On Wednesday, Lady Gaga officially launches her Born This Way Foundation to promote tolerance and empowerment among youth.
Among the star-studded lineup for the event on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass: Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
And University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Susan Swearer.
Swearer, known worldwide for her work with UNL’s Bullying Research Network, is one of five experts leading the day’s breakout session topics addressing issues facing youth and is leading a charge to get this generation of young people more engaged.
If Swearer is a bit star struck, she hides it well.
Her real excitement isn’t so much about meeting the celebrated Gaga — although she definitely is looking forward to it — but of the work Gaga, her mother Cynthia Germanotta, and their nonprofit Born This Way Foundation hope to accomplish: ending bullying, building tolerance, promoting equality, inspiring bravery and empowering young people to change the world.
In talking with Lady Gaga’s staff, Swearer said, she is impressed by the goal and sincerity of their intentions.
“She really has this mission … to really create a world in which youth are kinder, braver, and where meanness and intolerance doesn’t exist … a mission to change a generation of youth,” said Swearer, a professor of educational psychology, in a phone interview.
“I am impressed with her. She didn’t launch this quickly, with ‘Here I am, I am famous, and this is what I’m doing.’ She reached out to researchers and educators across the United States to have the knowledge base to form the world of the foundation,” Swearer said.
Lady Gaga long has been a staunch supporter of anti-bullying legislation. She met with President Barack Obama in September to discuss the issue and visited the White House in December to talk about the problems of bullying, gay harassment and intolerance for human differences.
Germanotta is co-founder and president of the Born This Way Foundation.
“My daughter’s foundation was born out of her passion to create a better world where people are kinder and nicer to one another and are accepted for who they are, regardless of how different they may be,” Germanotta said in an interview with MTV last month. “She has experienced many of the struggles that our youth encounter today and identifies with the lasting effects they can have without proper support. Together, we look forward to creating a new movement that will engage and empower youth and accept them as valuable members of our society.”
That movement officially begins with Wednesday’s launch. Before the celebrity-filled kick-off that evening, the foundation will host break-out sessions on young people’s needs — self-confidence, well-being, mentoring, career development and mentoring, and of course, anti-bullying.
Swearer will lead that session, taking research and translating it into anti-bullying action plans that schools and community groups can put in place. She also will present information at the conference’s final session.
Swearer began studying bullying in 1997, shortly after her arrival at UNL, when a middle-school teacher suggested she study the behavior of bullies. Working with Lincoln Public Schools, she began a formal study in 1998.
“Then Columbine happened,” Swearer said. “And the rest is history.”
Today, bullying garners headlines across the country and comes in just about every social dynamic: cyber, anti-gay, religious, disabilities, mean girl, popular guy vs. not-so-popular, jocks vs. nerds, goths vs. preps … you name it.
“Bullying is such a complex phenomenon, and there are not simple answers or solutions,” Swearer said. “The foundation understands the complexity of bullying prevention and intervention. Many intervention programs are very simplistic; people like that because they want a simple solution. But bullying is such a complicated problem that simple one-shot programs are not going to work.
“This (foundation) has such potential to further the conversation on the complexity of bullying behavior,” Swearer said.
Lady Gaga’s representatives contacted Swearer last summer to talk about her work. Her name was brought up to Gaga’s senior adviser for philanthropy and policy, David Washington, who’s a UNL graduate.
Swearer said she was hopeful after her first contact with Washington but adopted a “we’ll see” approach.
Now, with the grand moment days away, Swearer is hopeful.
After devoting 15 years of research to the issue, she is hoping The Born This Way Foundation can transform the world into a place where bullying and meanness are not tolerated. She hopes it can create a culture where mistreatment of others is not the norm.
“A culture where meanness stands out as something we just don’t do,” Swearer said. “If that culture is in our schools, classrooms, homes and community, then it stands to reason that bullying would cease to exist — or wouldn’t exist as much. Of course, that’s a pipe dream.”
Or maybe not, if Lady Gaga and her foundation have any say.