Born This Way Foundation: Making Kindness Cool
with Maya Smith of the Born This Way Foundation
Young people can experience emotional distress as they develop and mature, but may lack access to resources for support.
Maya Smith, Executive Director of the Born This Way Foundation, discusses the power of kindness and its impact on the well-being and mental health of young people.
October 02, 2020
Anderson: She's a Grammy award-winning artist, humanitarian, and champion of the importance of mental health. I'm talking about Lady Gaga. Over the years, she's been very open about suffering a sexual assault, dealing with PTSD, chronic pain, and other issues that have impacted her own mental health. And, when she started hearing more and more from fans who are going through some of the same things, Gaga decided to do something about it and that's where her foundation, Born This Way, comes in. It's mission? Build a kinder and braver world. And joining me now is Maya Smith. She is the executive director of Born This Way Foundation. And, Maya, thanks so much for being here.
Smith: Thank you so much for having me, Tetiana.
Anderson: So, one of the main focuses of the foundation is to make kindness cool again and we see your T-shirt, there, that says "Be Kind." And that seems like something that should be innate in all of us. But what was it that you all noticed was going on in society that really sort of made you say, "We've got to make some sort of intervention, when it comes to encouraging people to be kind again"?
Smith: That's a great question and this is such a powerful message. It comes directly from the personal experiences that Lady Gaga had growing up. She and her mom, Cynthia, founded the foundation a little over eight years ago. And, when Lady Gaga was younger, she was the creative, powerful, unique voice that she is today. And, as we know, as former young people, sometimes when you're young and you're different, that's viewed as a liability, instead of an asset. And, for that difference, Lady Gaga endured meanness and cruelty and bullying. And she was clear, from a very early age, that, if she was to survive her life, she would dedicate her time, her treasure, and her talent to making sure young people not only survived, but that they thrived, and she envisioned a kinder and braver world in which they could do so. So our mission, at the foundation, is to build a kinder and braver world. We work to make kindness cool, we validate the emotions of young people around the world, and we eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health.
Anderson: So, when it comes to mental health, you guys are doing outreach in some really cool ways and one of the things you're doing is something called Mental Health First Aid. It's something that I know about. I know it's something that you know about, but explain what that is to our viewers and how you're implementing that.
Smith: Absolutely. And I can't say strongly enough I think everybody should be trained in Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid is an incredible program started by the National Council for Behavioral Health. We think of it as CPR for the brain. How do you identify the warning signs of a mental health emergency? How do you connect with resources? How do you lean into the hard conversations needed to ask someone if they're thinking of hurting themselves? It's really urgent that we learn the vocabulary that allows us to be just as proactive about our mental health as we are about our physical health, and that's exactly what Mental Health First Aid does. We recently partnered with the National Council on Behavioral Health to bring that program to high school students. And so, this past year, we piloted teen Mental Health First Aid in 83 schools, training tenth- through twelfth-graders in this lifesaving program as well.
Anderson: So, you guys also have some other great outreach programs. You've got those cool videos that run on Channel Kindness. You've got #BeKind21. Can you quickly just highlight what those two programs are? –
Smith: Happily. So channelkindness.org is the kindest place on the Internet, simply put. We have trained over 100 youth reporters to share stories of kindness and bravery in their community and we put them together in a book called "Channel Kindness," which we are so, so proud of. You can visit channelkindness.org to read about their stories and we're always looking for more stories, so please submit from your communities as well. We feel like there's good all around us and this is an incredible site that allows us to remember to look for it. And #BeKind21 -- You're not supposed to have a favorite, but I totally have a favorite. So, #BeKind21 -- This is the third year of #BeKind21, which is a campaign, every fall, that invites people to think about kindness to themselves and to their communities for 21 days. We know, from science, that, if you do something for 21 days in a row, it becomes a habit and we believe kindness isn't this transactional, one-time affair, but it's really a muscle and a culture and a habit that we need to cultivate. And so this was started at my son's elementary school, with his kindergarten class. In the first year, 440,000 joined my son Hunter and pledged more than 1.8 million unique acts of kindness. And then, this past year, in 2020, when I think kindness is more urgent than ever. we had more than 5.2 million people join, pledging over 1.10 million unique acts of kindness. So we're so, so proud of this campaign and it's everything from picking up trash to making a meal for an elderly neighbor, to, actually, one incredible story from Brazil. We heard from a young woman who used that 21-day calendar to not cut herself and, when she was invited to think about what kindness meant to herself, she stopped self-harming. And so it's been -Wow. -used in some incredible ways and so proud of the #BeKind21 campaign.
Anderson: So, I want to ask you about the foundation's philosophy, which is really about young people helping young people. Can you sort of quickly sum up why that's the best approach?
Smith: Of course. Lady Gaga always said by young people, both because this is what she needed when she was young, but also because we see the power and the potential of this incredible generation. This generation's the most diverse, collaborative, tech-savvy, and idealistic generation. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, this generation continues to solve problems for themselves and for each other. One of my favorite examples is a young woman named Ali Borowsky, who's a four-time suicide attempt survivor, and she created the Find Your Anchor box, which is a tangible suicide prevention resource, and that's just an example of her not only healing herself, but ensuring that other people have the opportunity to heal as well.
Anderson: Incredible. Maya Smith, with Born This Way Foundation, thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Smith: Thank you so much, Tetiana. And please visit us at bornthisway.foundation and connect with us on social media.
Anderson: Absolutely. And I've got to give thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit... I'm Tetiana Anderson.