Michél Le Gendre

Michél Le Gendre is Executive Assistant to the Development Director at Corporate Accountability International (CAI), an organization that changes corporate behavior through external pressure. Michelle Khalid, a Kenan’s Pathways of Change intern placed at CAI, conducted this interview with Michél in Boston, Massachusets. The following is a narrative of the interview, touching upon his early childhood before continuing on to his insights into business and human rights.

I was born on a small island nation off the Venezuelan coast called Trinidad and Tobago. I spent most of my early life there, up until I was nine years old. My childhood was great, but it was also one of those experiences that taught me the importance of perspective. Growing up, I never felt like my life was a struggle, it just felt normal. I grew up in a single-parent household. I had an amazing network of aunts and uncles, friends of my mom knew who really filled the role of family in my early life. It’s only when I reference my childhood in the framework of living inside the United States that I realize how tough it was at times.

Nonetheless growing up in Trinidad was great in a lot of ways. I had a lot of freedom and I have so many amazing memories of exploring the sugarcane fields and sneaking out to get mangos from my backyard. I was constantly surrounded by amazing people. My early years were dominated by what I know as the island mentality; it was a culture that was really different from the United States. Life in Trinidad was extremely laid back and there was a certain camaraderie that happened on a very deep level that is very different here in the US.

We moved from Trinidad to New Jersey when I was nine years old. I was here on vacation and living with my grandmother for a few months while my mom was back in Trinidad trying to sort all of the paperwork and visa issues. After she came, we ended up living in New Jersey for a year, and then moving to Pennsylvania for 6 years, and then eventually moving to Massachusetts, where I have lived ever since.

My interest in issues of corporate abuse and my eventual interest in Corporate Accountability International evolved in a bit of a roundabout way.  When I was in college, I was studying political science and I was extremely focused on my major. I didn’t really venture out of my sphere of study. I was actually so focused on getting my degree and worrying about credits that originally I didn’t even think about studying abroad. However, as I started thinking about my life after college, I realized that studying abroad was something I really wanted to do and with this new goal in mind, I really changed my mindset about college. I started to focus on making studying abroad a reality and eventually I was able to do a program in Greece.

My semester in Greece was an amazing experience and a really formative part of my college experience, my career goals, and my general outlook on life. My grandmother had put up the money to help me be able to study abroad and with that in mind I really wanted to use every opportunity available to me. I went in thinking this will be the only time I have to travel and I really wanted to get the most out of the experience.

I arrived in Greece during a very interesting part of its history. As I was landing in Athens, Greece was making international headlines because it was in the middle of a massive economic crisis that affected not only itself but also the entire European continent. There were anti-austerity protests and riots all around the country and the entire pressure of the European Union was bearing down on this little Mediterranean country that I had decided to spend the next few weeks.

My program was based on the island of Crete. Which on the surface looked like it was doing great; it was both a tourist hub and housed multiple military bases. I got to eat amazing food and partake in many cultural festivals and celebrations. My time in Crete ended up reminding me a lot of growing up in Trinidad. The island mentality was so prevalent, it was at that time and continued to be a culture of giving and it was like an oasis in what was an extremely tumultuous time in Greece.

In the moments that I would venture outside the tourist areas of Crete I realized the island hadn’t actually escaped what was happening in the rest of the country. There were houses and businesses that had been completely abandoned and there was graffiti just outside the tourist areas. At the time there was a really interesting conversation happening in the country that made itself really evident in Crete. In Greece, there is a strong social welfare mentality and that manifests itself in the fact that almost everything in the country is publically/state owned or in some form of a public partnership. Even the airport of Crete was originally jointly owned by people through the Greek state. However, during the time I was there, that was changing. There was a really large push to sell public land, such as docks, bays, etc., to private entities to help relieve the results of the economic crisis and Greece’s huge debt problem. Even the United States military was concerned about the fact China was sending in a lot of bids to buy public property in Greece. The US knew the control of these points of influence was a way in which individuals, governments, and corporations could gain power. This was the first initial click for me that money, ownership and wealth were a huge indicator of people’s power in the world.  It was the realest representation of groups of people, governments, and corporations taking advantage of misfortune in an effort gain more power. This entire struggle for power was being displayed in a tug of war of influence by China and the US and Greece the people, the government and Greece the private sector during the time I was in Crete.

At the same time, all these politicians and individuals in Greece were pointing out the problems with the austerity measures that were being imposed on the country. The initial austerity measures handed down by the EU really failed to take into account the cultural change socialized change that needed to occur within the Greek people in order for Greece to achieve a better level of economic efficiency. But instead, the economic crisis was approached in a very neoliberal fashion. Policies were being imposed on the Greek people and they were told that if they did not bend to the will of austerity measures, Greece was going to fall apart. During all of this, many political groups in Greece were very vocal about how horrible they found these policies, but they never put forth solutions to fix the problem. There was just an immense power grab between the private sector and the government with no one coming up with viable solutions for what Greece was actually experiencing.

My semester abroad really helped me discover the complex issue of the power of corporations.  And from there I just started researching the subject more in depth. I started studying neocolonialism and the influence of corporate entities in the states in Latin America and Africa. I stumbled across case after case of corporate abuse, from the Water Wars in Bolivia, to the role of Firestone in propping up dictatorship regimes in Sierra Leone. I came to realize that massive swathes of human rights abuses that occurred across borders could be attributed to corporations one way or another. It was staggering to realize that there wasn’t, and still isn’t, any international institution that holds corporations liable for their actions. In fact finding out that countries have regulations to control the way they behave in other countries, corporations do not. Corporations have the ability to impact huge moments in history and more often than not, those impacts have been really negative.

When I came back from Greece I had a lot of pent up frustration. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what that something was. By chance, as I was scrolling through my contacts looking for a summer internship I came across a number that I had in my phone from two years ago. It was for an individual who had worked at Corporate Accountability International with whom I had had a very interesting conversation with about the role of corporations in the 2008 economic downturn. Sort of on a whim I decided to give the number a call, I was completely unprepared but ended up having a really good conversation with the person who picked up the phone and I learned about Corporate Accountability International’s internship program. I applied for an internship position but ended up not getting it because I had no organizing experience. Up until that point, I didn’t even know organizing was something I wanted to go into. But someone on staff really encouraged me to come volunteer instead and I ended up doing that during the Fall. I volunteered with the development team and absolutely fell in love with the work and I decided to apply again, this time for the Spring development internship.

I really realized how much of an impact Corporate Accountability International was having on me when I went to Haiti for three days. During my internship I had been raising money to go to Haiti to install water filters. I knew it was not going to be a permanent fix for the water issues that Haiti was facing and it was a Band-Aid on a much larger problem, but I still thought it was important. CAI really helped me go to Haiti with the right mindset. Staff here really encouraged me to understand the importance of doing things with people and not thinking I was doing this for them. My time at CAI had already taught me that it wasn’t just about what I was doing, but how I was doing it. That was a really immeasurably valuable lesson.

Even my trip to Haiti was not devoid from the affects of corporate abuse. I was in Northern Haiti in a very rural, poor village. This village had one of the biggest open wells we had seen in that trip; with absolutely no filtration system and it provided water for everyone in the village. While we were there, I started to notice that a lot of the families had Coca Cola bottles and water bottles besides their houses. After speaking to the village leaders, I learned that either Coca Cola or the local stores offered free or highly discounted packages of bottled water and Coca Cola. This created a transactional relationship, in which after dropping the bottles off for free or discounted the first couple of times, they started charging the people in the village. These tried to create a system of dependence by convincing the villagers they did not need their own well or their own filtration system because they could rely on Coca-Cola or vendors instead. It was mind-blowing to see even in this microcosm of a moment on this island of Haiti, corporation’s still acted freely and influenced so much. This experience really pushed me to continue to get more involved in Corporate Accountability International. When I came back, I decided to take an apprenticeship with the organization and then eventually became employed.

To put this all in perspective, a year after coming back from Greece I was employed at Corporate Accountability International. It was a really fast and influential year in my life. CAI ended up being an organization that challenged the problems that I thought were important but also did this within an amazing framework. They situate issues in a way that is considerate of the real world impacts these issues have. The organization has created a mindset that presents solutions that are not band-aid fixes, but instead are long-term, systemic solutions. These solutions address both the issues and the way in which we forge ahead in order to build a new landscape that does not allow these issues to come up again.

I have an interesting role in the day to day to day to make that happen. I am part of the development team. We are really on the side of communicating with our members the work and success they contribute to. I work very closely with the data analysis side of things. Right now I am transitioning into the role of executive assistant to the development director. What my job entails from day to day is extremely varied and depends on the day. However, I am really involved in making sure that as an NGO we maximize our resources and use our time as efficiently and effectively as we can. This includes making sure we make proper use of the research we conduct and that we communicate information to our members in the best way possible, while at the same time providing our campaigns’ teams with the internal support they need to make their actions happen most successfully, in organizing the people that make this work possible.

My role at Corporate Accountability International has definitely impacted the way I see social change now. It has helped me develop a much more strategic mindset. I have learned to be a lot more mindful of the actions I take when approaching social change. It is important to understand how to successfully choose actions to ensure that we are as effective as possible. It is also important to be strategic so we can ensure we maximize the actions that we ask our members, allies, and staff to take. The importance of taking a step back, looking at what you want to accomplish, and then planning what to do next, I would say is an invaluable tool I’ve learned to utilize. Strategic, long-term actions have impacts that are greater than anything that can be accomplished in the short term. CAI has also really taught me not to let the human aspect of the work that we do get away from you. A lot of time when you’re working a mile a minute on projects that are so expansive, the people you are doing it for can get lost in the moment, but at CAI I don’t think we let that happen> There is constant talk about the people power.  It’s a priority in our day to day and I think remembering whom you are taking action for is really important.

That really corresponds with the advice I would give someone who wants to get into business and human rights. In life you are going to have to deal with a lot of compromise and to me most compromises boil down to three things: your heart, your mind, and your wallet. If you have to make a choice between following your passion, being intellectually stimulated in the work that you do, or making as much money as you can, then I would advise thinking about which two out of those three will give you the most fulfilling life. For me, I could never imagine living my life not following my passion or not being intellectually interested in the job I chose to do, so finding the career I did became a lot easier. But at the end of the day, everyone has to really think about what they believe is important for a good life and decide what they are willing to compromise for himself or herself—no one else can make that decision for you.