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CEO of social justice
Media Organization:Boston Globe
Date of Publication:Friday, May 11, 2012
Brock Leach, from corporate world to social justice
By Bella English, Globe Staff | Read it on Boston.com
UUSC Vice President of Mission, Strategy, and Innovation Brock Leach (left) meets Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Papaye Peasant Movement, a Haitian grassroots organization that works in close partnership with UUSC to address humanitarian crises following the earthquake in Haiti.
A former Hopkinton resident, Brock Leach spent 24 years in executive positions at PepsiCo Inc., the second largest food company in the world. When he retired in 2006, he had served as president and chief executive of its Frito-Lay North America and Tropicana divisions. In retirement, he enrolled in divinity school and became a Unitarian Universalist minister. Leach now serves as vice president for mission, strategy, and innovation for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization based in Cambridge.
Q. You've gone from being an executive with a Fortune 500 company to an executive with a nonprofit focused on social justice and human rights. How did that happen?
A. When I was in high school, I had a great experience with a minister who did service learning experiences with migrant farm workers, at alcohol rehabilitation centers and at Head Start in rural Colorado. I thought, I'd like to be like him. He believed the work of the church happens outside the four walls of the church. I went to college and business school and headed to PepsiCo. I always thought if that didn't work out, I'll go do ministry.
Q. But obviously, it did work out.
A. It was a great career. The real fun and satisfaction for me was when you take a knotty problem and people who have different talents and figure out how to get them to work together to solve the problem. You can do incredible things if you have an environment of trust and generosity of spirit in the group. It's a kind of ministry.
Q. How did you get into the real ministry?
A. My wife and I met in business school at the University of Chicago, and there's a UU church on campus. When we graduated, we accepted jobs in Dallas. We were founding members of a UU church in a seedy strip mall. Then I was sent to Florida with Tropicana. When I left corporate life, I spent five years at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and got a master's degree in divinity. I did a year as a resident chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.
Q. What was that like?
A. My lesson from there is that at the end of the day, what you really worry about is, does my life have significance in terms of relationships with other people? It's about knowing and demonstrating in words and actions that we're not alone, that we have friends and allies on the journey.
Q. You obviously took a huge pay cut on your own journey, from highly compensated executive to human rights activist.
A. I was lucky that I was in a position to take the cut. The people I admire are the ones who don't have that financial ability to do human rights work, ministry, social justice work. For people who choose early in their lives to do that and make the commitment knowing it won't be easy financially — that's a much bigger sacrifice than anything I have done.
Q. What sort of work are you doing at the UUSC?
A. The human rights work we do is predicated on the UU principal that everyone has inherent worth and dignity, and given the right circumstances, they have the ability to fulfill their own dreams. This goes back to my corporate experience, realizing that if we're going to solve our common global problems, it requires us to become allies. We've got to get people on a level — on a just — playing field.
Q. Specifically, what are you doing?
A. We're launching the College of Social Justice, to give UUs of all ages experiential learning in places where we have program partners. Our largest volunteer program is with the Papaye Peasant Movement in Haiti, organized after the earthquake by Chavannes Jean-Baptiste to increase his group's political voice. His notion is to resettle people out of the city, which they fled, into the countryside and create ecovillages where they could farm and sustain themselves. We are underwriting this first village and bringing our own volunteers to help build it.
Q. Do you think you've lived a significant life?
A. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, the only thing I'd wish is that I'd gone to seminary earlier. But I learned things in the corporate world that made me better at the job I now have.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.