A Jewish Winemaker in Nazi Germany

As we age, our story of origin and the way it shaped our life often emerges as a powerful theme, calling us to explore it more deeply. That’s what’s happened to me.

For many years, my communication work was driven by short-term deadlines. Now I’m finally looking back at the rich family story I inherited. It took me time to understand how my father’s moral courage in saving his family from the menace of fascism in Hitler’s Germany had inspired my own commitment to repair the world as best I could.

My father arrived in the US as a refugee with four dollars to his name. What world had he grown up in, the son of a Jewish winemaker in the Rhineland? How did the family business first prosper, then fail as rising anti-Semitism drove Jews out of the industry?

I never had a chance to meet my grandfather Heinrich Levy. There was almost no information on the internet about Jews’ role in the wine trade before and during the Nazi years. I decided to dig deeper and discovered a vanished world with deep resonances for the present.

Here’s my grandfather’s story.

How do buildings make you feel?

A film portrait of architect Christopher Alexander asks the question

Places for the Soul, Ruth Landy

Have you ever wondered why some places lift your spirits while others bring you down? Or considered how the built environment around you affects your feelings in the everyday?

I’ve obsessed over these questions for as long as I can remember. That’s what led me to make a film about Christopher Alexander — a quest for answers.

Places for the Soul is my half-hour intimate portrait of Alexander at work on two major commissions in Japan and California. It’s available for the first time in a digital restoration from the Video Project and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Here’s the backstory about an architect and thinker whose maverick approach continues to inspire reverence – and controversy.

Walking in their shoes. Women photojournalists break new ground.

Amy Toensing at Visa

What does visual storytelling through women’s eyes look like in these gender-focused times? Photojournalism is still a man’s world. But this is changing. Three award-winning women photojournalists share what it takes to shoot their complex and compelling subjects in the U.S. and around the world. Here’s my reporting on their remarkable imagery and perspectives gathered at Visa pour l’Image, France’s premier annual photojournalism festival. 

The world is failing breastfeeding moms. We can change that.


“What if governments had a proven, cost-effective way to save babies’ lives, reduce rates of malnutrition,
support children’s health, increase educational attainment and grow productivity?
They do: It’s called breastfeeding.”

Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director


How many countries are supporting women to breastfeed, and protecting and promoting breastfeeding to international standards?

Zero. None.

That’s the shocking conclusion of a new UNICEF/WHO report released in observance of World Breastfeeding Week 2017:

  • Only 40 per cent of children younger than six months are breastfed exclusively – given no other liquids or food – according to a UNICEF/WHO Global Breastfeeding Scorecard.
  • An investment of just $4.70 per newborn could generate $300 billion economic gains by 2025, and save the lives of 520,000 children.

“Breastfeeding gives babies the best possible start in life,” said the new head of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Breastmilk works like a baby’s first vaccine… giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.”

Given these extraordinary benefits why have global breastfeeding rates stagnated at 40 per cent for several decades?

UNICEF probed the global and nutrition communities for answers to this vital questions in a study I was privileged to undertake, Breastfeeding on the Worldwide Agenda.

Breastfeeding champions admitted to major struggles they faced, both external and internal to the community:

  • A lack of high-level leadership, champions and a unified agenda.
  • A David and Goliath effort to counter the growing influence of the breastmilk substitute industry whose sales are projected to hit $70 billion by 2019.  The industry spends more money marketing its products than governments do supporting women to breastfeed and protect them from aggressive marketing.

The community was unanimous in calling for a new advocacy drive for breastfeeding framed for a 21st century world.

Answering this call, the Global Breastfeeding Collective launched last week, a partnership of 20 international agencies focused on increasing political commitment and investment in breastfeeding worldwide.

To advance its ambitious agenda, the Collective must now answer these questions:

  • What decisions are we trying to influence and who has power over them?
  • What actors must we win over to advance our cause?
  • What leverage points will have most impact on these actors – evidence, communication channels, new alliances, high level events?
  • What can we learn from advocates who have shifted social attitudes on smoking in public places, for example, and those who have taken on formidable multinational industries?
  • How can we best place gender equality and women’s voices at the heart of our advocacy?

Savvy answers to these questions can have a transformative impact. It’s high time the flat line of 40% global breastfeeding coverage starts rising. If we can collectively bend it upward towards justice, we will have evidence the world is finally become a more breastfeeding-friendly place.

How women’s health advocates can win in 2017

In 2017, support for international development and global health is under serious threat following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. In Europe, the same forces that propelled Trump to the highest office also threaten to to bring populist, inward-looking governments to power.
Where does the maternal and child health community stand in this shifting global environment?  How can advocates turn this crisis into opportunity? Check out my answer here on The Guardian website.

Why I do this work: the Linzer Torte connection

Communication is an alluring career choice when you grow up bridging differences from an early age.  It’s about making sense, making connections, making a difference. It’s about empathy – shifting your perspective to that of the other person, and learning to communicate from that point of view.

I soon learned the importance of framing as a documentary filmmaker – whether it was images, stories or issues.  As an advocate, I discovered that “reframing” a case could do wonders to advance a cause.

Communicating the change you want, then seeing it happen…that experience got into my blood early, and has stayed with me for the long term.

A ten-year-old girl in Nepal starts secondary school.  A village gains its first health worker in Ethiopia.  Laos’s government re-commits itself to immunization.  Global leaders prioritize women and children.

I’m grateful to have contributed in my small way to something big:  progress toward the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world’s promise to end poverty and inequality.

It meant persuading decision makers, engaging media, telling stories, supporting communities, motivating teams – and building alliances.  It also meant politics, of course – but that comes with the territory.

Today we have a stunning array of communication options at our disposal in a networked universe in constant evolution. It’s altering power relationships and enabling truly global consultation; but it’s also requiring an unprecedented degree of strategic clarity, focused execution and collective action.



“Work is love made visible”, my grandmother used to say.  She was thinking of the time it took to make a Linzer Torte:  fashioning the nutty, spicy dough; laying a delicate lattice pattern over raspberry jam; removing the cake from the oven at just the right moment. She had a recipe, but it was all in the execution: cooking as transformation, and food rapture.

I do this work because it’s the best way I know to give back, supporting change makers with knowledge, experience and creativity skills. The recipe changes with each project, but the commitment is constant.

This is a terrific time to learn from others so I’m devoting this blog to exploring how advocacy, media, data visualization and design are contributing to social impact, notably for health.

Look forward to dialoguing with on this new journey.