A view from the launch of what Lady Gaga aims to be a movement to empower youth and fuel kindness
By Anne Collier
Surrounded by some of the best thinkers and researchers in the bullying prevention, social media, and youth empowerment fields, Wednesday (2/29) I got to watch “Born This Way” become “Move This Way” for Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, who will be at the center of her daughter’s movement. “This is not a bullying prevention foundation,” Gaga said, referring to the Born This Way Foundation launched this week at Harvard University. “This is a youth empowerment foundation,” which was, truly, music to my ears. She also said she wasn’t crazy about the words “program” and “foundation”; so she thinks of the foundation as the center of a movement for greater kindness and respect for individuality. “I want it to become cool to be an aware person” – aware of the people around us and their needs, and standing up for them, she explained to the audience.
After a small but powerful day-long symposium hosted by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society – where I had the privilege of co-leading (with my friend and colleague Dr. Pippa Collin from the University of Western Sydney) the only working group with teen participants (ours was about youth-initiated anti-bullying work and they were student change agents from around the US) – Lady Gaga appeared at a much bigger event at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre and, after being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, put herself on “the stand,” in a courtroom-like set-up (after all, this was Harvard Law School), with psychologist Susan Swearer, teen activist Alyssa Rodemeyer, Deepak Chopra, entertainment reporter and gay parent David Burtka, US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and law professor Charles Ogletree (moderator) asking her questions about her intentions for this movement.
A little about what she told us…
Whatever you think of her art and artifice, Gaga views them as separate from this charitable work, she said. “Feeling empowered to help effect this change is completely separate from the woman I am on stage,” she told us. Maybe I wasn’t alone in reflexively expecting them to be the same, but – as much as I like the lyrics of “Born This Way” – I thought it was going to be the personae, not the person off-stage, who would be launching this foundation and did not expect to be impressed. But I was. She was intelligent and articulate in her responses to Oprah and the “jury” of experts.
These are big ideas and big ambitions [my friend Jason Rzepka of MTV tweeted, quoting Gaga: "'How can we create a support structure around every single human being on this earth?' wow - what a moonshot goal!"], but she repeatedly expressed both realism and humility. “The culture of love is not going to happen overnight,” she said. I expected to see it, but I felt and heard no artifice when she told Oprah that “one of the most important things I want to get across is that both the victim and the bully are hurting, so how do we not just save the victim but also the bully?” That’s a message based on research which needs to be heard by all adults who work with young people.
De-silo-ing the research
Which brings me to the most remarkable aspect of this launch – that it was embedded in research drawn from many fields, including risk prevention, social-emotional learning, psychology, legal, sociology, and social media. It’s “de-siloing” the know-how of fields that need to be talking with each other in order for us to stop reinventing the wheel and take a step forward in and for schools and with young people fully involved. Months of research and sharing among researchers went into this launch because, months ago, the nascent foundation sought the help of the Berkman Center, particularly social-media researcher and Berkman fellow danah boyd and law professor and author John Palfrey. Last November danah convened two working groups to help her put together evidence-based, accessible (non-academic) “checklists” of advice for schools on bullying prevention and social-emotional learning (see this). I had the privilege of serving on one of the working groups with Drs. Susan Swearer at University of Nebraska and Lisa Jones at University of New Hampshire and Mia Doces of Seattle-based Committee for Children. If BTW Foundation achieves nothing else, it has already achieved a great deal by getting multiple disciplines talking about – maybe collaborating on – something to which they each have much to contribute.
So we have beautiful, blue-sky ambitions such as a kinder, braver world and school cultures of respect grounded in the research (definitely a positive sign) – as well as in “RL” (real life). The mashup is generational too, thankfully. I smiled when I realized that Gaga and her mother (who gave the opening talk of the symposium in the morning) embody the same difference of perspective about privacy that so many families in a social-media environment do: When asked by a symposium participant what her daughter went through as the target of bullying when she was in school, Germanotta was hesitant at first, but she told us Gaga “had many struggles herself. She has been very open about that. I thought she should be more private about it, but as her latest album [Born This Way] was starting to roll out and she started to talk about it at her performances, we found that the messages really resonated among youth.” That suggested to me that Cynthia Germanotta, to her credit, has been doing a bit of adjusting to her daughter’s very public and interactive process (and processing). [This thoughtful New York Times piece last spring, around the album's release, illustrates how Gaga learns and creates through close interaction with her fans – how they fuel her process, a modus operandi that I suspect will influence the Born This Way movement.]
That – the album’s release, it appears – is when the idea of the Born This Way Foundation coalesced. But the Germanottas’ thinking about this charitable work goes back even further to around 2008, when, Germanotta said, as a family, they were “struck by the increased number of pleas for help from young people and fans.” Gaga herself said later to the audience at Sanders Theatre that it felt like the idea found her, something calling on her to do something empowering “by the [young] people, for the [young] people” with, as much as for, them, seeking support from researchers and practitioners (it was her mother who had referenced “by the people, for the people”). Because, as danah boyd told those of us who’d gathered earlier at the Law School, this is a complex-systems problem we’re solving. It’s a longstanding human problem that needs not only all kinds of skills and disciplines but all hearts and callings – especially young people’s – to advance the needle for humanity, wherever it’s being social online, on phones, at school, at home.
An outcome I’d love to see
In addition to the movement people can already sign up for at Born This Way Foundation’s site, I’d like to see the foundation create the movement’s (youth) kernel: a low-profile network online of youth who are active culture-change agents and leaders like those from Montana, New Mexico, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Massachusetts who participated in the work stream that Philippa Collin and I co-led at the symposium. Student activists often work in geographical isolation – often just at their own school, sometimes their district, rarely at the state or national level. Scale and sustainability (past graduation) are difficult; often young activists coming into high school have to “reinvent the wheel.” The BTW Foundation could help change that with a network for sharing and escalating what works in their own spheres – what advocates call “best practices.” Combining efforts could help broaden their impact and sustain it, help them build on each other’s work and that of established advocacy groups beyond the school scene if they want to. Certainly there will be activists who prefer to stay focused on their local communities; this would be a source of support and inspiration for them as well.
But that’s not the entire outcome I’d like to see. The other part – an idea shared in our grassroots-initiatives work stream by Stephen Carrick-Davies – would be an annual international event for youth activists to meet each other in person and to celebrate best practices in the movement. It would include the Born This Way Awards. Riffing off of Stephen’s because I don’t have our scribes’ notes yet, the categories might be: Help This Way, Inspire This Way, Communicate This Way, Grow This Way, Encourage This Way, etc. Feel free to send your own ideas to anne[at]connectsafely.org!
[Afterthought: You may wonder where I got "move this way." Straight from Lady Gaga, quoted in introductory remarks at the Berkman Center Symposium: "We believe that everyone has the right to feel safe, to be empowered, and to make a difference in the world. Together, we will move this way. Toward acceptance, bravery and love." Those two rights – to be safe and to be able to make a difference (with freedom of expression through "any media of the child's choice," as enshrined in Article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) – are the best definition of "digital citizenship" I've seen yet. (UNICEF's "child-friendly version" of the Convention is here.)]
* One example of the impact Lady Gaga can have with young people is Maria Aragon’s cover of “Born This Way” on YouTube – my favorite music video (and, with nearly 49 million views so far, I think I’m not alone).
* For students and educators, here are working papers we developed with the Berkman Center in the months before the foundation’s launch, including ideas for student activists and change agents and a bullying-prevention how-to guide for schools.
* Social media researcher and Berkman fellow danah boyd’s bog post about those Berkman papers and the launch, “Born This Way Foundation: Guided by Research”
* The “child-friendly version” of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child might be useful for classroom and family discussions in new media literacy, human rights, social studies, and child development.
* “Lady Gaga” is on to something important, here,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his coverage of the launch event and takeaways from interviews with the Germanottas
* Emily Bazelon’s account of the foundation launch in Slate Magazine (she too was a member of the Grassroots Initiatives Work Stream)
* Stephen Carrick-Davies’s blog post (it’ll probably appear in The Guardian shortly)
* If you’re looking for photos, the tabloids were at the launch event too. The Daily Mail has some nice photos of Gaga, Cynthia Germanotta, and Oprah arriving at Sanders Theater.
* A couple of related ConnectSafely and NetFamilyNews links: “We need to work out the social norms of social media: Why?” and “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”