Meet Born This Way Foundation's Youth Reps Changing the World
Born This Way

Meet Born This Way Foundation's Youth Reps Changing the World

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 metal 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 hears from 12 of the Foundation's youth representatives on their favorite Lady Gaga moments, thoughts on acceptance and visions for the future.

How did you get involved with Born This Way Foundation?

Mauricio Correa: I've been following Born This Way Foundation's work since the very beginning, the livestream launch with Oprah! I knew that it'd be something worth following and witnessing grow, and believe in. Almost a decade after, I think the impact of the Foundation just like Born This Way's message is undeniable. I involve myself actively on social media, sharing resources provided by Born This Way Foundation, reading stories on Channel Kindness, pledging to stay, getting to know movements like Find Your Anchor, being part of #BeKind21 but my involvement with the Foundation started when I applied for the 2021 Advisory Board that I'm proud and excited to be part of now.

Defi Utariani: I saw their stories months ago about the 2021 Advisory Board and knew this Foundation held the same values m so I tried to apply in hopes I could help create a better world. Now I am here to represent Indonesia as BTWF's Advisory Board Member.

Ash López: I first learned of the Foundation when the Born Brave Bus was touring with Lady Gaga during the Born This Way Ball in Los Angeles. As I explored the mental wellness resources next to the bus, I promised myself I would someday collaborate with this amazing non-profit and the queen herself, Lady Gaga. Flash forward many years later and I stumbled across Mrs. Germanotta's Instagram page where she posted a call for Channel Kindness reporters. At first I doubted myself but realized how exciting this opportunity was and how it really aligned with my vision and values. I was then accepted into the program, the rest is history!

What has it been like collaborating with Born This Way Foundation?

Perri Easley: Working with Born This Way Foundation has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I went into the organization being attracted to all the great programming that they had, especially with their focuses on mental health and validating the emotions of young people. When I started to get involved with the Foundation, not only on their programs, but by also getting to know the Foundation's team, it really showed that they put so much into their work in that they really do value the voices of young people and hope to see us prosper.

Elissa S. Lee: I started getting involved with the Foundation in 2018, at a time in my life when I had just moved to a new city, started a new grad program and was feeling a little uncertain about myself. But working with Aysha, Maya, Shadille, Alex and the team, and their encouragement, support and — more importantly — trust in me, made me feel like I could be myself and trust myself, and that I could do hard things. Through their work, I've had the privilege to go looking for the silver linings in the world, the people who help. I've been able to meet and highlight the stories of incredible people like Douglas Miles, a Native American artist who empowers youth through skateboarding and art, and Janine Miller and Loren Van Hynes, who led the Erase the Hate campaign with NBC Universal. Under the mentorship of Susan, I've also been able to explore some of my own ways to contribute to the work — including building partnerships and creating impact analyses for the Foundation.

Ash: It's been such a dream come true! I feel so honored to be able to collaborate with them! I would have never thought my story as a queer disabled Latina would be elevated to such a global scale. I've been able to use my voice to connect with others like myself who may have similar backgrounds and are often pushed to the margins. Every time I collaborate with Born This Way Foundation, it fills me with so much joy because I get to truly sprinkle love and kindness around! I've brought awareness to LGBTQ+ mental health awareness at Pride festivals from coast to coast, I've been able to share my story at the United Nations, I've been able to collect letters of gratitude thanking California firefighters for their bravery and most importantly I've been able to meet other youth who may have a similar background and make a difference in their lives. They've really given me a platform to make an even bigger impact than I could have hoped for. I didn't do all this alone. I did this with all the incredible love and support the team has given me!

Cheyenne Kippenberger: Collaborating with Born This Way Foundation has always been a beautiful experience of learning, exchanging and growing. Spaces like these are important to the growth and progress of our society because when you allow different people with different perspectives and lives to share their stories you can empower each other. All of the shattered glass ceilings happened because someone, somewhere decided that they wanted to see something different, they wanted change and I truly believe that the spaces that Born This Way Foundation creates will contribute to more shattered ceilings.

How do you like to show kindness toward yourself and/ or others?

Aya Rosario: I like to show kindness toward myself by listening to what my body is trying to tell me. When I feel burnt out, I try to ensure I do one thing that calms and replenishes me. I like to show kindness towards others by ensuring they know that if they are ever struggling, whether it's picking something to eat or a low point in their mental health, that I'm there to hear them out.

Mauricio: I think that in the times we're living in, kindness is everywhere and in simple acts like wearing a mask, for example, it's a way to show kindness towards yourself and to others. Getting vaccinated or respecting health measures until you can — and after — is another one. These are a few that not only I'm doing, but millions around the world are doing as well. And it impacts each of us.

Sarah Goody: I show kindness toward myself by prioritizing self-care and actively reflecting on the pressures that I put on myself. I try to set aside an hour every single day to relax either by taking a bath, listening to music and dancing around my room, reading a favorite book, or going on a walk with my dogs. I find that once I can learn to show kindness to myself and my body, I can better direct kindness to the people around me. Another way that I show kindness toward myself is by allowing myself to ask for help when I need it. In the past, I have struggled with depression, anxiety and OCD, and it was never easy to find the courage to ask for help. It was hard for me to conceptualize that asking for help didn't mean I was weak. Knowing when and how to ask for help has easily been the kindest act I have done for my well-being.

Tell us about the last time you felt brave or expressed yourself bravely?

Stellan Knox: I expressed myself bravely by dressing up for Transgender Day of Visibility. On that day, I whipped out a white polo and, for the first time, adorned it with a trans flag-patterned bow tie. I also wore matching suspenders. Posting a photo of myself, I thought, "wow, I am not afraid of letting the world see me as I am."

Cheyenne: I feel brave when I am in spaces that are not necessarily meant for me.

What does Pride mean to you?

Stellan: Pride means self-love, compassion and acceptance. If you show yourself the utmost appreciation and respect, you will be your own champion when the world tries its hardest to knock you down.

Elissa: Prior to the pandemic, I would make my way to Stonewall every year as a pilgrimage to the place where it started, and remember the trans women of color who have made Pride — and LGBTQ+ rights — possible. Pride, to me, is a time to come together as a community to celebrate these activists and how far we've come, and a place to convene in our continued fight for equal rights. We are here and we are joyful despite it all.

Ash: For me, Pride is the celebration of living fiercely, authentically and unapologetically as a queer and/or trans person. Pride means to be joyously QTPOC in the face of oppressive hatred and deadly indifference. Pride to me is a celebratory remembrance of our Black and Latinx queer ancestors, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who courageously fought for LGBTQ+ liberation during the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

How did you feel the first time you heard the song "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga?

Isabella Hanson: The first time I heard the song "Born This Way," I felt liberated. I knew that it was okay to be different in my own way. Lady Gaga's expressive music allows anyone to relate to it.

Perri: It's just so beautiful how nearly 10 years after it came out, people still bump to it and respond to it in the way that they did in 2011. The song was such an anthem for expressing ourselves and loving ourselves for who we are. "Born This Way" will always be such a special song.

Sarah: I first heard the song "Born This Way" when I was at summer camp in first grade. I remember vividly the moment the song came through the speakers, I was running around the playground and my friend stopped in the middle of our game of four-square and started dancing. I felt the music reverberating in my feet and joined her. As I was dancing I paid special attention to the lyrics. Instantly, I knew I had found my new anthem: "Don't hide yourself in regret/ Just love yourself and you're set."

What motivates you?

Saloni Khushal: A lot of things motivate me: my family, friends and my passion for making the world a better place than how I found it. If I'm able to contribute at least one small change in any way, then I'm content.

Hanna Atkinson: Helping my community and spreading daily kindness. To follow my dreams and try to do the impossible.

Elissa: The hope for a better world motivates me, as well as many of the folks in my community. And my grandmother serves as a huge inspiration for that. She had a difficult life, and yet she took every opportunity to be kind. My dad jokes that their household growing up was like a student dormitory, as she was always taking in her students and the friends of my dad and aunts, those who were refugees and those whose lives were affected by conflict and war and had nowhere to go home to. She gave us all a place, a warm meal, a feeling to call home.

Do you have a favorite Lady Gaga career moment? If so, tell us about it below?

Aya: It's less a moment and more a personality trait. I admire how she's always been honest about how she struggles, but she does her best and pushes herself. Her ability to persevere is contagious!

Matthew Wong: When addressing rumors around her genitalia Lady Gaga responded with, "Why the hell am I gonna waste my time and give a press release about whether or not I have a penis? My fans don't care and neither do I." To this day, I think about the impact of her words and how easily she shut down transphobic comments. We live in a world where we are heavily influenced by society's view on us; however, it's crucial to understand that we do not exist for anyone else, but ourselves.

Defi: When she released "Til It Happens to You" in 2015. I got assaulted around two years prior to its release, and this song helps me to heal. Still is my #1 favorite Gaga song and forever will be.

Mauricio: There are many! I could write essays about them. My favorite one is probably when Lady Gaga finished singing "Til It Happens To You" at the Oscars and all of the survivors walked out on the stage to stand beside her, holding their hands, showing their bravery and vulnerability to the whole world. It still touches my heart. It was a truly powerful moment to witness. It made me feel as if I wasn't alone.

How can we create a braver world?

Aya: Speak out!!! Whether it's to an online friend (please be safe if it is), best friend, mother, father, aunt, uncle, or anyone you trust, tell your loved ones how you feel. When you're at your lows and highs, talk it out. Try your best to start and cultivate conversations about the things you care about and listen when you hear others' input. To become a braver world we have to better our listening skills as well as our ability to reach out when we need to.

Defi: Be a good listener. Opening up to other people takes a lot of courage. I believe that being there for the people in need will help them be comfortable, confident, and brave enough to share their problems or anything they need to share.

Isabella: We can create a braver world by being open to new ideas and experiences. We can also create a braver world by providing support systems for change-makers who take risks to speak out for the rights of others.

Perri: Empathy is one of the most powerful forces. I think there is a lot to be said about our ability to try to really understand the feelings and emotions of people, or at least what drives feelings and emotions and why people choose certain responses. I know with some of my friendships, empathy has really transformed the way I can be there for them and the ways they can be there for me.

What's a hope that you have for the rest of 2021?

Saloni: After a historic year that brought grief, stress and change worldwide, I hope 2021 can be a beacon of light and hope for all of us.

Aya: I'd love to see continued support for de-stigmatizing mental health. It's very important that we continue the conversations started in the pandemic.

Hanna: To change the world with kindness.

Elissa: I hope we will be able to come together, mourn together all we have lost in the last year, and move forward together to make a better world for us all. Oh, and I hope to eat at a restaurant with my loved ones safely.

What's one project you're working on with the Foundation that you're particularly proud of?

Elissa: Helping to curate conversations and writing about mental health in the AAPI communities with the Foundation and Channel Kindness, something that is close to my heart and not talked about enough. We, as a race, are the least likely to seek help for mental health concerns, and it's been important work to move the dial even just a little bit.

Ash: I am incredibly proud of the book I co-authored along with Lady Gaga and many other amazing youth, CHANNEL KINDNESS: Stories of Kindness and Community! It was a huge collaborative effort. When you sift through the pages you can truly feel that the world is becoming a better place because of the brave youth who are changing it! As someone who experienced homelessness as a kid, as someone who originated from South Central and grew up in the desert, as a former housekeeper and caregiver, I would have never expected to be featured as a New York Times Best Selling author alongside my hero!

What small, but effective steps can we take to help proactively make positive change and protect the trans community?

Hana: Be respectful and treat everyone with kindness.

Elissa: As a healthcare provider, I am always trying to find small, subtle ways to be a better ally and to make care more inclusive. Listening to our trans community and what they want is definitely the first step. Also, taking time to educate ourselves on trans issues, advocating for policies that are trans-inclusive (and opposing those that are anti-trans), and checking in on your trans friends are a few other small ways to start making positive change.

Matthew: There are a range of possibilities to protect the trans community. These first steps consist of normalizing the usage of pronouns when introducing oneself.

What would you tell kids struggling to accept themselves?

Isabella: I am an African American student who has attended predominantly white schools all of my life. I learned to embrace my differences and to be proud of my culture. I would tell kids who are struggling to accept themselves that our difference is what makes us unique and special. I would also tell them to seek support systems that provide encouragement and positivity.

Defi: I know how hard self-loathing can be, and it's not an easy journey to love yourself because I'm still working down that path too. Loving yourself isn't an instant process. The caterpillar doesn't change into a butterfly overnight. We are capable of loving ourselves the way we love everyone else.

Elissa: I read this quote today from the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross that really spoke to me: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." You are beautiful, and I hope that one day you will be able to see it for yourself.

Do you have a message for young people who have had a rough time this past year?

Cheyenne: You are strong. You are loved. You are powerful. We are not defined by small moments of weakness or darkness, but by our entire journey. Even when you feel weak and surrounded by darkness, you are strong and you are a light that is so dearly needed in this world. You are here for a reason and your life is so precious and loved.

Saloni: No matter what you go through, you are strong and valued. You are not defined by your experiences.

Elissa: You are loved and please carry on — it may not always feel this way, but trust me when I say that the world needs both your lightness and your weight, your ability to love and your capacity to be loved. There is a whole community out there for you to love and who loves you!

Photos courtesy of Born This Way Foundation