ACON CEO Stevie Clayton has resigned after 12 years with the organisation.

After nine years at the head of ACON, a teary Clayton announced her resignation to an assembly of staff and volunteers last Thursday evening, citing her 49th birthday as the predominant reason for her departure.

This is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I love ACON with a passion … and it feels like getting a divorce while you’re still in love, Clayton told the crowd.

There are two reasons for this decision. On Monday I turned 49 and unfortunately we live in a society where, when a woman turns 50 she can’t change careers. And secondly, I’ve seen too many people in NGOs who stay on as CEO for too long.

September 30 will be Clayton’s last day with the company, giving the board just over two months to conduct an international search for her replacement.

It’s going to be very difficult to find someone with the same level of passion and commitment, ACON president Mark Orr said before thanking his CEO for her outstanding contribution to our community and the HIV sector.

You are truly one of our community’s heroes and we mark the end of an era today … there will probably be jaws dropping as people hear the news.

Indeed the announcement took many in the community by shock, but all wished her well in her future endeavours.

AFAO CEO Don Baxter called Clayton a fiesty and politically astute leader.

Her energy and forceful style has kept ACON as one of the top three HIV community organisations in the world; that may sound like a big call – but part of my job these days as deputy Chair of the International Council of AIDS Service Organisations is to identify best practice around the world and promote it as a desirable model for cities of the global south to learn from – Sydney is fortunate to have ACON at the very top of the list.

As CEO Stevie implemented the ACON Board’s bold decision in 2000 to move to a GLBT health organisation – a direction that caused many people unease and for some, dismay, particularly many people with HIV were concerned it would lose its focus on their needs.

But a decade on ACON now engages with more people with HIV than it did previously – often through it’s non-HIV programs. This was a visionary decision which was implemented extraordinarily well.

Former ACON President Adrian Lovney added his praise for Clayton’s community efforts over the years.

She has put her heart, soul and seemingly limitless energy into ACON as well as a range of community organisations for nealy 20 years. In her time as Deputy CEO and then CEO she has lead ACON to become sophisticated, professional and internationally respected, he said.

When she became CEO and ever since, Stevie threw herself into learning more about HIV clinical science and epidemiology. Like many women leading HIV/AIDS organisations she knew she would be tested for her knowledge of the science as well as the detail of gay mens’ sex lives.

Positive Life president Jason Appleby also acknowledged Clayton’s contributions.

Under her leadership and vision, ACON has consistently evolved to meet the changing and diverse needs of people with HIV. NSW has been an acknowledged leader in the Australian HIV response, in both the care and support of people with HIV and the prevention of HIV transmission, he said.

There can be no doubt that Stevie plays no small part in that success. Positive Life NSW would like to congratulate and thank Stevie for her ongoing commitment to, and work for, people with HIV in NSW we wish her every success into the future.

Bobby Goldsmith Foundation CEO Bev Lange also added her well wishes.

There is no question Stevie has been a robust advocate and activist for both gay and lesbian health and those with HIV, she said.

ACON is a large and diverse community organisation that operates as both a peak organisation and a service provider in a changing HIV landscape, which will no doubt present many management and policy challenges for the person taking over as CEO at ACON.

I’m sure I speak for BGF’s board, volunteers, staff and clients in thanking Stevie for her tremendous contribution and wishing her well for the future.

Clayton has not outlined where she might head next but did allude to a possible change of sector.

I haven’t decided what I’ll do yet, I’ve got until September 30 to look around and plan out my future career, but I’m wide open about where that might be, she told Sydney Star Observer.

Unfortunately when a woman turns 50 it’s incredibly difficult to change the sector that you work in – you can change jobs but you can’t change sectors, and ACON is sort of the pinnacle of the HIV sector in Australia, so once you’ve been CEO there’s not many other places to go.

No part of this decision is about wanting a break from the community though. I’ve always done lots of volunteer work on top of my paid work, so depending on what paid job I get I might look at what volunteer work I could continue to do within the community.

Clayton cited the organisation’s ability to achieve a stabilisation of HIV infection rates in NSW as one of her proudest achievements over her tenure but said there was a lot more to be achieved over the coming years.

There’s a whole lot of work to do that’s about HIV prevention and about moving from stability to decreasing the rates of HIV and that’s in a context of a changing world and changing engagement with HIV. There’s a real need to look at that whole area in a very different way to how we’ve had to look at it over the last 10 years, she said.

In the strategic plan we’ve set a course that’s about trying to develop our GLBT health work. But it’s interesting that since 2000, when we embarked on that course to make ACON more GLBT health focused, the future is now about developing a whole new area of client work, which isn’t GLBT related – which is about building our work for positive women and their families. and building our work for drug used.

It’s one of those strange things that’s happened within society – we had to build a whole range of programs, for instance around drug use, for people in the GLBT community because the generalist services were not welcoming but then a whole lot of other people decided our programs were better because they’re less judgemental and more welcoming.

I think it really is symbollic of the way society is changing, that it’s not just about giving us increased rights but it’s about being one with us and wanting to be a part of our community.

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