Cecilie is a second year Loretto Volunteer working at the U.N. in NYC.
When I moved to New York from DC in August to begin my second year as a Loretto Volunteer, I knew I would have to jump in right away. I only had a couple of weeks to orient myself in the vast sea of work that Loretto does at the UN before the wave of high-level events, presidents, celebrities, marches and meetings crashed over the UN, marking the beginning of a new session of the General Assembly.
Luckily, I have previous experience both with Loretto and the UN, which helped to ease my transition. During my first year as a Loretto Volunteer in Washington DC, I was infused with the Loretto values through my Junia House community, my work and my encounters with Loretto sisters, co-members and friends. My college Diplomacy and World Affairs classes and the semester I spent working at the Mission of Malta to the United Nations gave me the technical understanding I needed of the structure and day-to-day workings of the United Nations. Together, these experiences helped me to feel adequately prepared for the work ahead.
This is not to say that it’s been completely smooth sailing. There are some major differences between my previous experiences and my current work at Loretto’s NGO at the UN that I have had to adjust to.
The first and more obvious difference is that I am no longer doing direct service – that is to say, unlike my position last year as an immigration paralegal, where I met face-to-face with clients every day, my work at the UN rarely involves personal contact with people in need. Instead, the work I am doing at the Loretto Community NGO is an advocacy position. I speak on behalf of Loretto to member states and agencies of the UN, hoping to raise awareness of issues and ultimately, to pursue effective solutions. Ending early, child and forced marriage, protecting migrants at sea, and defending access to clean water are only a few of the many issues that have come up on my agenda during the past two months. One common criticism of the United Nations is that it represents the interests of the governments of the states who form it, not necessarily those of the people who live in those countries. While this is true, the Loretto Community NGO and its other partners in civil society play an important role in bridging the gap between the people at the grassroots and the member states who ultimately vote on resolutions. While I very much miss working directly with people, last year I often felt frustrated at having to treat the symptoms of an immigration issue rather than addressing the root causes of the recurring problem. This is why I think Loretto’s work at the UN is so important – we can give the voices and stories of the grassroots a platform to influence systemic change that protects the vulnerable, reduces inequalities, and promotes human rights, peace and development.
The second difference is specific to the structure of the United Nations, particularly the role of NGOs at the UN. The level of access and participation granted to NGOs like Loretto’s is quite limited when compared to that of member states, like Malta. Security obstacles, restricted access to UN meetings and limited capacity to participate and speak at meetings are impediments NGOs face but member states do not. Despite the unequal level of access and participation granted to NGOs, I have found that working at the Loretto office is in many senses much freer than my experience at the Malta Mission. As part of a country’s delegation, before making an intervention at a meeting, co-sponsoring a resolution, or commenting on seemingly anything, I needed to make sure that what I said, and the language I used to say it, was in line with the official policy of the government. “I’ll check with Capitol” is a common way for delegates to say that they need to get approval from their government in whatever the capital city of their country is (in Malta’s case, it’s Valleta). Loretto, on the other hand, is much more flexible. Having been infused over the past year with an understanding of what Loretto stands for, I can authentically advocate for the mission of the community. I am truly grateful for the autonomy I have been given and the trust it reflects. Whereas member states are frequently resigned to making cautious and watered down statements, I have the opportunity to speak more forcefully. Since Loretto represents the voices of those who might otherwise be dismissed, that strong representation is all the more critical.
A little over a week ago, I helped to coordinate the volunteers at the Girls Speak Out, an event co-organized by the Working Group on Girls (of which Loretto is an active member), and the missions of Canada, Turkey and Peru. This event, part of the celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, is a rare and special example of the best of what the UN has to offer: a complementary partnership of member states and civil society. With the access and status of the member states, and the grounded voice of advocacy of civil society, we were able to invite girls from around the world to share their stories at the UN. The Speak Out itself was beautiful and powerful – a multimedia extravaganza of music, dance, poetry and storytelling, all written by and performed by girls, and attended by over 500 girls, parents, teachers, and representatives from member states, UN agencies and NGOs. After the event, one delegate from Canada said that this was his favorite day on the UN calendar, and one of the girl performers said that it was the best day of her life. In a position where immediate feedback is rare, it was nice to know that what we are working on is making a real impact on individuals, not just a theoretical population. This event is one that member states and civil society could not have done separately. Together, we provided a platform for girls around the world to share their needs, struggles and dreams. Having caught a glimpse of what is possible, I look forward to the rest of my year of service, working to represent Loretto at the UN.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.