the beginning. In fact the day this was being signed by the trustees upstairs in the lawyer's office," she says holding up the deed "downstairs in the foyer there were a group of people who were opposing the signing of the trust deed." Le Mesurier says there are now other venues, like's forum, where people have their say about what the NZAF does. "In many ways we welcome it ... one of the things I think is really exciting for us in 2010 is that we are engaged with as many volunteers, with as many actually active supporters as we had in the early 1990s. It's fair to say we went through quite a deep drop in members and volunteers. We were turning volunteers away because we thought we didn't need them anymore because 'the drugs work'. But we soon realised that was wrong, we need volunteers more now in many ways to do the prevention work." When questioned about the perception that the NZAF is seen by some as not listening, Le Mesurier is clear that she believes the Foundation is. "It's one of the things that I love, because I have heard it quite often, I've heard it over my time here and I know that Warren [Lindberg] heard it and Kevin [Hague] heard it, there's two different things to what they're - are they saying do you listen or are they saying do you do what they say? Because yeah we absolutely listen. "I could get a whiteboard and fill it with all the comments and concerns that have been raised and confirm to them that I actually know exactly what's going on. You know, right from 'you can't run an AIDS Foundation for gay men if you are a woman' right around to 'we never see the Foundation in any of the gay bars'. I've heard all of that. What is interesting is if I put it all on the whiteboard and said 'ok guys, which one do you want me to do?' Because most of them are contradictory. "We absolutely listen, but we cannot act on everything. So we're absolutely going to let some people down. But turning it around, what's really cool ... is science and evidence. Sometimes what people tell us actually reaffirms the science, it builds on the evidence, other times it runs completely contrary to it. "I will stand by the fact we listen. We absolutely listen," she reinforces. "If anybody ever wants me to, I'd love that chance of writing on a whiteboard all the things that I have listened to. The difference is, we can't always do what people want." Le Mesurier says there are plenty of campaigns which have been based on feedback from people. "What I'm excited by in respect to the community, is that when I go out there [NZAF meeting room] on a Wednesday night, there's 30 or 40 odd people packing condoms. And they're having fun and they're laughing and I get to sit down with them and actually hear what they think, as they're packing condoms for us, for free." Le Mesurier says she doesn't mind a challenge and is happy people have a space like the forum to say what they want, but points out the number of critics in such arenas are very small and they are the same people. "I pay attention to that. But I also pay attention to new voices. Because they're actually possibly going to bring something different for me. Also recognising that while the GayNZ message board is one arena, there are a myriad of number of arenas. And to be frank, because there's a number who tend to bitch quite a bit, those who are our supporters are a bit tired of that and they go somewhere else. They don't tend to bother." Le Mesurier says the global reality is that message boards are place people go because they have a particular reason. "We've been around for 25 years. We've employed people over the last 25 years, we've rejected people over the last 25 years, we've not employed people over the last 25 years. We've got a history." She says the Trust board members, volunteers and NZAF staff take a lot of flak. "Unfounded most of it I would say ... I don't mind criticism, what I actually want to have is the opportunity for all the wonderful feedback we get to have space too." She cites the example of a man from Taranaki who called her out of the blue and said "you know I really love what you guys do, I believe in what you guys do ... but you know I'm picking up guys from NZ Dating and I get guys who don't use condoms and I tell them, I tell them they're and idiot and I'm going to have great sex with them and I'm going to use condoms." Le Mesurier told the man he was the NZAF's saving grace and the future of the Foundation. "He's absolutely committed. That's the story for the Foundation from 1984. And we still have it in 2010 ... it is absolutely the people. "And those board chairs that have done all the work, we want to acknowledge that. Not only did they volunteer - they were prepared to take the crap sometimes in message boards, to have the game plan that goes on in the community. Who were prepared to recognise that I believe it's the right thing to take on the African programme in 2005 - the next group most at risk in New Zealand." Rachael's giants "I've met some of the best people in my life in this job," Le Mesurier sums up her time in the role. "I've lost some of the best people in my life in this job. It's the people. It sounds trite eh? Lots of people say that stuff. But actually it's really important to me. It's really real." Sister Paula Brettkelly Le Mesurier has paid tribute to the late Henare Te Ua and Sister Paula Brettkelly as two giants in her life. "I always end up feeling like I'm going to cry when I talk about Sister Paula. Because I miss her, I miss her so much. "There is a mass of stories around Sister Paula but one of them is her campaigning on the Homosexual Law Reform, going into meet with one of the opposing politicians and there was a conversation about 'well I'm not going to support this piece of legislation because it's supporting sodomites and I think anal sex is repugnant. "And there's Sister Paula very politely sitting there, a very proper woman, and out of her mouth comes 'did you know that the Kingsley Report reports that over 47 percent of heterosexuals have had anal sex?' This was narrated by the person she was with - and he just fell off his chair," she says in wonderment. "Isn't it wonderful? There is a Catholic nun in 1986 challenging not only homophobia, but the reality about anal sex." Le Mesurier says such people helped the NZAF and the gay community get to where it is now. "And there are people like her carrying on the torch ... These people are really important to us in our lives and I think in the 25th year it's important we acknowledge them." She pays tribute to the members of the medical profession who stood up to homophobic colleagues early on and to the political leaders from both sides who recognised the importance of HIV prevention though the years. Her most effusive praise is reserved for the NZAF staff. "I'm very proud of the professionalism of our staff. I'm very proud of the productivity of our staff. I'm very proud of the fact that people are accountable in our organisation. I'm very proud of that fact that we're one of the most respected NGOs in public health in the country. We're trusted to deal to the taxpayers' dollars well." The NZAF was criticised in some quarters for making Douglas Jenkin redundant this year (the National Campaigns Coordinator has since gone on to work for Australian HIV prevention organisation ACON). Le Mesurier says one of the things which has been the hardest in the job is weighing up 'the money, the mission and the people you love'. "The hardest thing is it doesn't always match. And that's what I mean talking about professionalism. That's what I'm talking about with 'transparency' and that's what I'm talking about with 'accountability'. I know that the community would not expect us to carry on with roles, regardless of the person, that actually didn't fit what we needed to do our job. And what's most important is that that's what we do. What is very, very hard is that occasionally is what comes up is that it's not the person, it's the role, but I do understand how it can feel. But the role needed a shift, to do a better job, particularly with Get It On! Which is huge for us." Le Mesurier says Jenkin is a wonderful guy who people love and who matters to the NZAF. She cites other remarkable people who have been let go as Edward Cowley and Te Herekiekie Herewini, but points out that if she hadn't made anyone redundant over the years the NZAF, would not be accountable, productive or as professional as it is now. "Whilst I recognise these things are necessary and happen, I don't like them personally. It distresses me. But at the same time I think Douglas is going to have an exciting next stage of his life." She believes that having people who have both been around a long time and brand new is essential to an organisation's health and cites a number of former staff members like Warren Lindberg, Adrian Knowles , Kevin Hague and Steve Attwood who have gone on to other arenas and made change, and also former chairs like Jeremy Lambert, Jonathan Smith and Charles Chauvel who have done and are doing really significant work. "I am excited and thrilled and proud of the 25 years of where these people have ended up," she says. "What's most important is the passion survives," she says. "The passion - based on science. That's probably the mantra, that and condom and lube, passion and science. That passion is because there's still a lot of work to be done. " Final word Le Mesurier says the 25 year celebrations throughout 2010 were about acknowledging the significant changes that occurred over the quarter century. "You know, pre the anti-retrovirals, post the anti-retrovirals. Then understanding the changes it's done for the epidemic. All of that is really worth acknowledging, but for me in particular just the people who have helped us all along - and those who have died. I mean for the most important is really acknowledging over 600 people have died of AIDS in New Zealand. That's 600 families, 600 partners. 600 neighbours, work colleagues, mothers, children and whole generation of gay men. Our tipuna, our ancestors, are very much those who have died," she says. "I've always had this voice in the back of my head that 'at the end of the day Rachael it's the wairua, don't worry about making mistakes, you're always going to make them. It's just your intent. And if you've got the goodwill and you're spirit's right you'll be ok'. And that what I do most days in my work. I know that if we're getting our job right we will piss people off. Simply because we can't please everybody. But we'll get our job right - the passion, the science, the condom and lube." Rachael Le Mesurier was Executive Director of the NZAF from 2003-2010     Jacqui Stanford - 9th December 2010

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Thursday, 9th December 2010 - 12:47pm

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