There is perhaps nothing quite as hypnotic — or humbling — as entering a room to the murmur of more than 100 languages being spoken at once, all conveying varying perspectives on matters crucial to future of humanity.
That’s how La Jollan Cindy Greatrex, a periodic delegate to United Nations summits and conferences (and former president of the La Jolla Town Council) describes it.
“Just like the Olympics, English and French are the (most common) languages the U.N. uses,” along with Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, Greatrex said, noting that because some attendees are from countries where English or the other five official U.N languages are secondary, or not spoken at all, oration must be translated and piped through hearing devices.
Formed in 1945 as an intergovernmental organization of 51 “member states” — each hoping to prevent another conflagration on the scale of World War II — U.N. membership now includes 193 countries.
Greatrex is a member of the United Nations Association of the United States, San Diego Chapter (UNASD). Alongside New York and Washington, D.C., San Diego is one of three U.S. cities whose associations are conferred a consultative status allowing members to represent the U.S. on topics of global importance during U.N. summits.
UNASD has about 180 members, and can send as many as 20 delegates to a given conference. “In general, as a delegate I can speak on any topic that the U.N. covers, which is pretty broad — (including) peacekeeping, education, health care, human rights and children’s rights — at any U.N. convention, anywhere in the world,” said Greatrex, who works in sales for the telemedicine industry, which uses software to diagnose people remotely.
“Quite often we’re just sharing with other countries what’s going on in the U.S., in terms of our economic and social affairs,” she said. “As the name implies, we’re trying to come up with global standards on a very baseline level to reduce war, reduce poverty, promote prosperity and protect the planet — things that every country theoretically wants.”
U.N. association members around the world are typically invited to become a delegate, but may apply to speak at a conference dealing with a topic in which they have expertise. Greatrex serves on the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals committee.
UNASD will hold its annual gala 6 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24 at UC San Diego’s International House (I-House) to coincide with United Nations Day, the date in 1945 when the U.S., U.K., France, Republic of China and Soviet Union came together to ratify the body’s charter.
This year’s theme is Promoting Global Citizenship and Youth Engagement through the organization’s Model United Nation’s program, noted UNASD President and CEO, Bettina Hausmann.
“As you can imagine, it’s people like me in their mid-40s and up who usually go and discuss these subjects, but we have to get our youth more involved because they will carry on the big issues that we’re unable to tackle,” said Hausmann, a South Park resident who has attended U.N. summits around the world.
Blair Sadler, past president and CEO of Rady Children’s Hospital, will be honored during the event. There will be a bar and tray-passed hors d’oeuvres.
“The purpose of the event is to bring speakers and people together to highlight what the U.N. has done over the past year and what their plans are for the next year,” Greatrex said. “People can come to the gala and learn about the U.N. and, if they want, get involved.”
Birth of a global citizen
Greatrex was introduced to the U.N. as a young girl growing up in Riverdale, an upper middle-class neighborhood in The Bronx area of New York City.
Her grandmother, Mollie, worked as a political analyst for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commission (JDC), a Jewish relief organization whose founding focus was broader, and included assisting political prisoners, refugees and those displaced by World War II.
Greatrex’s grandmother was an associate of Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, the U.N.’s second Secretary-General (spokesperson and leader). The JDC collaborated with several U.N. agencies at the time, and its Manhattan office was a short walk from the U.N.’s Secretariat Building (global headquarters).
“My grandmother would walk me to the U.N. on a regular basis and explain that the Secretariat was where the important affairs of the world were being decided on,” Greatrex recalled. “We used to have lunch in the private delegates dining room, which was known for its spectacular views and mediocre food. Children were not allowed in there, but for some reason I was let in. … This definitely left an impression on me.”
As a young girl half a world away, Hausmann was forging a hunger for gender equality and women’s rights in the factories of East Germany (before the fall of the Berlin Wall), where women’s equality was constitutionally guaranteed and tied to achieving socialist objectives.
“I experienced equality to a fault,” Hausmann said. “Every year, beginning in the fifth grade, we had to go into the manufacturing companies for five or six weeks and work there. I know how to wire a house. I know how to build a house. I how to lay a foundation.”
In March, Hausmann attended the U.N.’s 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in New York City.
“This one was particularly important,” she said, noting that eight Millennium Development Goals established by the U.N. in 2000 — including tackling extreme poverty, maternity health and HIV/AIDS — have not been solved and require adoption of “post-2015” strategies. It was also discussed that violence against women around the world needs to be better addressed, she said.
Although some have criticized the United Nations as being elitist or ineffective at handling international conflicts, Greatrex said dealing with anything on a global scale is a slow, daunting process.
“There’s never going to be a time when you’re going to have massive change very quickly, but I think if you look at how we deal with humanitarian affairs alone, through U.N. convoys and education, that things are better than they’ve been — cleaner water, food aide. Education for children in third world countries didn’t exist even 10 years ago. … These are things that in the last 20 years have really improved the quality of life for people all over the world.”
As far as its peacekeeping mission — the U.N.’s core objective in 1945 — Greatrex said the organization continues to seek disarmament around the world.
“It’s not easy because there are these groups on the radar, like Isis, that nobody would have even thought of years ago,” she said. “When you look at World Wars I and II, even Vietnam, people were on different sides of the line and they fought each other. That whole premise has changed. It’s completely different with IEDs and fright groups coming up that aren’t even specifically attached to a country … but I think in general the U.N. is doing all they can to promote counter-terrorism and to promote sanctions for those countries that are (enabling terrorism).”
Hausmann said the predominance of U.N.-like intergovernmental organizations in works of science fiction, such as the Galactic Federation (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), United Federation of Planets (“Star Trek”) and Galactic Republic/Empire (“Star Wars”) suggest an enduring and intuitive need for such structures.
“It seems even the filmmakers have accepted the fact that there will be a body where planets or galaxies come together to tackle certain issues — peace and scarcity of resources,” Hausmann said. “For me, I cannot imagine
IF YOU GO:
United Nations Association of San Diego Gala, 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24 International House, UCSD campus, 9500 Gilman Drive #0550. Cost: $40. Reservations/information:
(619) 233-3970 or firstname.lastname@example.org UNASD membership: $25 for first-time members