He is an important and a remarkable Canadian voice in the world. As former Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, reflected at a University of Toronto symposium last year, the one-time United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa is someone that articulates "a Canadian vision of the world that had never been heard before."
In 1984, when Brian Mulroney won the federal election and called on Joe Clark to assume the Foreign Ministry, Clark's only condition for accepting the appointment, proving Lewis' nonpartisan appeal, was that Canada's 18th Prime Minister appoints Lewis as Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations. A child of an important NDP dynasty, Lewis used his position at the UN as a culprit to advocate to make the HIV epidemic a universal issue and eloquently became the international voice for millions of famine victims in Ethiopia.
From politics, to diplomacy, academia and now activism, Lewis, the son David Lewis, the legendary advocate and architect of Canada's multiculturalism policy, is now quietly and effectively creating a signature difference in many corners of the world. To the African continent, where I was born and raised and where charity organizations are our Tim Horton's, Lewis' efforts have been far-reaching.
In an effort that is grassroots, different and authentic, he has partnered with African women via his foundation leaders to have them become the main actors in combating their own problems. In a continent where the women have, for the most part, taken a backseat and been mere observers to the social ills of their community, the foundation is empowering them to be the agent of change and lead the conversation on a slew of pressing local issues.
The idea is simple but unique among international organizations. According to the foundation: "It's time to change the conversation -- to challenge our understanding and beliefs about how philanthropy can truly improve the human condition in times of crisis."
Last night, at the Isabel Bader Theatre in downtown Toronto, the foundation hosted a sold-out talk called Ask Her and allowed us all a chance to interact and have a conversation with some of the remarkable women of Africa. What an impressive list of speakers.
For the foundation as well as Lewis, according to a press release: "The Ask Her Talks is intended to give the podium to five knowledgeable, dynamic and informed African women who will speak about what happens when crises strike, such as the AIDS pandemic, Ebola, and sexual violence in conflict, and the role that philanthropy should now be playing to meet these challenges."
I had a conversation with one of the speakers, Netty Musanhu. The Zimbabwean lawyer and Executive Director of the Musasa Project is passionate about the work she is involved in and the impact it is having on the ground.
Her group was founded in 1988 with a simple dream of wanting to empower Zimbabwean women fight domestic violence and advocate for their rightful place in society. Since then, they have focused on confronting, according to her, "gender-based violence, support women and children affected by domestic violence, and lobby nationally for legal and legislative reform." In addition, they "support women's needs by providing shelter services, psycho-social and peer counselling, legal support and training in advocacy in the organization's domestic violence and survivors' clubs."
The Stephen Lewis foundation has funded more than 1000 such initiatives in Africa and has partnered with hundreds more small organizations to meet its objectives. Canadians have helped raise untold resources, over $20 million, for its Grandmothers initiatives alone to make Lewis's dream a reality. To the African grandmothers, who have taken a larger responsibility to raise their grandchildren as many are becoming orphans because of HIV/AIDS, Lewis describes them as citizens "who share the setbacks and the joys, the agonies and the raptures, the struggles and the hopes of their orphan grandchildren."
In its 12-year history, the Lewis Foundation has become one of the most trusted international charity organizations in the world. To countless Canadians, such as myself, he has been an inspiration, as we strive to fulfill the promise of our international Canadian citizenship.
I was glad to have met Stephen Lewis last night and have a brief conversation with him and his equally impressive wife, Michele Landsberg. They are both kind, compassionate, passionate and they are everything I want to aspire to become.
As the great one-time Ottawa, the great Marion Dewar, correctly reflected -- "To end global poverty and injustice, we need to recognize and nurture women's leadership." Stephen Lewis knows that more than anyone I know.