Pip Collin attends Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation launch

By Philippa Collin

12 March 2012

Pip Collin, ICS researcher and Research Program Leader for the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (opens in a new window), gives a first-hand account of the Born This Way Foundation launch and Berkman Centre for Internet and Society's Symposium at Harvard University.

Looking down on the stage at the Born This Way Foundation launch

Last week Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta launched the Born This Way Foundation (opens in a new window)– aiming to empower and recognise young people as change agents for a kinder, braver world. More than just another Foundation, turbo charged by the creativity, passion and sheer global reach of Lady Gaga, the Foundation could be a powerful, potent new movement for change within the USA and beyond. I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a symposium and the launch at Harvard University.

Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) represents a serious coordination and collaboration across academia, philanthropy and media. They have worked with MacArthur Foundation and Harvard's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society to create their organisation and mission. BTWF was launched at a small but impressive event at Harvard's Sanders Theatre by no less than Oprah Winfrey and featured a 'mock trial' where Lady Gaga was questioned by high school student Alyssa Rodemeyer, psychologist Professor Susan Swearer, Deepak Chopra, US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, gay parent and journalist David Burtka and Harvard Law School Professor, Charles Ogletree. But more importantly, the events of last week demonstrated how BTWF is genuinely reaching out to researchers, practitioners, young people and the general public to inform and build this movement for change.

My small contribution was to co-lead a work stream at the symposium on online and offline bullying and digital citizenship with (the amazing!) youth-tech news blogger and online safety and free speech advocate, Anne Collier (opens in a new window)on 'Grassroots and Peer-Driven Initiatives'. The session brought together a small group of young people, researchers, practitioners, advocates and journalists to form a set of recommendations to BTWF about the evidence, innovative practice, big picture ideas and broad, whole-of-community and cross-sector issues to take into account. Four other work streams had the same mission – to produce a brilliant dish from an intellectual pressure cooker. The buffet we produced was complex, but exciting and here are some of what I think were the critical ingredients.

Cross-sectoral and collaborative BTWF is harnessing existing expertise and networks in the youth safety, health, education and new media spaces. The development of BTWF has built on this and the Berkman Centre's symposium could signal a new era of collaboration. The Young and Well CRC community is much more familiar with this paradigm, but in the USA where competition is the driving principle, the shift to a more collaborative, comprehensive and whole-of-community – perhaps driven by the community – approach could be a game-changer in this space.

Informed by evidence and best practice BTWF has turned to experts. The effort to capture the expertise of researchers, teachers, practitioners and young people has been led by Berkman's Professor John Palfrey and Dr Danah Boyd, with MacArthur Foundation Director of Digital Media and Learning Connie Powell. Working papers can be accessed via Danah Boyd's (opens in a new window)blog. Not surprisingly they're inviting feedback and contributions! The YAW-CRC community is a veritable repository of expertise around bullying, youth new media practice, education, mental health, participation… and more. The call to action is read it, comment and share your work!

Youth-centred. In the USA they are big on 'youth leadership and empowerment'. These are important goals and will be essential components of a society that recognises and enables youth citizenship. But what I was most excited about was the way in which Lady Gaga, her mother, and many of the symposium participants were talking about a broad-based youth movement, looking at the everyday actions of young people, as well as the (outstanding) achievements of teen leaders. As Stephen Carrick-Davies (symposium participant, and thought leader on the impact of communications technologies on the lives of children) pointed out in his article in the Guardian (opens in a new window), perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the event was the way Lady Gaga and her mother repeatedly spoke about the importance of listening to young people. Of course, with more than 20 million followers on Twitter, there are a lot of young people listening to her.

Potential for local and global reach and impact. Lady Gaga is an international success and one of the biggest-selling artists of all time. Her flamboyant, non-conformist style and her radical creativity is an inspiration to millions of young people around the globe. At the launch they rightly talked about the importance of supporting change in 'local' communities. and although BTWF's efforts are currently focused on young people in the USA, it is hard to imagine the ripples will end at the border… Young people, professionals, policy makers and teachers all around the world care about these issues and share the dream to "foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated" (just think of the Inspire Foundation's 'Dream').

The YAW-CRC community knows that this isn't an easy task. There are no easy fixes. Our commitment to studying how social marketing and social media can make a difference (for example, our Smart Online, Safe Offline project) is just one example of where we might be able to link up efforts with the kind of work that the BTWF – and the movement to come – will undertake.

BTWF represents a bold, ambitious project (much like the YAW-CRC) and it isn't the celebrity factor that will be the key to its success. Rather it is the commitment of BTWF to listen to young people and collaboration that will make it a success. Many of the folks I met in the USA last week are turning towards Australia and the YAW-CRC as exemplars of this approach. If we join up our efforts, just imagine what could be achieved…


  • Anne Collier's blog (opens in a new window)about the event.
  • For students and educators, here are working papers (opens in a new window)Young and Well CRC 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 Centre fellow Danah Boyd's blog post about those Berkman papers and the launch, "Born This Way Foundation: Guided by Research" (opens in a new window).
  • Emily Bazelon's account (opens in a new window)of the foundation launch in Slate Magazine (she too was in Young and Well CRC's Grassroots Initiatives Work Stream).
  • Stephen Carrick-Davies's articles in Huffington Post (opens in a new window)and the Guardian (opens in a new window).
  • View the launch (opens in a new window)on YouTube.