“We never feel it’s the Ilana show. For somebody who has such a leadership position, she’s not afread to be emotional and has a real sense of humility,” says Alexis MacDonald, the foundation’s first hire, who now runs external relations.
The problem is this: For the past few years, donations to the Stephen Lewis Foundation have levelled out to about $10-million a year. Ms. Landsberg-Lewis worries that the recession has pushed AIDS off the radar. Every month, she receives 100 to 200 proposals for new programs the foundation cannot afford to fund. She would like to boost the money currently raised to $15-million or $20-million in the next five years. And so an organization that has “never even done a cocktail party” is now looking at new ways to raise funds, tapping into Bay Street, staging concerts and nudging Ms. Landsberg-Lewis a little more into the spotlight.
“This is one of the greatest calamities ever to befall human beings on this planet and it’s one of those moments where you’ve just got to do something,” she says.
These are, of course, echoes of the phrases her father used when he served as United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, a time when he was “spending day after day with death, visiting countries that were graveyards and hospitals that were morgues.”
A few years into the job, on a family holiday in Costa Rica, his darkness was palpable. “I’ve seen him feel sad, angry, incredulous, outraged and pained. This was different,” Ms. Landsberg-Lewis says. “We asked him whether there was something to be done that could ameliorate the depth of his own angst.”
The answer came in the form of a phone call from her father a few months later, asking her to help launch the foundation.
“I heard the intensity in his voice. There was no hesitation. Not for one millisecond. This was Stephen and this was my father and you don’t say ‘no’ unless you have a really, really good reason.”
At the time, she didn’t. Ms. Landsberg-Lewis relished her work, but she had just given birth to her son Zev and was on maternity leave from her job at Unifem. It was the spring after Sept. 11, 2001, and she recalls holding her newborn in a park near her Spanish Harlem apartment and the Cloisters Museum, watching a group of boys chase each other in a game of tag. One of them took off his shirt and wrapped it around his head like a turban.
“The other boys went berserk and started screaming, ‘Kill him. He’s a terrorist.’ I sat there with my four-month-old and thought, ‘I am not raising my son in the United States right now.’ ” Nor did she have any idea how she would feel putting Zev in daycare when her maternity leave expired just a few months after giving birth. (“What kind of government believes in family values and then expects a woman to go back to work with a 12-week old?” she asks.)
A few months later, she was back home. “I have fallen about one millimetre from the tree,” she concedes.
Be anything. Just not a Tory
Ms. Landsberg-Lewis grew up in Scarborough. Her father was leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party for much of her childhood. Her grandfather, David Lewis, simultaneously led the federal NDP. Her mother, a journalist, wrote about rape, prostitution and discrimination against women. Her brother, Avi, a documentary filmmaker, is married to author and activist Naomi Klein. She has a sister, Jenny, who has her own casting company.
“My mother tells this story of lying in bed when she was pregnant with me, not thinking, ‘Please let this child have all their fingers and toes,’ but thinking, ‘Please let this child not turn out to be a Tory. She can be anything. Just not a Tory,’ ” Ms. Landsberg-Lewis tells me, this time sitting in her overgrown backyard, near Dufferin Grove Park. A cluster of Lego sits like a centrepiece on the table.
She bought the place, a 100-year-old semi, four years ago with her partner, Lorraine Segato, the lead singer of the Parachute Club, whom she met through friends. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple were married in 2009. (“You know that joke? ‘What does a lesbian bring to a first date? A U-Haul.’ ”) Their ceremony was presided over by American playwright Eve Ensler, her friend and the author of The Vagina Monologues. Their wedding song was At Last, by Etta James.