This interview is the first of 10 in a series of Q and As with leading changemakers, representing the Millennial generation who are working across sectors to be the force for change on the issues they care about most.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work
My name is Maya. I’m almost 35. I am married to my favorite person ever, Dave, and we have two wonderful kids and a black lab named Hudson. I have the privilege of serving as Executive Director of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, where I work with an incredible team of kind, funny people. Our joint mission is to build a kinder and braver world by focusing on the power and potential of young people. We are working to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and to prove the transformative impact that kindness has in our lives and our communities.
I also have very, very nice handwriting. And I love very few things as much as I love New York City, sushi and receiving an old fashioned card or letter in the mail.
What problem keeps you up at night? What do you think it will take to solve it?
The widening gap between what people do have and don’t have, in every sense. I felt this first when I was growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City and I volunteered with a nonprofit in Newark, NJ. The school in which I volunteered was two miles away from my house, but it felt like it was in a different world—the classroom, the textbooks, the playgrounds, everything. It didn’t seem fair because my parents didn’t love me any more than the parents of the kids in that school loved them, but what we could access and expect was completely different.
Ten years after that experience, when I was starting my own family, I had postpartum depression. I was now living in affluent San Francisco suburb with access to care, resources, community and anything else I could have needed and still, I was sick. I came to the Foundation in part because I couldn’t fathom getting through it —with all of the resources and help—and I began to understand the importance of prioritizing mental health, the healing power of kindness and the responsibility that we all have to—when we have more than we need—build a longer table, not a higher fence.
I think that kindness is a great equalizer, it gently points to injustice and takes action to right it and when we act out of kindness, in the spirit of an inclusive community, we begin to solve so many of the problems that we face.
With technology, the barriers to taking action have continued to come down – how do you think that has influenced the way you and others take part in social movements and causes?
The way we live our lives isn’t separate from social movements and causes. We don’t go to the gym, surf social media, spend 30 minutes on a cause and then end the day with happy hour – it’s interrelated and it’s just how we do life.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Young people are ready for a change that institutions aren’t yet embracing; why aren’t we talking about mental health in schools when young people want to do just that? That disconnect is our biggest challenge, and is one we’re working to overcome.
Why do you think it’s important that causes meet young people where they are to engage with social issues today?
What other choice do we have?
What has been your favorite success story?
I have never given this answer before, but today, it’s the ones that I’ll never hear. Our work spans the cute and kind feel good memes on social media to active, one-on-one suicide prevention work. I’m deep in the statistics around mental health and back to school season and the increasing suicide rate (especially among young women of color) and I’m obsessed with what we can do about it. As a parent, it’s hard and important information to know so well and so intimately and unfortunately, I will continue to get the emails from families setting up In Honorarium pages for a child they lost to suicide or personal notes from teachers coping with a suicide in their classroom, searching for resources. I hope that one day those emails don’t come because young people are surviving and thriving but for now, my favorite success story is the one that I don’t get to hear often but I have to believe they exist – of the young person that because of an interaction, an invitation, an act of kindness, a conversation on mental health, a resource that exists, did not give up.
Who are some fellow next generation leaders you admire?
I admire Kirsten Lodal, the founder and CEO of LIFT. She was one of the first people I told when I was leading a national nonprofit that I was pregnant. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I could be the type of mother and type of leader I so desperately wanted to be, and she calmly reassured me that it was possible. By watching her life, I saw an example of someone continue to have a profound impact on her community and still be fully present in her family. She’s an incredible wife and mother.
I admire Khloe Thompson from Khloe Kares. When I first met her, she was a spunky nine year old who was on a mission to make homeless people feel dignity, warmth and care. I’ve met her family and I can see where this deep affection for the world comes from, but I was blown away by her clarity, focus and steadfast belief that she was put on this earth to help people. I’ve served alongside her a couple of times and encourage everyone to visit her website and if possible, get in the same room with her. If you’ve lost it, you’ll restore your faith in the world after getting to know Khloe. She is the embodiment of the future that I want my children to live in.
I admire my husband, David Smith. He leads X-Sector Labs, a cross-sector solution consultancy and he’s running for City Council in our town. I’ve never met anyone more destined for public service than he, and I’m so proud that he’s made the brave decision to run for public office. I’m grateful for his example, partnership and vision for the world and while I don’t him this enough in person, I’m happy to write it in a blog – I admire him. He’s also very dreamy.
I admire Amber Goodwin. Amber is leading the Community Justice Reform Coalition and I’ve had the privilege of watching Amber from near and far over the past 15+ years! She is a fierce advocate, an unapologetically strong woman and a movement leader. She is not afraid of disagreement and I’ve learned so much from her about how to sit in the discomfort of my privilege and let it guide me toward action. She is also hilarious.
What is one thing you think everyone should know about your generation?
We are not the “future” X, Y or Z. We are not the “next” A, B or C. We are leading, we are changing the world and we are doing so with urgency and with idealism.
What’s next for you? What are some of your dreams and goals?
An old friend and I caught up lately and as I told her about my job, she remarked that she couldn’t imagine a better fit for my personality, strengths and passion and that she imagined it didn’t even feel like a job most days. She is absolutely right. I can’t believe I have this job, this opportunity, this responsibility. We have SO much more work to do and because of the generosity, passion and commitment of Lady Gaga, we can make the impossible possible. I want to write more, I’d love to convince my husband to have another baby, I wish I was disciplined enough to stop scrolling social media aimlessly and my biggest dream is to have to kind, healthy, funny and caring children who are proud of me.
How can people interested in your cause learn more?
Please connect with us on social media @btwfoundation on Twitter and Instagram and @BornThisWayFoundation on Facebook; and @channelkindness on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Check out our website at bornthisway.foundation. To get a balance of kindness, babies and my handwriting, you can follow me at @MEnista (Twitter) or @MayaBTWF (Instagram).
I’m also really proud of our #BeKind21 challenge, and I’d love for everyone to check it out and hopefully, sign up: bornthisway.foundation/bekind21
We will be featuring interviews from each of the 10 leaders representing the Millennial generation on key movements and issues today who participated in our recent 10-day Instagram takeover. Stay tuned for the rest of this series and see their stories as part of an infographic detailing ten key traits about how Millennials engage with causes, based on our ten years of research, here.