14 January, 2011

Week One: So it begins

Shooting for: free concert of a few of Bach's Cantatas tonight at Temple de la Fusterie - part of the celebration of the music conservatory's 175 anniversary.

Factoid of the day: The UNHCR HQ building was designed by an architect who had previously only designed prisons. Place sort of has an odd cruise ship-y vibe, too.

Discovery of the day:
Those two giant boxes that seem to have long ago taken up permanent residence in the hall outside our office? The ones I was otherwise oblivious to? Yeah. Finally read the label this week. Condoms. Thousands and thousands of condoms.

Dreaming of: Terra Proibita, aka the 7th floor of UNHCR HQ, where the High Commissioner and other top officials have their offices. If for nothing more than to snoop. Thar be dragons! People sort of speak of it in hushed tones. I will likely get up there for interviews as part of my project. For now, I like to tease my supervisors with things like, "But, what if I just want to knock and offer to buy him a coffee? That's nice, right?"

Feeling a bit better about the world today thanks to: Tunisia!

Amused by: the very elderly, very chic woman who kept looking me over approvingly while we waited to get in the bank downtown at opening Friday: (to me, in French) "You must be a lawyer, no?"

"So what are your first impressions?" asked the long-time UNHCR staffer, an alum of my department at UT-Austin. I tried to pull it together to put into words.

This week has been mostly observations, so trying to give first impressions is like spreading the cards across the table and playing Memory: flipping cards over and over until you can make a match, in this case my observations with words to convey them. I've tried very hard to just keep my eyes and ears open and be the sponge this week.

I spent most of the week in my office, which is actually not bad for two reasons. First, Friday I discovered that most of the interns at HQ are sort of quarantined to two glassed-walled pods on the 6th floor, no matter who they work for.
Great for networking with other interns, but I'd rather be integrated into the unit I'm working with. I work out of my section's actual office, on the 4th floor. Also, our office is a stopping point for every new staff member and many others. I met the brand new head of Legal Affairs this week, who stopped by to get some help on housing and relocation. Nice fellow and in just the same tough spot as all of us in finding a place to live. Though I'm quite sure he as a few more resource than I to deal with it.

I'm on the Ave. de France side, facing the lake. Aside from being able to see the lake, a bit of the Palais, and, if I lean, the mountains, my favorite thing in my view is the World Meteorological Organization building. I'm sure it's from growing up in Florida, but I have a deep-seated and rather irrational love of jalousie windows and the WMO building looks like one big oval-shaped bank of jalousie windows from my window. Or sort of like the overgrown lens of a lighthouse - even better. It's a silly, trivial thing that makes me happy. That's all.

I work for the Staff Welfare Section (SWS). We have sent students to Community Services for nearly 20 years. I am the first student from our school to intern in this section. Before arriving, I'd not been very sure what I that meant or what I might be doing. People said, "You're at the UN! Does it matter?"
Yes, it damn well does to me.
I'd gotten a vague description from my faculty liaison: Staff Welfare...counseling...assistance programs...
I admit, I was nervous. I'm not a counselor. That's not my end of social work. At all. I had struggled to try to make my first field internship a useful learning experience and I don't believe I was ever really permitted to succeed to that end. Wonderful people, but far too constrained on the part of my department and the agency towards hitting benchmarks that had little to do with me. It was a rough year.
Then I spoke to the director of the section and the staff member who would serve as my supervisor over Skype in early December.
They were just as unsure of the requirements of my department for the internship, the nuts and bolts requirements like hours to complete, but they were very exciting about having me intern.
"Just to be clear," I added, "I don't have a mental health background. I don't do therapy. I don't do individual casework."
I am not sure they couldn't hear my very rather audible sigh of relief when they insisted that's fine, that's not what the internship would be about. They needed somebody to lay groundwork and start developing programs. It was still vague, but it as up my alley.

I decided to start on the first Friday of the year knowing there would be a lot of admin stuff to take care of: getting my badge, tech stuff to set up...And, luckily, maybe because most people were still out on holiday, everything went smoothly.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I've been lucky, but I have to say that so far as I've experienced, the U.N. has the nicest security staff I've ever met at a large organization. The folks issuing badges chatted with me about where I was from and what I was doing at the U.N. The older fellow processing my badge asked what I had planned after the end of my internship and when I told him I didn't yet know he insisted with a smile that I would be staying on with the UN. The guards at HQ were incredibly gracious, joking in response to my walking in the first morning, throwing my arms out, and stammering in broken French, "So what do I do?" Leaving the first evening, one of them asked me how my first day went.

There are four people in staff welfare, including our support staffer. We're two Croatians (including the head of section), a Romanian, a Gambian and now an American. My direct supervisor is a trained social worker who has worked in Romania and France. Her background includes community work as well as more therapeutic practice. The head of our office also has a mental health background and like my supervisor sometimes sees staff in her office for sessions. The third person on staff, the other Croatian, is a trained psychologist. The section now has four members in the field as well: Dakar, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Islamabad. There are hopes for two more positions at some point in the future, in the Americas and another in Africa. The section in small but growing as the UN, like many organizations, fully grasps the need for a happy and fully-supported staff. While programs have mostly focused on staff, there is a desire to extend services of some sort to families.

All UNHCR staff, except for a few people in specialized positions or with certain backgrounds, rotates regularly all over the globe. Postings may last anywhere from about two years (hardship posts) to about five or six years. Except in cases of certain posts (Afghanistan, etc), people may bring their families. As you can imagine, this isn't easy, but then again neither is leaving your family behind. Issues like vicarious trauma, difficulties for spouses finding work and maintaining careers, the basic difficulties in relocating, disruption of children's educations, relationship strain, are just some of the issues encountered. It is often bandied about that UNHCR has the highest divorce rate in the UN system. Interestingly, the head of our office noted that though she's heard that for many years, she's never seen figures to prove it, which makes it part of the organizational mythology, for now.

The best and most exciting thing about this week is they just threw me right off the dock and into the water. Spent the first two days talking to the three of them about the section, the organization, printing internal documents to read about everything from work-life balance at he UN to UNHCR organizational culture, and brainstorming the project. It was a little overwhelming at first, but I actually like it that way - a bit of shock treatment. It also indicated that they were trusting me to rise to the challenge as a mature professional and already giving me a bit of autonomy, which I appreciate immensely. Nice for me and for them. Our director and my supervisor both expressed to me their real relief and satisfaction at how they were able to do just that with me, how much they appreciated my jumping immediately and performing so well out of the gate.

The actual work on an internship can be hit or miss. You hope, or at least I do, to not be placed where there is either nothing for you to do, where you're not permitted to do anything useful that would make it a meaningful learning experience, or where you're limited to doing things way below your abilities.

My project is big, meaty, challenging and exciting. I've been told by others on staff that this is the sort of thing they hire a consultant to do, that I might be able to publish on it, too. I'll be essentially completing an assessment of the relationship between UNHCR and staff families - how do they view organization and how does the organization view them. Along with that, I'll be assessing the challenges facing families of international staff (staff not working in their home country), any existing assistance programs, and beginning to look at how to develop adequate and sustainable support programs. All this ends up merging with lot of initiatives within the UN system and UNHCR like gender parity and improved work-life balance as well. Additionally, there is the realization of the importance of these types of programs on recruitment and retention and, ultimately, in being able to succeed in your mandate.

I'll write more about the methodology later, but I'm using a lot of qualitative methods and pushing for the most direct contacts possible, in part due to the perceived negative relationship. I'll be talking to folks all over the world and at pretty much ever level here at HQ. We're pushing hard for some field visits, within reason. There's a lot of balancing involved - not raising expectations (positive or negative) too high, maintaining clarity, etc. But I really do need a tough challenge like I need air and I've certainly got one here.

I was asked to draft a concept paper for the project to distribute to the necessary higher-ups by Friday. Initially, I was a bit stuck just fretting uselessly about proper formatting. Then I realized all the balancing that would have to be done for all sides. Not impossible, but certainly imposing.
Early indicators within HQ are good and the concept paper went out yesterday. Next week I start a slew of informational meetings with everyone from legal affairs to policy to medical services. Also have meetings with system-wide managerial staff from over in the Palais. Also getting in touch with the Budapest office and our SWS staff in the field. It's a steady, heavy diet of input.

It's a hierarchical organization for sure and I'm working via introductions from our staff at the moment. While I certainly understand that certain procedures help things run smoothly, I believe there's a hell of a comedy of manners to be written. Perhaps oddly, I sort of mean that as a complement. I think.

So that's the week that was.
We'll see what week two brings.
It's a lovely, sunny day and I have to get outside and play.
God, that rhymed a bit too much, no?
Sort of enjoying not having to be anywhere at the moment, though, as well.
Bon weekend, y'all.

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