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Building a Kinder World with Maya Enista Smith

Lady Gaga’s Lafayette-based right-hand woman is preaching the gospel of kindness as the executive director of the Born This Way Foundation.


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“[Born This Way Foundation’s] work is going to save lives and make a difference to young people,” says Maya Enista Smith, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Photo by Cali Godley

When Maya Enista Smith got ready to send her eldest, Hunter, off for his first day of kindergarten at Springhill Elementary School in Lafayette last August, she did what a lot of parents do: impress on him the value of being kind. Of playing well with others. Of showing compassion. That alone wasn’t unusual. The way she went about it, on the other hand, may have been a little unorthodox.

Smith, the executive director of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, joined with the school’s parent-faculty club in dreaming up an entire kindness curriculum, which came to be known as Be Kind 21, a three-week crash course in selflessness. For 21 days—the length of time research shows it takes to build a new habit—kids, teachers, and parents would brainstorm simple acts of kindness and put them into action, from holding a door open or writing a thank-you note to sitting with a new classmate at lunch.

“My son got obsessed with it,” Smith says. “He still does it. He’ll try to run ahead to open the door for me. It’s really adorable.”

It’s a modest way to change the world, perhaps, but practical—and effective. “These were manageable acts they could be authen­tic about,” says Springhill’s principal, Mette Thallaug. Signs sprang up around school designating “kindness zones,” and Smith had “Be Kind” T-shirts distributed to be worn on Spirit Wednesdays. “It definitely had a positive energy on the campus,” Thallaug says.

For Smith, 35, the campaign was yet another example of her extraordinary commitment to civic engagement. The nonprofit Born This Way Foundation, which she joined in 2013, aims to support “the wellness of young people and empower them to create a kinder and braver world” through a series of partnerships and a wide array of programming, much of it focused on school-age children and mental health. For example, the foundation trains young people how to respond when a peer is in crisis and connects youth with mental health resources.

This month, as Lady Gaga’s film A Star Is Born garners Oscar buzz, Smith and the foundation have an even bigger platform from which to spread the word. Already, Smith has adopted the Springhill model into a nationwide program, with 440,000 sign­ups and 8 million instances of kindness—which Smith describes as “acts of service to someone else without any expectation of anything in return”—borne into the world.

“When more people think like that, your community will change,” she says. “There’s no way to measure that on an indi­vidual level, but we can get more people thinking about kindness.”

 

A Call to Action

Smith credits that spirit within herself to her parents, an architect father and a psychoanalyst mother, who immigrated to the United States from Romania before Smith was born. She grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers University. But when the 9/11 attacks hit Lower Manhattan, less than 20 miles away, during her first week of college, a switch was flipped. “Right away I Googled ‘youth civic engagement,’” Smith says. “I felt compelled, like I needed to do something.”

She ended up landing a job with the Rock the Vote organization, registering classmates. From there, she joined the Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project, another get-​out-the-vote initiative, where she rose to the role of national field director. A chance encounter at a 2004 Democratic presidential debate led her to meet her future husband, David Smith, who was then launching the millennial-focused non­profit Mobilize.org. He offered her a job as chief operating officer in Washington, D.C., and within months the two were dating. After he left the organization, Smith became CEO, a title she held until 2012, when they moved to David’s native California, settling in the Bay Area.

Soon a call came in from a friend in the entertainment industry, asking if Smith would meet with a mystery celebrity client who was exploring the idea of launching a foundation. Curious, she flew—​while eight months pregnant—to Southern California, where Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the organization’s president, pitched Smith on the nascent enterprise.

“I didn’t know much about the world of celebrity,” Smith says. “I came from this nonprofit, scrappy, do-gooder world. But when I heard about [Lady Gaga’s] personal connection to the project and the vision she had to talk to young people, that sold me. From the first time we met, I’ve really believed she was about it in a way that we could change the world together.”

 

The Real Deal

Since then, the foundation has initiated dozens of wellness programs, including Channel Kindness, an online platform in which 100 youth reporters have docu­mented acts of kindness in their communities. It has matched funds through Donors Choose to aid teachers in building out mental-wellness school projects, and has helped to deliver mental health first aid training to 150,000 people in cities on Lady Gaga’s world tour.

The Born This Way Foundation also uses Lady Gaga’s concerts as an opportunity to invite local nonprofits to table in front of the 60,000-plus fans that come to her shows, and partners with others on their own projects. During a tour stop last year in Houston, the organization joined forces with Team Rubicon, which trains veterans to work in disaster-relief areas, to help muck out a home that had been flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Even Lady Gaga herself participated.

“The thing you worry about when celeb­rities come out is whether they actually want to work, or just take photos. But she showed up to work,” says Jake Wood, the cofounder of Team Rubicon. “And then later that night she did a concert. So it’s even more amazing that she’s out there, the same day she’s performing in front of tens of thousands of people, ripping out drywall.”

Wood calls Smith, whom he first met while she was with Mobilize.org, “relentless” in her selflessness. “What’s amazing about Maya is that she’s so focused on helping other people, whether they’re the recipients of her charity work or her peers and colleagues,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people like that. She’s never asked for anything—only given.”

Such humility suggests that, for Smith, working in close proximity to a global superstar hasn’t inflated her ego. Over coffee she suggests that, closer to home, it’s actually her husband who’s the bigger deal; last fall he ran for Lafayette city council. Though he fell short, he and their son knocked on more than 1,500 doors, making him a recognizable face around town.

Just before the election, while somewhat frayed, Smith flew to Malibu for a meeting with “LG.” “I said, ‘I totally get what you feel like now—I’ve lost my anonymity,’” Smith recalls with a smile.

“She just looked at me and laughed.” bornthisway.foundation.

 

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