Seventeen years ago, I had the opportunity to take classes from the late Professor Jonathan Mann. As the head of the first Global Programme on AIDS—the precursor to UNAIDS—in the mid-80s, Mann is credited with pioneering the connections between human rights and health. He left an indelible mark on me, inspiring me to enter the field of human rights—a path that eventually led me to philanthropy.
I was a divinity school student at the time, drawn to the exploration of early Christian heretics, but it was in Professor Mann’s class that I learned about the art of persuasion. He would close each class with a “sermonette” expounding on the values and implications of the subject matter —and he would preach.
He said: “Imagine if you were a mad scientist and wanted to invent a disease—call it a ‘super-disease.’ If you wanted it to penetrate to every corner of society and disproportionately ravage those people and communities that are already most vulnerable and marginalized, then make it sexually transmitted—and for that matter, transmitted intravenously through needles.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Jonathan Mann had the prescience to recognize that unless we go for the guttural in defending the human rights of the most marginalized people in the context of HIV/AIDS, then we will fail abysmally in achieving our public health goals.
Levi Strauss & Co. and the Levi Strauss Foundation share this commitment to health and human rights. It is four core company values that serve as the guiding light not only for our business practices but also our response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic: originality, empathy, integrity, and courage.
Our response to this global epidemic dates back to 1982, at a time when it was known as Gay-Related Immune Disorder. Concerned that a mysterious but potentially lethal disease was ravaging members of their community, a group of Levi Strauss employees approached senior management—including Robert D. Haas, our CEO at the time—to ask if they could distribute leaflets in the atrium of our San Francisco headquarters. Their response was unequivocal: We will not only allow you, but we will join you. This reflected concern that these employees would bear the brunt of homophobic stigma. The next day, they spent the noon hour together passing out the leaflets, and because of the presence of Bob Haas and other leaders, more employees than usual stopped to take and read the leaflets—and these employees understood they had the full support of senior management.
In 1983, the Levi Strauss Foundation made the first corporate donation in the fight against HIV/AIDS with a donation to the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. Over the years, more than $40 million in social investments from the company and foundation have helped build several HIV/AIDS service and advocacy organizations from the ground up—not only in San Francisco but also in over 30 countries around the world.
But legacy is not enough. Being first and original is not enough. At Levi Strauss, we believe it is incumbent upon us continually to push the limits of the response to this global epidemic.
That is why six years ago, we became the first corporate foundation to support expanded access to sterile syringes as the only proven method of preventing HIV among intravenous drug users.
And in 2006, Levi Strauss & Co. made a commitment, through the Clinton Global Initiative, to provide comprehensive prevention, treatment, and care to all employees, retirees, and dependents—a work force of more than 11,000 that spans 45 countries. We hope other companies will step up and provide treatment to their employees. We seek to help “change the game” around provision of insurance benefits—perhaps one of the final frontiers in the global fight against AIDS. Only when companies, who are the buyers of insurance, insist on coverage can we hope to tip the balance.
In our programs, policies for employees and campaigns, we have sought to be pioneering, bold and honest. We have sometimes raised a few eyebrows along the way. But as Professor Mann would point out: If you’re not rabble-rousing and raising eyebrows, you’re probably not on the right track.
Daniel Jae-Won Lee is executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation and the vice president of Funders Concerned About AIDS