Family violence agency Aviva, formerly Christchurch Women’s Refuge, will celebrate 45 years of service next month. Chief executive Nicola Woodward spoke to Julia Evans about her role in establishing a needle exchange in the United Kingdom during the Aids crisis and how that brought her to New Zealand to set up The Loft
How did you start your career?
I moved to London when I was 18 to start my general nurse training. It was pretty exciting. I quickly became involved in politics, so that included the anti-nuclear movement and also health politics. I started looking at how social injustice and social inequality fuelled the way the health system was operating. As a nurse and a young person, I was working in the accident and emergency department at the University College Hospital. Lots of people would come in having taken an overdose, people would come in homeless, people would come in with the effects of problematic alcohol use and generally what we did was just patch people up and send them out to the exact same circumstances that lead to their admission. This struck me as quite crazy because it meant the health care system was really inefficient. But from my perspective, more importantly, it meant that people weren’t being cared for in the way that I believe we should be caring for people. For as long as we failed to address the social drivers for people’s admission into the accident and emergency department, that door would continue to rotate. In my early 20s, I proposed a new role, which was a clinical nurse specialist role in substance misuse at University College Hospital in central London. The purpose of that role was to break that cycle of admission so we actually addressed a person’s whole needs rather than just their medical and physical needs. As that role was being set up, HIV and AIDS started becoming an issue in the mid-1980s. In the accident and emergency department, people who were injecting drugs started to come in asking for clean needles and syringes because they didn’t want to have to share injecting equipment. Working in partnership with the academic department and the medical leadership of the accident and emergency department, we started to operate London’s first needle exchange programme. The the UK’s Department of Health announced that they were going to pilot 15 needle exchange schemes up and down the country, so we applied to become one of those and were successful. So we moved out of the needle exchange programme to a shop front premises between Oxford St and Tottenham Court Rd. While it was an exchange, it really operated as a primary health care service for people with drug problems in London. While people were not really connected with health or social services and lots of people were homeless, a lot of people were experiencing quite significant physical problems due to their drug use. The stigma and the shame meant that they were unable to access help and support. This is the beginning of what became the harm reduction movement and, for me, when somebody came to the needle exchange for the very first time it was that they felt welcome and respected enough to come back again. Things were founded on forming that relationship.
Do those same principals apply to your role as chief executive of Aviva?
Those very same principals reflect why we have created The Loft. We’ve brought multiple organisations and services together, where people live their lives in Linwood and where they shop at Eastgate Shopping Centre. The most important thing is that when they walk through the door, they feel welcome and respected. So we know when someone walks through the front door, they’re likely to have multiple issues and that in order to support them to overcome those issues, we have to attend to all of them, not just one or two. It’s exactly the same as the needle exchange in the mid-80s – it’s no good just giving people clean needles and syringes, we have to attend their whole needs. It’s not rocket science, it’s very simple stuff. I’ve been working now for 35 years or so, we talk now about the need to reform health and social services in exactly the same way we talked about it 35 years ago.
How have social agencies changed over that time?
In many respects there are no differences. People and organisations continue to work in silos. Practitioners and professionals, like individuals and families, have to navigate this really complicated system so they also have to work through multiple referral pathways, are hampered by waiting times, they also have to navigate multiple doors and multiple agency brands. The Loft is about reforming all of that and about placing children, young people and their families with practitioners together at the centre of our system.
When you were little, was helping people always the career path you thought you would take?
I never have identified as a helper. What’s always really motivated me is social injustice and social inequalities. There’s a lot of stigma and shame. I’ve worked with people who have drug and alcohol, mental health problems, are affected by HIV and Aids and are experiencing domestic violence. The thing that connects all of these issues is social injustice and social inequality. So that’s the thing that has always motivated me. If we see ourselves as helpers, then we remain at the bottom of the cliff. If we see ourselves as leaders of social change, then we can help and build a fairer and more just society. We no longer have to be helpers at the bottom of the cliff.
What are some of your favourite moments throughout your career?
Recently at New Zealand’s 30th anniversary for needle exchange, they spoke about The Loft. It was a privilege to have a moment in time 35 years ago to be part of the harm minimisation movement and its development. But it also saddens me that 35 years later, we still haven’t changed our system to address and remove the stigma and shame that keeps people socially isolated.
Is it possible to leave your kind of work at work?
No and I choose not to because for me, personally, not only professionally, social justice is fundamentally important. I don’t want to leave it at work, but it is really important that we look after our own mental health and wellness. My partner had a stroke five months ago and that was an invitation to also care for myself and my family a little bit better. When you do this work, there isn’t really separation about what happens to us personally and what gets us out of bed every morning to come and do the work. The other important thing is I feel massively hopeful and optimistic. Every time I meet someone who may be using violence, I see someone who has the potential to become a good partner, parent and citizen. I don’t see, like unfortunately most people do, a person who is a perpetrator. I see a human being with enormous people. At Aviva, we believe New Zealand has the potential to become free from domestic violence.
Because if we don’t believe that, how many deaths are we prepared to tolerate? We’d say that it’s inevitable and unavoidable and I don’t think anyone believes that domestic violence is that.
Why did you leave the United Kingdom to come work in Christchurch?
I came to New Zealand in my early 40s. I came first for a mental health conference in 2005 and I found myself very drawn to New Zealand from my puku. It wasn’t that I liked the country or that I only thought it was beautiful, I felt a very strong draw to be in New Zealand. At the time I was single, no dependants and so I thought I would speak to people about job possibilities. I came here just really to open myself up to an experience and some new possibilities. I met a Kiwi guy here in Christchurch, but I started working in Auckland for the Counties Manakau District Health Board. I commuted for four years or so from Christchurch to Auckland. For the rest of my life, I had been working nationally in the United Kingdom, spending three nights a week in hotels in London or Leeds. I had a real tolerance for commuting and somehow, even though I moved to the other side of the world, I brought that mindset with me. I Incorporated commuting between Auckland and Christchurch into my new life. It’s a really important lesson about the power of mind set. For me, I moved physically across the world, but in my own mind I was able to tolerate that quality of occupational and personal life. I realised after four years that that’s not what I wanted, I wanted to achieve a much better balance. Then the position of chief executive at what was Christchurch Women’s Refuge came up. I was encouraged
by family and friends to apply for it.
How does Christchurch compare to a city like London?
I’m a middle-aged woman now, I’m looking for different things. I loved living in London, I miss lots of things about the UK. I miss all of my family, all my biological family are in the UK. I miss the music scene, I have quite an eclectic music taste. But two bands that come to mind straight away are Urban Species and London Grammar. I’m privileged to be in Christchurch and being part of a community that is building a really exciting new city for generations to come. I have a fantastic partner, we’re not married but we’ve been together for eight years. So I think I’m just very lucky to be living here in the beauty of this country – the rivers, the mountain, accessibility to so much diversity. I grew up in the UK, generations of my family are from the Midlands in England, but I’m massively happy to be here.
What do you do on a day off?
Jet boating and fishing is good fun. We’re just coming to the end of the whitebait season, so I would like to think we can get a bit more of that in. I love the beach, I love taking my dog Sky for a run on the beach. I love the opportunity to be quiet. I listen to music really loud sometimes. I love a rigorous walk, spending time with friends. I’ve become very clear since my partner had a stroke five months ago on the importance of spending time with people who are good for us, spending time with people for our mental health.