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Ilana Landsberg-Lewis insists her life has not felt scripted: ‘My parents views on things were very clear, but I never felt coerced and I never felt there was an expectation that I would follow in anyone’s footsteps.’ (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)
Ilana Landsberg-Lewis insists her life has not felt scripted: ‘My parents views on things were very clear, but I never felt coerced and I never felt there was an expectation that I would follow in anyone’s footsteps.’ (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)

Can Ilana Landsberg-Lewis keep her father’s AIDS cause in the spotlight? Add to ...

The question seemed innocent enough: “Does anyone know a good eye doctor?” But this was no simple ask.

Six grandmothers, fresh off various flights from sub-Saharan Africa, had arrived at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, whose offices span the fifth floor of a wheezy, converted warehouse in Toronto’s Chinatown.

Back home, the problems these women face are overwhelming and immense: AIDS is still the leading cause of death around the world for women 15 to 49 years old, and grandmothers shoulder the weight of the aftermath. They endure extreme poverty, mass eviction and even sexual violence (younger and older women are often targeted on the mistaken assumption that they don’t carry the disease) as they struggle to raise children, often by the handful, who have been orphaned by the virus.

The plan was for the grandmothers to fly on to Vancouver, where they would testify at a “people’s tribunal” on Saturday, staged at University of British Columbia and adjudicated by (admittedly biased) judges such as Gloria Steinem. This bit of theatre was conceived to promote a crucial point: that the international community and its governments should fight for these long-forgotten women; that without them, all is lost.

The immediate problem, however, was far more mundane. The grannies needed glasses.

Without bifocals, it became clear, they would strain to read their testimonies and Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, the foundation’s 48-year-old executive director, would have none of it.

“I could ask my doctor,” one member of her staff offered.

“We need him to do it now and we need him to do it for free,” Ms. Landsberg-Lewis said, pausing, in rare moment of repose, near the reception desk, dressed in one of the flowing dresses she favours. “If you’re uncomfortable, I will speak to him directly if you get me the number.”

And then she was off, down the hall, to meet the grandmothers over a takeaway lunch of braised oxtail and rice, washed down with cold pineapple juice from a can. The meal ended on a rousing note – a song composed by the grandmothers in Zulu as a tribute to their own tenacity (“You hit a woman, you hit a rock”). Sitting in a folding chair, Ms. Landsberg-Lewis tapped a sandalled foot, keeping time.

You don’t say no to Stephen

Icons of Stephen Lewis – veteran politician, famed broadcaster and rock-star diplomat – are everywhere at the foundation. His face is on the flyers at the front desk. More photos of him, on his travels across Africa, ornament the walls. He continues to chair the board of the organization, which still bears his name.

But behind her father’s spectre, it’s Ms. Landsberg-Lewis who actually holds the reins. Under her tenure, the foundation has morphed from a wisp of an idea floated around her kitchen table 10 years ago into a non-governmental organization with a staff of 27 that has disbursed $72-million to support more than 300 grassroots groups fighting the devastation of AIDS in 15 African countries.

The foundation prides itself on keeping administrative and fundraising costs to 10 per cent of its budget. It aims to empower African women – not bureaucrats – to implement their own solutions to fight AIDS, which include kitchen gardens to feed their families, home-based health care, microcredit grants and music therapy to help them cope with loss.

“Everybody knows and adores Stephen Lewis. People think he’s a Canadian hero and assume he’s been running the place,” says Mary Coyle, one of the longest-serving directors on the foundation’s board. “Actually, she’s been running the place.”

There is no argument from Mr. Lewis, who describes himself as “a happy addendum” to the foundation. “I have graduated into the ether and I love it.”

But Ms. Landsberg-Lewis – a mother of two young boys, a former labour lawyer who spent 10 years working in New York for the United Nations on women’s rights – has happily shunned the spotlight until now. She jokes that she finds the idea of anyone writing a profile about her “revolting,” agreeing to be profiled as a sacrifice for a cause.

(As a child, she was painfully shy. “Whenever there was a crowd, a party at the house or people from the NDP over, Ilana would disappear,” recalls her mother, journalist Michele Landsberg. “I would find her later reading a book alone behind some tree.”)

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