It's been 10 years since Lady Gaga gave birth to Born This Way, her Grammy-nominated and chart-topping second album full of queer dancefloor anthems, iconic visuals and boundary-pushing live performances. PAPER is celebrating its cultural impact by hearing from some of Gaga's closest collaborators, experts and fans.
It's been 10 years since the release of Lady Gaga's Born This Way album, and along with it, the birth of Born This Way Foundation — a manifestation of the era's true purpose: to make kindness cool.
Born This Way Foundation is a nonprofit co-founded by Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, to support the mental health of young people, eliminate stigmas surrounding mental health and, according to its mission statement, create a kinder and braver world. What sets Born This Way Foundation apart from other mental health initiatives are the faces behind the programming; it truly is a resource for youth, by youth.
Through Born This Way Foundation-funded projects, like Channel Kindness, a digital safe space for young people to share their stories, and Youth Advisory Boards that ensure youth-led conversations remain a priority at every level of the organization, the ideas presented in Gaga's second album have become tangible changes in our world today.
Below, PAPER asks the brains behind the Foundation about their work, day-to-day operations and where they see things going into the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and your position?
Shadille Estepan: I remember the day I got the email saying that I was selected to be part of Born This Way Foundation's inaugural Advisory Board nearly a decade ago. I didn't know then that I could make a career out of this work, but being part of this core group of young people who helped advise and amplify the Foundation's lifesaving mission transformed my life personally and professionally. Now, I have the incredible privilege of offering the same support, love, and validation I was granted as a teen to the young people we serve as the Foundation's Communications and Outreach Manager.
Josh Meredith: Back in the early days, Team Born This Way Foundation would hold meetings at the Germanotta's NYC family restaurant, Joanne Trattoria, where I worked — so I had the honor of witnessing the incredible work they were doing firsthand. As someone who has always had a passion for mental health advocacy, when an opportunity opened up for me to join the team, I jumped on it and never looked back. In my role as Chief of Staff, I provide support and serve as a liaison for Cynthia and Maya, coordinate day-to-day logistics for our team, and ensure we're working seamlessly together to achieve our goals.
How were you first introduced to the Foundation?
Taylor M. Parker: I stumbled upon Born This Way Foundation's Channel Kindness Awards in 2017. Honestly, I had no belief that I would win, but I applied anyway with the intention of asking for feedback when I lost. It turned out, though, that the Foundation team believed in my ideas and chose me as a winner. I worked with them to host a clothes swap and menstrual product drive on my university's campus to provide much needed support for our students. The event was a hit, notably because Lady Gaga encouraged fans to bring donations to her show the night before, leaving me with two cars overflowing with over 6,700 donations. Now I serve on the team as Program Associate helping to support our programs, especially #BeKind21.
Josh Hollin: In late 2016, I was chosen as one of 50 youth members from across the US to participate as a reporter for Channel Kindness, Born This Way Foundation's storytelling platform. I was trained on how to use my talents to report on acts of kindness in my community, and eventually launched my own podcast series titled Channel Kindness Radio, where I would interview various nonprofit organization leaders on how they were helping to build a kinder, braver world. I continued working with the Foundation as an intern and eventually joined as Digital Associate, where I oversee our social media accounts, create visual content and connect directly with our online community.
Shanice S. Jackson: In looking for my next opportunity I saw a listing for an open position at Born This Way Foundation. After my first interview, I was sold; I could immediately tell this was an organization that was not just led by young people but also celebrates young people's talents. When I joined the team, I had never felt so welcomed and immediately supported — and I was virtually onboarded. As I complete my first four months with the Foundation, my commitment to the team, our mission, and the young people we serve is to further grow that culture of affirmation and welcoming.
How has the mission of the Foundation evolved since it first began?
Cynthia Germanotta: When we first launched, our entire team could fit inside the back seat of a New York City cab — now we fill up a whole conference room! I am overwhelmed with gratitude witnessing exponential growth in our team, reach and programs over the past decade. However, it was very important to me, my daughter and our team that our mission would remain consistent even as we grow. We would always be led by the unique perspectives and ideas of young people, and work with them to build a kinder, braver world. At the inception of the Foundation, we brought on a Youth Advisory Board to help establish this mission and our scope, and I couldn't be more honored to share that we recently welcomed our 2021 class of Advisors. As we approach our 10th Anniversary, we want to ensure we remain true to our goals of making kindness cool, validating the emotions of young people everywhere and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health.
Join me in welcoming @btwfoundation’s 2021 Advisory Board, a hopeful, energetic group of young people who know that… https://t.co/Bynjtavdr0— Lady Gaga (@Lady Gaga)1621440046.0
What are the day-to-day duties like?
Aysha Mahmood: As the Editor of Channel Kindness, I have the great privilege of reading stories by young people from all over the world. In working with them to publish their stories, I witness first-hand just how passionate, committed and eager they are to make a difference in their communities. Whether they're discussing their mental health journey or their advocacy work, they always share with such grace and courage. By highlighting youth stories on ChannelKindness.org, we're able to amplify their voices; spread stories of kindness, bravery and resilience; inspire more people to take action; and reassure youth that they're never alone.
Terez Hanhan: Each day is completely different, which serves as a constant reminder of the soul-filling and urgent work we are doing in the world of mental health and kindness. In some ways, we operate like a newsroom, as we stay connected to groundbreaking research and press related to our mission. By sharing and commissioning research, our focus remains centered around the needs and perspectives of young people. We love hearing from people 24/7, from all over the world, and we are always creating opportunities to engage with and elevate youth voices. Our team is a family — and whether you interact with us or not, you are in our family, too.
What are the most pressing issues for the BTWF to address and tackle?
Alex Aide: As Director of Programs and Impact, what drives me every day is building and expanding engaging, affirming and impactful programs that are available to every young person, everywhere, to support their mental health at no cost to them. We ask young people what they need and we build it alongside them. Our organization is also unique in that our work has a place for everyone to join our community of support and education. We could be having a conversation with students in a school in the morning about how to make their schools and communities kinder, at the UN in the afternoon to talk about our work globally and at a drag show in the evening to celebrate LGBTQ+ pride. We're here for everyone.
Mitu Yilma: Our research shows young people search for community and mental health resources online, and it is our goal at the Foundation, and my goal personally as Digital Director for the organization, to ensure we're providing affirming spaces where youth can safely find kindness, connection and support. Go to ChannelKindness.org for stories about the transformative power of kindness, tune in to #TeaWithMrsG to feel uplifted and empowered, search for anchors on PleaseStay.us, find mental health information and expert-vetted self-care tips on our website, and, if you need a smile, scroll through #BeKind21 on social media for inspiring stories of how people show kindness to themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.
How closely do you work with Lady Gaga on various initiatives?
Maya Enista Smith: This is my favorite question to answer, second maybe to, "Have you met Lady Gaga?" I have met Lady Gaga. She is my friend, my boss and our inspiration at the Foundation, and this work is a part of her — a big part. A kinder, braver world is what she envisions and what she works toward every day — in every way — and I'm so proud to work closely with her and my colleagues at Born This Way Foundation to help realize that vision.
What, to you, are some of the biggest BTWF accomplishments to date?
Bobby Campbell: When we set out to launch Born This Way Foundation, we had the goal of measuring the seemingly intangible concepts of kindness and bravery. Nearly 10 years and relentless pursuit later, we've done the work to measure kindness and bravery, the importance of these forces and the impact they have on mental health.
Maya Smith: Each of us have intensely personal reasons for doing this work, so while I could talk about the global kindness campaigns we've launched and the groundbreaking mental wellness resources we've created, the biggest accomplishments to me are the individuals stories of the young person who stopped cutting herself as part of our #BeKind21 campaign, the high school student who felt equipped with mental health resources to support a friend that confided that he was planning to take his own life, the words of the CHANNEL KINDNESS authors that came to inspirational and hopeful life on the pages of our book. I am proud of the lives we've touched through our work and know that I speak for each Foundation team member when I say our lives are profoundly impacted by each and every one of the young people we are lucky enough to work with and for.
How are the resources distributed?
Susan Gordon Horrell: Our research shows less than half of young people know where to turn for mental health resources, so we work to bridge that gap every day through meaningful partnerships, campaigns and programs that distribute life-saving mental health resources to young people across the world. For example, we've run campaigns like #BeKindBeThere that publicized incredible resources like BeThere.org, created new resources like PleaseStay.us through our partnership with Find Your Anchor, and distributed resources to young people through their teachers and classrooms through our partnership with DonorsChoose. We are constantly listening to our community about what resources speak to them and are non-prescriptive about what mental health support looks like, but every day we work to bridge that gap between young people and the mental health support they need to thrive.
Where do you hope to see the Foundation go in the future?
Cynthia Germanotta: In the immediate future, we've begun planning for our 10th Anniversary next March. As we celebrate the last 10 years and look toward the next decade and beyond, we'll continue to be led by young people, validate their emotions and equip them with the resources they need to thrive. We'll continue to amplify their stories of kindness, resilience and bravery, and model honest, open conversations and advocate for a world where youth have the resources they need to survive and thrive. Though there has been an increase in awareness around mental health, particularly this past year, there is still much work to be done to achieve our goal of eliminating the stigma that surrounds it and ensuring that mental health is treated the same as physical health. We want to see more mental health education and skill sharing, peer-to-peer support, and access to quality mental healthcare for people across the globe. We will also continue to explore and focus on the inextricable link between kindness and mental health. Overall, our focus for the next 10 years will continue to be centered around our core mission: to build a kinder, braver world.
Photos courtesy of the Born This Way Foundation
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