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Wednesday 09 November 2016

Leading from the head and the heart

Posted in: Health & HIV, Community
By Jay Bennie - 28th September 2016

Three months ago Jason Myers was appointed as the sixth Executive Director of the NZ AIDS Foundation - though the actual title wasn't always that - in the organisation's thirty year history.

By far the majority of people getting infected by, and living with, HIV in New Zealand are gay or bisexual men. Yet he's the first gay man in the role in fifteen years, something that more than a few observers of our gay and bi communities, and of the NZAF, feel is a good thing.

He comes to the role at a time when HIV diagnoses amongst men who have sex with men have recently trended up to the highest annual numbers in the history of our HIV epidemic.

In part one of this 'get to know you' discussion he talks about his background and how he sees that he fits into the role.

JB: Where did you grow up and when did you realise you were gay?

JM: I grew up in Mangere Bridge, South Auckland and realised I was gay fairly early on, about when I was fifteen-ish and came out at the beginning of my last year at Onehunga High School, in 2000. I was the head boy at Onehunga High and openly gay.

I went off to the University of Auckland where I studied for a social sciences degree and it was in my first year of post-grad that I started specifically looking into HIV. I looked at media coverage of HIV and the representation of gay men in coverage of HIV in the 1980s.

JB: What is a social scientist?

JM: We ask questions about the messiness' of the world I suppose... you've got the core social sciences which are sociology, psychology, anthropology and I was a cultural geographer... asking questions about, and unpicking those things that can't be neatly measured or defined.

People are at the centre of those questions, what is the relationship between people and then way the world goes round and all the messiness of that.

JB: You've been at the NZAF before haven't you?

JM: I was hooked into the NZAF doing my research, doing my Ph.D which was working with HIV-positive men in Auckland. I went away to the UK for a couple of years doing some palliative care research in end-stage renal failure. Then I came back and started working at the NZAF in 2009 as the policy advisor, though I had a number of roles here really over four and a half years. I left in 2014, quite recently really, and went to Oxfam, and then this role came up.

JB: Why did you decide to apply for it?

JM: If I am to be totally honest I'd had my eye on it for some time. It's a job that doesn't come up very often... Rachael le Mesurier was here for around ten years and Shaun Robinson for five, so I thought: 'I'm going to have a go at this,' and here I am.

At Oxfam I was working on really important issues... climate change, violence against women, economic and social inequality. They spoke to me, but they didn't speak to me at a level that HIV and the broader well-being of gay men does. It connects to me at a very visceral, heart level. When I look back to the very start of my academic journey, even to my coming out journey, almost everything I have done I think led me to believe when I applied for this job that, yes, I can do it. Because it's who I am and I feel like I am now in the right place doing the right thing because the skills that I bring are valuable to the organisation at this time.

JB: So this is more than just a job to you?

JM: It's absolutely more than a job. Three months and just last night I realised I'm going to have to find ways quick smart to switch off a bit in some ways in some times because I've become conscious because I've noticed myself doing it 24/7. It's much more than just a job. It's part of my identity.

JB: What, essentially, is the job?

JM: I'm learning that the job is influencing, seeing potential in people and processes, and it's leadership internally and in the sector. It's a big job, it's a representational role that means you have to stand up and stake a claim and lead, not only the staff of the NZAF but all the people we connect with and those we need to have on board if we're going to get the job done.

It's listening, understanding and ultimately having the conviction to make some decisions, standing by them and leading through them. It's early days.

JB: How do you judge when and how to make those decisions?

For me it's a balance of head and heart, head and guts. My natural place is to go to my head, to go to all the numbers and the information and all of the evidence but it doesn't quite work like that in the real world. And I'm learning to go “actually, I've got enough, I've got the right people giving me the information, their best advice based on their analysis, I've got my best guess and I trust myself to go 'this is the job we need to get done, this is what I know, this is my decision, this is why... now let's go.'

JB: Your two predecessors have not been gay men so how important is it it to you to be a gay man in this role at this time? How you see the job, in the context of how you will operate and drive the organisation?

JM: Some of it may be subconscious. I come to the job as a gay man and all that that means I come with, like understanding how gay men move in the world, interact and connect. There's a whole lot of work I don't have to do to understand that, I already get it. That's no discredit at all to my predecessors it's just something that I bring to the role that they couldn't by virtue of who they were. And internally I think there's been a really positive response to that. Because people see me as a gay man and see me as part of their community. At a very basic level it means I can just get on with the job, I don't need to spend a lot of time or any time understanding what it is to be gay.

Tomorrow in part two of this discussion Jason Myers talks about where the NZAF and the HIV epidemic are at the moment and what needs to be done

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Jay Bennie - 28th September 2016