The Born This Way Foundation on How To Be a Leader

The Born This Way Foundation on How To Be a Leader

In the wake of Trump, kids across the country are rising up and forming an activist generation, leading the charge for resistance against the administration's discriminatory and potentially harmful actions. But when many kids still feel too uncomfortable in their own skin or situation to speak out about themselves or the world around them, it may be difficult to figure out how they can be a participant, let alone a leader. The most effective ways to help create leadership and communities, in real life and online, include sharing your own stories and experiences, creating safe spaces where marginalized communities can be heard and accepted, and being kind to each other, things that are especially essential to the LGBT community. But how can we still speak our minds when minorities and young people are now constantly under threat with proposed federal laws?

The mission of the Born This Way Foundation, founded by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta, is to help today's youth become these types of leaders in their own right, encouraging them to build a kinder world and support each other's wellness, no matter their race, gender, or sexuality. Their platforms, including the Hack Harassment campaign, which seeks to put an end to cyber-bullying, and the Channel Kindness Awards, which rewards young people around the country for spreading kindness in their communities, help us do exactly that. But there's still so many ways beyond charitable initiatives to channel kindness in your own life. Maya Enista Smith, the foundation's executive director, is talking to us about how we can step up and make the world a kinder place for all.

The first thing I wanted to talk about was your background and what inspired you to become apart of the Born This Way Foundation.

There's so many reasons. I'm a mother of two young children, and the fact that I get to wake up every morning and tell them "Mommy's going to work today" and my work is to build a kinder and braver world is such an incredible gift that my family's been given. But then personally, I'm the daughter of Romanian immigrants who came to this country, and the kindness they were extended, the community that they felt part of, and the opportunities they had made it really clear from an early age for me that I was gonna do this work forever. Particularly around the issues the foundation works on, a close member of my family committed suicide a couple years ago and watching the impact that his suicide had on my family makes me even more committed about mental wellness and de-stigmatizing conversations around mental health. I feel very fortunate to do work that I would pay for the opportunity to do, and somehow its my job, which is just a "pinch me" moment everyday.

Totally. I'm so sorry for your loss but that does lead me into the mental health stigma and de-stigmatizing. I know that the Foundation has efforts to combat that battle, one of them with Prince William, am I right?

Yeah, he's one of our partners in this work. But in order to really reduce the stigma around mental health conversations, it's gonna take everybody, so I'm glad that Gaga and Prince William are standing up, and hopefully you and I and kids and everybody around the world will join them.

For sure. How would we do that?

I think the first thing is changing the vocabulary and starting to talk about your stories. I'm sitting with my best friend right now, and if I said to you that her father-in-law died of cancer, you'd be like, "Aww I'm so sorry," right? But if the same conversation was like, "Oh my god, my father-in-law died of suicide," that's an awkward thing that we just don't talk about in the same way, both because its an uncomfortable topic but because there's still some stigma around how people are gonna receive that. So I think first, we need to change the way we talk about mental health and do away with this idea that it's only relevant if there's something wrong, and we need to start talking about it proactively. We need to talk about mental health in the way that we talk about our physical health. It's something that everyone has, and everyone should prioritize and work to maintain and improve their mental health. And then creating what Lady Gaga did in her open letter about PTSD where she shared her story, so encouraging young people to share their story is the next really important step. For me, it's been [thinking], "What am I willing to do? If I'm talking about why other people need to do it, what am I willing to do with my own life?" and that's being honest about the story of my own family, that's being honest about the struggles that I have. I recently wrote an email to our entire list-serve that was really nerve-wracking, talking about the fact that I suffered from postpartum depression. That's something that my husband and I had kept in the family for five years, all this while I've been talking about mental health. Let's take responsibility for our individual stories and share them and talk about it, and then hopefully encourage more people to do the same.

Specifically for LGBT youth, do you think there's any particular ways to combat the mental health stigma for them?

We know through the research that we do and in total that LGBTQ young people, especially those who've described themselves as transgender or bisexual, report higher instances of cyber-bullying. So when we talk about sharing your stories and creating safe spaces, it can't just happen in your therapist's office. We need to talk about what that looks like online, we need to talk about what that looks like offline, in families and communities, on campuses. So I think we need to recognize that there's people among us who are disproportionally affected by an issue, who we need to think about as not just how that affects us, but how that affects everybody.

That leads me to another topic, which is safe spaces. Not only how do we create safe spaces, but how do we preserve them when they're attacked?

For many young people, a lot of the world that they're met with is unsafe, unwelcoming, and disempowering, especially if this is an LGBTQ conversation. So creating safe spaces is the way to counteract that and make sure that more young people are feeling safe, welcomed and empowered. This is general, not to safe spaces, [but] young people need to be listened to and they need to be trusted. So it's not like me, a 33-year old mom, who's going to be creating safe spaces for young people. We need to listen to them, and we need to trust them, and we need to help them create the spaces that they feel they need to be in. It doesn't mean that people want to stifle debate or shut down other people who don't think how they do, I don't think that's it at all. I think they just want to feel that their own feelings are being respected and heard, and that the community they're part of cares about their own reality and their well-being even if it's different than another one.

Completely. I feel like that is an effort that could especially be made on college campuses, because they are the only voice, yet they can still be attacked.

Yet the interesting thing is, taking it to the 30,000-foot level, this isn't a college campus conversation alone. We live in a world where young people exist online and offline. The foundation has a program called Hack Harassment and the goal is to reduce the instances of various online harassment and we're working with the platforms and users to think about each individual's responsibility in helping to make the online world a kinder space. But this is a family thing, a community thing, a campus thing, an online thing, it is environment-agnostic.

With the rise of Trump and the more hateful language out there, do you think it's still possible to create and preserve safe spaces, or have we stepped back a bit?

I think kindness was important before the election and I think kindness is important today. I think that safe spaces were needed before and are needed now, and I certainly think we can preserve them if we're committed to acknowledging the validity of our own feelings and those around us. I was on a panel at Drexel two days ago, and one of my co-panelists said something like "you can't hate the people that you know." The value of being truly in community with people so that you reduce the otherness of them is the key to solving a lot of the problems we're facing.

That leads into another thing I want to touch on—I know one of the foundation's missions is to spread kindness. How could people spread kindness in ways that they may not even realize?

Oh my gosh, I feel like I need to make a t-shirt that says "Kindness is the way of life" or something like that. Kindness isn't this sum total of your acts, I think it's the way you live your life and the way you view people in the world around you. We define kindness as "the acts and service to someone else without the expectation of anything in return." So when you're thinking, — I'm sitting next to my best friend Kristen — "How could I make Kristen's day be better, how can I help her go through this tough time?" I'm not trying to get anything out of it, I'm just thinking, "How could I improve and support someone else?" I think there's great lists online that's like "Check out a neighbor," "Buy a meal for a homeless person," "Volunteer at a local non-profit," and those are all extremely worthwhile and important ways to spread kindness. But I would encourage people to think as something they as part of every interaction that you have. You go to coffee in the morning, I just went to Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee, was I kind to the barista? I'm gonna fly on a flight tonight, am I kind to the people I encounter in line at TSA? It's less like some total of actions than it is a culture that we all have a role in creating.

It's really important to make that distinction because people don't realize that it needs to be a lifestyle in a sense.

Yeah, and what's super important is that kindness is not only outwardly facing, and this is something that has a really strong connection with mental health. You need to be kind to yourself. If you're struggling with anxiety and you can't make it to that class because you just need to take a nap for you to be able to finish your day, take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. Maybe missing class wasn't the best example to give there, but you know what I mean.

Exactly. On that note, how do we get people to become more sympathetic when it comes to taking care of mental wellness?

Before we can get people to understand the action that needs to be taken around mental wellness, we need to get people to understand the existence of mental wellness. I think the relationship I have with Cynthia [Germanotta], our president and co-founder, is a really great example. She knows about my good days, she knows about my bad days, I'm not just her executive director. We've invested in one another and so it's easier for me to say to her, "I was up all night with the kids last night because they're not sleeping, so I'm going to take a nap after this meeting." And she's like, "Great, thank you for expressing what you need, and go and do it". If you have a cold, you take a day off. If you're having an anxiety attack, you need to be able to take a day off. But the way to get what you need is to be able to verbalize it.

For people that may not know, could you talk about how the Foundation is trying to let people think and speak about their experiences?

There's two story-telling platforms that we're really excited about right now. The first is We created a platform where people are chronicling their everyday heroic acts of kindness so that we can train our eyes and ears to look not just for the negative and hysterical news coverage in our world but also the positive, community-building pieces of it. So it's is a great place to go and share your story, to look at incredible other stories, to be in community with young people, it's an awesome platform. The second (Foundation Activation), the foundation is going on tour with Joanne World Tour, starting on August 1st, so we'll be in a number of communities across the world. [We're] encouraging young people to come share their stories and get access to the resources on the foundation's website.

That reminds me of the Born Brave Bus on a previous tour.

The Born Brave Bus on the first tour is the heart and soul of everything we've continued to do, so the main pieces that you saw at the Born Brave Bus will still be included in this next round of activation.

Cool. I do want to touch on another one of the foundation's missions, which is combatting homelessness for LGBT youth. Do you think we've seen the numbers decrease or is it still a major battle we need to fight?

I don't think we've resolved that problem at all, and I think that's absolutely still an important problem that no one profit can solve, that we need to solve together. We need to solve it with cross-specter partnerships of corporations and governments and non-profits. I think you have to look at the reasons that people leave, the reasons people feel like they can't be themselves and address those. I think that's what the foundation is really about. The questions that we get on Twitter is like, "How can I tell my mom I'm gay? I'm scared she's gonna kick me out," "How can I tell my sister that I'm cutting myself?" Like how do we allow for these conversations to happen in a way that young people will feel acknowledged, will feel taken seriously, and will feel trusted? I think that's really the root of a lot of things.

Absolutely. One more thing I wanted to ask was how do we get young people more politically involved and more inclined to become community leaders, especially within the LGBT community?

First recognizing that everybody is already a leader and having the capacity to impact change today. I think so many young people have this notion of leadership that it's something that they'll get when they're older, or that they need to get this degree. If we could change this notion of leadership and say that today, in the content you're posting online, in the way you're talking to people around you, on the way that you stand up for that kid in class, to when people are being an asshole. That's leadership. There's no paper that says "today, you're a leader." So this idea of leadership as something that we're eventually prepared of is overwhelming. You never know who's watching you, you never know who hears your story, you never know who you can show up for. One of the single biggest predictors to combatting suicide is the authentic connection with one person who cares that you're alive. So as a suicidal young person, once you build a relationship with one person who's like, "Please I can't wait to see you next Friday, please don't do anything between now and then, because next Friday, I'm really looking forward to seeing you." That's leadership! Like helping someone stay alive, that is the highest and best use of my time if I ever saw one.

For more information on the Foundation's initiatives, please visit If you or someone you know is in need of help, please use one of the several hotlines and resources found on their Get Help page.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


JT: Larger Than Life

Story by Brook Aster / Photography by Leanda Heler / Styling by Briana Andalore / Hair by Tevin Washington / Makeup by Eden Lattanzio / Nails by Tiny / Set design by Milena Gorum