Getting Practical: An APA Intern's Experience at the United Nations

By Brian Davis

Brian Davis is a doctoral student in Social and Personality Psychology at the City University of New York. He currently holds an executive position on the UN’s NGO Committee on HIV/AIDS.When one thinks about APA’s presence at the United Nations, one is likely to envision a strong, organized, and fully staffed political lobby working tirelessly on behalf of psychologists and psychology. That is, one likely imagines a policy apparatus similar to what APA has assembled on Capitol Hill in the United States. And indeed, the APA non-governmental organization (NGO) team at the United Nations does participate in the overall mission to influence UN policy through effective dissemination of psychological science and best practices. That being said, an honest picture of our work must also acknowledge that the work done by the APA UN team is entirely of a volunteer nature – we (senior psychologists and interns alike) do this work out of sheer drive and dedication. And much of this dedication, at least for the student interns, evolves only after being suddenly immersed in the geopolitical theater that is the United Nations.

I must confess upfront to not being as starry-eyed as I once was, yet from day one of my internship with the APA team, I could not entirely hide the awe with which I held the institution of the United Nations. Make no mistake, simply being at the UN has afforded me many glamorous moments: chance meetings with ambassadors over lunch, opportunities to witness speeches by the Secretary General and various heads of state at High Level Meetings in the General Assembly Hall, exposure to unscripted debates among member state representatives on the language of joint statements and resolutions, and enhanced access to the UN grounds, without which these experiences would not have been possible. In some settings I was involved in a speaking capacity, such as a presentation at World AIDS Day 2010 in which I reviewed the UN response to human rights violations on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and gender identity over the past decade. I also had the opportunity to speak at both the 2010 and 2011 APA Annual Conventions, where I addressed the topic of human rights violations, this time elaborating on potential links to negative mental health outcomes (2010) and loss of educational opportunities for girls (2011). It is for just such experiences that many graduate students, myself no exception, yearn to become interns with the APA team.

But glamour describes only the smallest part of the APA intern’s experience. From day one, we interns were treated as full members of the team – and expected to fully involve ourselves in the various civil society activities, under the mentorship of the senior psychologists. Far from assuming passive roles sometimes expected of students in similar positions, we were encouraged to become active members of NGO committees and UN organs such as UNAIDS and UNICEF, each of which are engaged in social justice issues. In time I was elected Secretary of the NGO Committee on HIV/AIDS, a role that has afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with UNAIDS members to help plan a large volunteer project during a recent High Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly. This meeting was highlighted by the introduction of a new declaration on the global response toward the continuing HIV/AIDS pandemic and marked the high point of our Committee’s year of work. In retrospect, I can certainly discern the sheer import of that moment and my own privileged place in it, but our attention at that time was focused squarely on a series of maneuvers surrounding specific language in the proposed declaration and the troubling revisions suggested by certain member states’ permanent missions. In these particular moments, the wonder of participating in such proceedings is secondary to confronting the task at hand, which is to achieve the best and most scientifically and humanely grounded document possible. Such is life at the UN – a never-ending process of discussion and decisions. The sheer weight of scientific credibility is not always the decisive factor (and sometimes not acknowledged at all).

Some may see this view on the realities of decision-making as a somewhat cynical take on the UN system; yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely in such moments that we are reminded just how important it is for psychology to have a voice at the UN – and the potential consequences if we were to be silent. One way we have sought to have such a voice is through the annual "Psychology Day at the United Nations," a showcase of psychological knowledge and best practices on the critical policy questions of the day. This event is organized by APA in conjunction with numerous other international psychological societies. We interns were an integral component in the planning and execution of this daylong event, which also afforded us singular opportunities. The connections and professional relationships we formed during the preparation for this event have led to numerous and varied opportunities, including my own invitation to an international student roundtable organized by APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) during the 2011 Annual Convention, where I participated as a discussant. Even as an intern I found ways to use my experiences to back to our scholarly community. I found myself in the pleasant position of introducing many psychologists to existing UN mechanisms through which many of our international colleagues are working on social justice issues, as well as in the role of mentor myself to fellow students who have since been appointed UN interns for the coming academic year.

Psychological science has much to add to the ongoing and evolving conversations around global ills such as poverty, lack of educational opportunities, gender disparities, war, famine, disease, genocide, trafficking, and human rights, to name but a few. These are heavy topics indeed for anyone in our field, perhaps even more so for the student aspiring to become an internationally focused psychologist. Further, our encounters with these topics are not merely conceptual – work at the UN revolves around real policies affecting real lives.

Since completing the APA UN internship I have largely moved on to other projects, yet my connection to the UN remains strong. My role as Secretary with the NGO Committee on HIV/AIDS comes at a critical time, for in 2012 the United States will for the first time host the International AIDS Conference, the pre-eminent global scientific meeting on the epidemic. And yes, I even find time to complete program requirements as I inch ever closer to candidacy for that elusive doctorate in social and personality psychology at the City University of New York.

In our work at the United Nations we often hear the question, "What can psychology offer in addressing the practical concerns of our time?" In other words, is psychology ultimately practical when it comes to international policy? We interns, current and past, are ambassadors for our discipline in addressing this question through daily conversations with the many policy makers and international representatives with whom we interact. What might our response to the question of practicality be? Perhaps we might take a cue from social psychologist Kurt Lewin when he famously wrote, "there is nothing so practical as a good theory."