The Sander's Theatre Memorial Hall at Harvard University is a beautiful ancient cathedral to learning. In its time it has hosted a range of great orators who have tested the hall's outstanding acoustics; Winston Churchill, Theordore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. all movement-makers in their time, all brave men who spoke to the challenges of their day.
How refreshing then to hear that a woman, the high princess of pop, Lady Gaga no less was coming to this hallowed institution to launch her 'Born This Way Foundation' (BTWF).
But as I was ushered through tight security guards into the warmth of this sacred hall, I found it hard to leave my scepticism outside in the street, where cold slushy snow was falling on the young fans who had been lining up for hours. Was this a higher form of merchandising? Fans - you've bought the album, live ticket show, poster, T shirt and cuddly toy... now join the movement and btw donate online to the Born This Way Foundation?
But there was no hard sell, no fancy staging, lighting or pyrotechnics on the bare wooden stage. This was an unplugged event like no other, as first Oprah Winfrey and then Lady Gaga's mother, Cynthia Germanotta, and lastly - to rapturous applause - the 25-year-old Lady Gaga herself appeared. Three of the most influential women on the planet, had gathered to launch the BTW Foundation and talk about love, kindness, bravery, and acceptance. I was being won over; I was connecting with my feminine side.
The BTWF has been established to "foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated, helping to connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world." Although a powerful advocate of anti-bullying, Lady Gaga insisted that the Foundation was not an anti-bullying initiative, but more a movement to empower young people and inspire bravery.
"I believe that if you have revolutionary potential you must make the world a better place and use it" she said, seated elegantly in a chair talking to Oprah. "We have to understand what breeds hatred, what breeds anger and what are the signs that a youth empowered individual can pick up on... I want to make it cool to be the kid who says 'something's not right'". Lennon and Yoko Ono inspired a generation to embrace Peace, she told the now euphoric congregation.
She was now initiating a similar movement and was committed to inspiring youth to love more, to be brave and stand up for others, resisting the urge to engage in the casual cruelty and meanness so often expressed in the digital world. This was more than a sermon; this was becoming a rallying cry.
Earlier that day I had joined 90 experts from around the world to attend a Symposium on Youth Meanness and Cruelty brought together by the BTWF and The Berkman Centre for Internet & Society. Thankfully we were joined by a real group of experts - ten extraordinarily brave young people who were developing the kind of projects which the Foundation seeks to promote.
Sharing stories of starting up school chapters to combat bullying, asking teachers for meetings at which they could share about how it felt to be bullied for being gay, how - with no one else to help them - they had to turn to each other for support as they endured the "casual cruelty" and meanness online and in the playground. These are the kind of projects which the Foundation seeks to promote. Together our job was to help frame some of the work of what I feel is a new hybrid organisation; grounded in academic research, executed using political campaign tactics and deployed with the passion and reach of one of the most influential figures in the world.
As I travelled to Boston I had pondered on the seeming contradiction: How can the world's most powerful, edgy, female performance pop icon, really impact the lives of the often damaged, marginalised and bullied youth with integrity and authenticity?
Working as I do with some of the excluded young people (albeit 6,000 miles away in down-town London), I asked my young experts back home what questions I should put to their idol? They replied by texting "Did you always want to be a celebrity and are you comfortable in the public eye?" "Have you read Pigeon English - a book inspired by the story of Damiola Taylor?", as well as the simplest of questions, which was the one I put to Lady Gaga's mother Cynthia Germanotta "What was Lady Gaga's school life like?"
She explained that as a child Lady Gaga had been a good student, getting involved in sport and going to summer camp. However, her enormous drive to create and perform her music became a conflict for her, especially when she wanted to write music while her friends were out playing and found that they didn't understand her. When the isolation and bullying started her teachers didn't see it. Her difference was what set her apart. Is it any wonder then that a central thrust of the Foundation's work will be on helping create safe spaces for young people to explore their identity and difference, and then be skilled up and given opportunities to become modern-day warriors for a braver, kinder world?
My scepticism was thawing as Lady Gaga then took the stand to testify before a panel of expert "judges" who questioned her more about the hopes of the BTWF. It's not just any old celebrity who can go head to head with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, the Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, Psychologist Susan M. Swearer, LGBT parent, David Burtka and Alyssa Rodemeyer, the sister of Jamey Rodemeyer who took his life after being bullied for being gay.
This was no staged Q&A and it soon became clear that Lady Gaga is no push over. Responding to a question from one of the young people about the best way to teach students how to be brave, Susan Swearer explained that she felt that training for parents and teachers was vital. However in her now familiarly direct manner Lady Gaga said "I don't think that works. I don't know that teachers even give a shit some of them, (not the ones in this room obviously), what I want is for Alyssa and other youth like her to intervene. It's not that I don't think parents and teachers aren't capable, it's just that we've been talking about this for so long and it's not working"
Of course many school leaders and parents may have genuine questions about how someone whose often provocative videos containing overtly sexual and violent images, and convey mixed messages about body image and disability can be a suitable spokesperson for a kinder, gentler world. But it seems her millions of fans (20 million of which follow her on Twitter) can separate the performance and the persona from the gentle, articulate, genuine young leader, for them her overarching message of bravery and respect comes through. "I truly believe I have so many followers on Twitter because I say nice stuff... I get a tremendous amount of hateful messages but I don't talk about these why give them energy ?" she explained to the audience.
In a week when three children have been shot in another US school shooting by a fellow pupil, America needs its youth to be brave. Whether you are born this way, I'm not sure. Many of the children I work with aren't, it is often a cruel society and the abandonment by adults that they have to struggle with.
As the launch began to close Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia held hands and thanked people for being here. Her words "We can't do this on our own we need everyone" were echoing in my head as her highly supportive mother continued to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. "We always taught our children to give something back she had told me earlier," One may be Born to be Brave but remaining brave has so much to do with older role models and mothers in particular.
Find out more about the BTWF at www.bornthiswayfoundation.org
Stephen's films with excluded young people can be seen at www.munchpokeping.com
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