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First Person: Stephen Lewis

On making a world of difference

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Pique: Why is it so important for them each to tell their own story?

SL: Just because they have this visitor who’s indirectly helping them and they just want me to know personally what’s involved. They don’t want me not to know who they are as individuals and what they’re dealing with.

Pique: Your “Grandmothers to Grandmothers” campaign has been a great success, raising well over $1 million in a year and a half. You brought 100 grandmothers from 14 African countries to Canada and introduced them to grandmothers here. Why was it so important to build solidarity between the African and Canadian grandmothers?

SL: I don’t want to pretend that that was carefully calculated or thought out. The idea of engaging with the grandmothers was my older daughter’s idea. She runs the foundation. And it was Ilana who came to me and said “Dad, there’s something happening in all of our projects. We’re hearing more and more about grandmothers and they seem to be completely abandoned, deeply in need, no one’s doing anything for them. Shouldn’t we be doing something special?” I said “Sure. What do you have in mind?” And she said, “How about a grandmothers to grandmothers campaign… We should be making the grandmothers of Canada fully aware of what the grandmothers of Africa are coping with. And we should make the grandmothers of Africa understand how much support they have.”

(On the eve of the International AIDS conference in Toronto in 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation brought 100 African grandmothers to Canada to meet their counterparts here.)

… (I)t was the most intense and extraordinary two and a half days I’ve witnessed in a very long time. It was really something to behold. And the bond of solidarity that was built between the two groups was extraordinary. When we held our first press conference… in March of 2006… there were four grandmothers chapters in Canada. And now there are 177. Coast to coast there are grandmothers groups and they are incredibly strong. They’re women of a certain age, some of whom have resources, all of whom have energy, many of whom have time. It’s like unleashing a movement. And the grandmothers in Africa are now networking and tying together. They’re so emboldened and they’re so excited that they have this understanding in Canada. Apart from the money, which is desperately important and very valuable, there is real understanding developing…

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