45 Years, Millions of Lives: An Interview with Leah Margulies

leah margulies
Leah Margulies is an attorney, human rights advocate, and policymaker who has dedicated her career to bringing corporations to task over their activities that violate human rights.

“Join other people who are passionate about what you’re passionate about, and things will just happen.”

This is how my interview ended with Leah Margulies, a longstanding figure in the world of activism and corporate accountability. A civil rights lawyer, a policy maker, an attorney, an author – Leah’s resume stretches across almost five decades of powerful work. Her career represents the best possible outcome when philanthropy and activism intersect – years of positive action, progress, and the ability to look back and see how far we’ve come.

As a founder and former chair of the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT) – today known as the organization Corporate Accountability – Leah spearheaded the international campaign against immoral marketing practices for infant formula substitutes. This campaign, more commonly known as the Nestle Boycott, marks one of the biggest fights Leah has been a part of in her career dedicated to advocacy.

Leah was born in New York in 1944. In their youth, her parents were members of the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of the Socialist Party, and Leah grew up surrounded by a culture of activism and liberalism. At the age of nine, Leah drove across the country to vacation with her parents in Florida. Over the course of that three-day trip – this was the age before I-95, after all – Leah would see things that transformed her outlook on culture, equality, and human rights.

“I remember stopping at gas stations with ‘Whites Only’ signs,” she said. “And I remember my parents saying that they wouldn’t go into any restaurant that was ‘Whites Only,’ so we made food in the car the whole way down. It took three days to get there – it was quite a long trip, and I just remember talking with my parents the whole way down about what I was seeing.”

The trip had a massive impact. At thirteen, she shocked her middle school teachers by writing a research paper on the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1959 and 1960, she spent her summers working on civil rights projects in the South. And by her college years, Leah found herself falling naturally into politics and the civil rights movement. Boston University, her alma mater, had been home to Martin Luther King, Jr. When Leah was in residence, BU housed Howard Zinn, and ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of whose family Leah lived with for her junior year. Civil rights, politics, activism – it was everywhere, but it wasn’t enough.

“It sort of surrounded my life,” she said. “But in all honesty, I felt pretty out of it, in large part because women were just not really valued in the movement.”

This detached feeling continued until after Leah got married and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. At the age of twenty-three – the same age I was on the day of our interview – she walked into her first Women’s Liberation meeting.

“It totally changed my life, in every aspect,” she said. “It was transformational for me. When I got home, I woke up my husband at the time and I said, ‘This is where I’m going to be for the rest of my life. And I want to play the flute.’ And I have no idea where that came from,” she adds, laughing, “other than once I picked up somebody’s flute and discovered that unlike a lot of people, I could just naturally play.”

Music was a critical part of Leah’s political education. She was deeply involved in the Women’s Liberation movement in New Haven and was a founding member of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band, where she played flute and bass. It was through the band that Leah started on her next mission – global corporations.

Working with another member of the band, Leah joined a research collective that focused on the spread of transnational corporations – not just their growth, but the ways they seemed to grow out of control, skirting restrictive legislation in the same way a creeping vine might avoid patches of shade.

“I realized there were no laws in place that could oversee the activities of global corporations,” she said. “It was clear even then that even if a company was headquartered in the U.S., there was no loyalty to the U.S. There was a loyalty to the corporation and the bottom line of that corporation, but they didn’t see themselves as being ‘loyal’ to the United States. They saw themselves as being loyal to their global market.”

This realization formed the backbone of Leah’s advocacy – a critical piece of information that would impact the rest of her career.

“We were trying to teach people how we saw transnational corporations operating above and beyond national boundaries and national law,” she said. “We saw how that could be a threat to democracy, because there was no way for people to use the usual ways that democracies, existing within national boundaries, assert some control over commercial activities. And that’s still true today.”

This forms the basis of the concept called corporate accountability – holding corporations to task for their actions in global markets, in advertising, and in activities that may violate human rights and damage the environment. The Exxon-Valdez oil spill, the Flint water crisis, the fight against water privatization – today, many of the most prominent campaigns we follow have to do with corporations taking their “profits above all” mentalities too far.

Today, organizations like Corporate Accountability – founded as INFACT in the 1970s – fight to hold corporations responsible for their actions.

Perhaps the best example of corporate accountability is the campaign that turned Leah’s organization into the nonprofit it is today. In the 1970s, global corporations like Nestle and Bristol-Meyers marketed their infant formulas to women across the world, relying on predatory or outright immoral marketing tactics to sell their breast milk substitute products. Especially in developing countries, the results of these exploitative marketing practices were catastrophic.

“We knew that if you marketed these products where there was no clean water,” Leah said. “No refrigeration, where people couldn’t read the labels, and people didn’t have enough money, so they diluted the formula – we knew it was predictable that the end result was going to be sick and dead babies.”

The vision was clear: an international boycott of products from companies like Nestle, companies that were the biggest players and the worst offenders would pressure them to change practices. But something on such a large scale wouldn’t happen overnight.

“I knew I thought a boycott would be most effective, but I couldn’t actually tell the national church organizations that I worked for at the time that that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “There was about two years there where I thought, ‘either I’ll be fired or I’ll be loved.’”

Leah was in the process of starting INFACT, which began as grass roots activists working at the local and regional level to support the churches’ corporate responsibility activities at the national level. She knew that a boycott had to grow from grass roots advocacy.

It took two years of hard campaigning for the National Council of Churches to endorse INFACT’s boycott.

“INFACT was a collective to begin with,” she said. “We didn’t know how to, you know, organize an organization! When it started out, it was just a handful of us. I am always amazed at how we were able to pull this off.”

In spite of the small team’s limitations, she found herself in a unique position bridging the gap between nationwide major organizations and donors and the INFACT campaign. “Working within the national church bodies, I was able to communicate with the so-called ‘middle America.’ And so, all of a sudden, I could reach out to literally millions of people.”

Through direct mail drops, articles in magazines like The Methodist Women’s Magazine, and advertisements designed by the Public Media Center in San Francisco that ran on the back cover of Mother Jones, Leah’s team made progress.

“All of a sudden, thousands of dollars just poured in through the mail,” she said. “And within a year, we decided we would try to get a Senate hearing on this issue.”

INFACT approached Senator Edward Kennedy in 1977, only to be shut down by Kennedy’s Chief of Staff.

“He said to us, ‘’This is very interesting, and it’s definitely an issue that’s got traction. But how do we know that the general public supports this? You have to demonstrate that the public cares. ‘ And so, we marshaled all our support through the churches, through colleges and universities, through public media, through whatever we had, and within less than a year we got more than 50,000 letters on Senator Kennedy’s desk, and we got our Senate Hearing.”

The Senate Hearing led to a direct appeal to the World Health Organization, asking it to ask governments to develop a code that prohibited predatory marketing tactics and protected both breastfeeding and babies. In 1979, WHO held a conference to discuss the issue, inviting INFACT and other advocacy NGOs that had joined the campaign to participate in the talks.

“It was the first time, to our knowledge, that activists and advocacy NGOs were invited into a public policy forum at the UN,” Leah said. “There were lots of official NGOs at the UN, like the Soroptimists. You know – big, big organizations. But not little activist groups.”

The Nestle boycott resulted in adoption by the World Health Assembly in 1981 of The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. And that “little activist group” that started it all would go on to become a powerhouse in the corporate responsibility field, taking on General Electric, the tobacco industry, and a new name – Corporate Accountability International.

Today, modern philanthropy has expanded far past advertisements on the back covers of magazines. Leah’s unique position as a female leader – especially in a time when leadership roles were traditionally male-dominated – has given her an excellent perspective on the changes we see today.

“I haven’t been involved in directly raising funds for anything in recent years, but I know that women have been at the core of INFACT and later Corporate Accountability International, right from the beginning,” she said. “I took everything that I learned from the women’s movement, and from my education about the global spread of transnational corporations, into INFACT. And so right from the start, we empowered women. We had women on the board right from the beginning, but it took a few years before there were other women in real leadership positions. Women had an increasing leadership and strategic planning roles in the organization.

“Without knowing a whole lot,” she adds, “I feel very confident that the philanthropy community has also embraced women’s leadership. It’s just amazing and beautiful to me what’s been happening in the last eight to ten years, where feminism has bloomed again. And it’s much broader, it’s much more accepted, it’s much more mainstream–which is both good and bad. But generally, it’s wonderful and so encouraging.”

The spread of feminist thought and feminist philanthropy have helped us make waves as a society. It’s not enough to simply identify that something is wrong – it takes a certain kind of person to take those next steps, to stand up for what is right, and to make a difference.

“You can’t do it alone,” Leah said. “You have to connect with other people who are as passionate about what you’re passionate about, so you can actually make change. I think we see that with the youth on the gun control campaign, with what’s happening around climate activism, with justice reform and protesting mass incarceration, with everything that’s happening around protesting the separation of families. What is going to make a difference in each of these is the ability of groups to connect with each other and build stronger demands through collective activism. That’s the only way I see us making progress.”

She finished with this: “Join other people who are passionate about what you’re passionate about, and things will just happen.”

Almost five decades ago, twenty-three-year-old Leah Margulies came home from her first Women’s Liberation meeting, woke her then-husband, and told him she’d found a place where she would be for the rest of her life. Today, twenty-three-year-old writers are joining forces with teenage activists and centuries-old foundations alike to make something incredible out of the hands we’ve been dealt. Together, we’re changing the face of the world, one passion project at a time.

“Through our work, millions of lives have been saved,” Leah said. “Millions of incidents of illness have been prevented. Millions of lives have been affected by our campaigns.”

The journey toward a million saved lives starts with one step – a step I hope we all can take together.

Leah Margulies is an attorney, human rights advocate, and policymaker who has dedicated her career to bringing corporations to task over their activities that violate human rights. She has served as a founding member of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band, co-director of the Women’s Research Project, and the Director of the Infant Formula Program at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Leah is a founder and former chair of INFACT (Infant Formula Action Coalition), which would later become Corporate Accountability. Today, she lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a staff attorney for CAMBA Legal Services, preventing evictions of low income and poor Brooklynites. She still plays the flute.  

To learn more about Corporate Accountability and their current campaigns, visit their website at www.corporateaccountability.org.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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