helm at struggling La Leche League Hedy Nuriel outlines her vision for the breastfeeding support organization By Eryn McGary
La Leche League, the international nonprofit organization dedicated to mother-to-mother breastfeeding support, has been in flux for several years now. Fewer supporters buying membership and literature-the two financial mainstays of the organization-has led to significant layoffs at the Schaumburg-based headquarters, and a general feeling of instability at the organization.
Now, a new executive director, management expert Hedy Nuriel, has been hired to take control of the struggling nonprofit. The first executive director to be appointed from outside La Leche League's own ranks, Nuriel previously was chief executive of HAVEN, an Oakland County, Mich., organization for victims and perpetrators of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. A certified social worker with a master's degree from the University of Michigan, Nuriel brings what one board member hailed as "passion, years of experience and a fresh perspective that is sure to unite all of us."
La Leche was founded by seven Chicago-area women in 1956 to combat shockingly low breastfeeding rates-numbers had dipped to 20 percent. Today, when breastfeeding rates are once again on the decline, La Leche is a global behemoth with more than 7,000 volunteers, called leaders, in 67 countries holding group meetings each year.
Nuriel recently spoke with Chicago Parent about her goals, qualifications and hopes for La Leche.
Q: What brought you to La Leche League? A: I've worked for the past 23 years in violence against women, so my career path up until now has been working with women, just in a different field. I breastfed my children, and I was very interested in La Leche League as a brand new mom living in Israel. It never occurred to me that 27 years later I would be a part of this organization. I was working in Michigan, and my oldest son moved to Chicago. He kept saying he'd really like us to move here-I guess once you breastfeed, you keep that attachment to that child whether they like it or not. When I saw this job posting, I thought, "This is an organization near and dear to my heart." They liked me. I liked them. A match was made.
Q: What about the organization attracted you? A: Its mission. Breastfeeding is very, very critical for the health of a baby and its mother. I always believed in breastfeeding, not only for my own children, but for other women I knew as well. When I'd find out someone was pregnant, I'd say, "Of course, you're going to be breastfeeding," and I'd tell her everything I could. That is a critical thing we should be doing-getting everyone on board. Q: How are you suited to the job? A: I'm the first person they've ever hired who is not a [volunteer group] leader. I have not been trained, and I am not accredited. It was a big step for the organization to hire someone who didn't come from within. They were getting people who had the breastfeeding [leadership] experience, but not the management experience.
Q: How is La Leche League organized? What are its unique challenges? A:Our volunteers are the leaders in their communities, and we have 7,000 or 8,000 leaders around the world. They work with mothers, sometimes at a church, at their own home or at a community center, helping these moms breastfeed. There are 1,000 questions that come up [among] those who are thinking about breastfeeding and among those who already are. For example, a mom might be on medication, and she wants to know if it's good or bad, and if it will cause problems. Another mom may have a baby who's crying a lot, and she wants to know, "Am I doing something wrong?" You don't want to run to your physician-who may or may not know the answer-every time your baby burps the wrong the way. [With La Leche League], you can go to a fellow mother who is trained and knows the answer to your questions. It really is a system that works … mothers who help other mothers.
Q: But with more than 7,000 leaders in 67 countries, how can you be sure everyone disseminates accurate information? A: To become a leader, [a volunteer must] have been a breastfeeding mother herself and attended La Leche League meetings. She can then approach her group leader if she is really interested in [starting her own group]. There is a learning and accreditation process, [which involves] passing a test, and continuing education. Our leaders keep up with the latest research and things that are happening in the field. There are continually new studies, so our books are being revised all the time. Compared to my experience 27 years ago, the information available now is completely unbelievable-how to position your baby, medications, how breastfeeding fits with current lifestyles. When I was breastfeeding, I got one book [The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding], and a pump that looked like the horn kids have on their bikes. Now you can buy breast pumps that will express your milk while you're at your desk, and no one will even know what you're doing. Our leaders have to keep up with those advances.
Q: So how do leaders keep up with such a quickly changing field? A: All leaders who pay their dues receive a publication called Leaven, [that highlights] new information and looks at leaders and groups doing new and exciting things others might want to copy. For new mothers, we have a magazine called New Beginnings. It examines issues like weaning, and addresses lots of questions breastfeeding mothers have. Our Web site is unbelievably complete. We also have an international conference every other year, and about 4,000 people come to that. The next one will be in Washington, D.C., in 2005. Each state has local conferences, and leaders can meet regionally as well.
Q: That brings up an interesting point: Is it difficult to regulate information when the issues facing each region-and nation-are so vastly different? A: It's true that what works in inner-city Chicago may not work in Guatemala. Our basic philosophy stays the same, but how leaders deliver the information will vary. They do have the freedom to make their own decisions. They're volunteers. We don't give them a paycheck, so we can't really tell them what to do. And each leader and group really is so different. Some will get really excited, and they'll go out and get donations and go into the school system with the La Leche message. Others will just be happy with their once-a-month meeting.
Q: As part of such a grass-roots movement, can La Leche leaders adequately serve as representatives of the national organization in their own communities? A: We encourage our leaders to do things locally and hold workshops to make them more confident with the media. If there's a broader question they don't feel comfortable answering, our office is happy to field it. But on a limited basis, I think it's important that the leaders out in the field get the attention. It's those local papers that are going to get the mom in [a small town] to go seek out her La Leche League representative, not scientific studies put out by our national office.
Q: It's clear that each La Leche volunteer feels herself empowered. But can this lead to too many cooks in the kitchen? Would more top-down leadership help get La Leche League back on its feet? A: That's a tough question. Running an organization has to be a combination of those things. I think it's important to have someone at the top-the buck stops here, whether I like it or not. But on the other hand, [leaders] don't need [us] to tell them how to do their work in the field. I think our job is to supply our leaders with the tools they need to help mothers.
Q: So you don't view La Leche League's volunteer-based format as a factor in the organization's recent instability? A: No, I don't think that was the problem. I think there needed to be a commitment from the organization, to have somebody making sure the staff members are working together as a team. Coming in [as an outsider], there are a lot of things I see that could have been done better, and I'm working on those first.
Q: What changes have you already implemented? A: Since I started here, we've begun having regular staff meetings. The division leaders and directors who work more directly with leaders in the field have meetings together as well, so that [everyone] knows exactly what is going on.
Q: What are your goals for La Leche League? A: I would like to increase the number of members and the number of leaders around the world. I would also like to explore [early education]. When a woman gives birth, it's already too late-she's already decided whether or not she is going to breastfeed. I'm not talking about only pregnant women, but young women in high school and college, so they'll think, "Of course I'm going to breastfeed my baby! Why would I not?" Another one of my dreams is to have an 800 line that's worldwide and answered 24/7. We have a toll-free line, but it's on a limited scale. It takes a lot of money.
Q: Where does money for such projects come from? A: A lot of our funding comes from our membership, people paying their dues. We also sell a lot of books, breast pumps, even baby swings. People also pay to attend the conferences and workshops.
Q: Do you receive funding from the government? A: We don't really have any big projects from the government. My goal is to get more funding from the government-there are lots of opportunities there.
Q: How big a role will increasing the public's awareness of your organization play in realizing your goals? A: There are a lot of women out there who'd like to breastfeed and who would like help, but they just don't know where to turn. I'd like to make La Leche League a household name for women who are thinking about getting pregnant, already pregnant or who have nursing babies, so they'll know we provide a service they can utilize.
Q: So how do you get to the point where La Leche League is a household name? A: We'll need a marketing plan. We don't have the money to do what others have done, but I'm hoping the government's national breastfeeding awareness campaign will help get the message across. Hopefully women who see [the public service announcements on the benefits of breastfeeding] will then turn to us for more information.
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