Interesting People Doing Important Work: Maya Enista Smith

Like many parents across the country, Maya Enista Smith got a new job last year – homeschooling her two young children. It’s a bit of a departure from her normal 9-5, or rather, her 24/7/365. Smith is the Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation, the youth-serving, kindness-promoting non-profit founded by pop star Lady Gaga (aka Stefani Germanotta) and her mother Cynthia Germanotta. Running an organization headed by an international superstar means Smith typically travels 70% of the time. “I hadn’t been home for more than two weeks at a time since my kids were born,” she says.

Smith has been the day-to-day lead at Born This Way Foundation since the organization’s inception nine years ago. She was nine months pregnant at the time, managing a non-profit focused on youth civic engagement in Washington, D.C., when Lady Gaga’s management company called asking for a meeting. Excited and intrigued, she bucked medical advice and flew across the country to hear about the vision for the Foundation and pitch her ideas and herself. It was a “match made in heaven” – both Smith and Lady Gaga firmly believe that young people should have a voice, something Smith had been working towards her entire career.

Since that meeting, the Foundation has grown into a powerhouse of various programs, all working towards building a kinder and braver world. Its mission comes from Lady Gaga’s personal experience with being bullied as a child. From a young age, she knew she’d dedicate herself to “making sure other young people not only survived but that they were able to thrive.” To that end, the Foundation has three stated goals: to make kindness cool, to validate the emotions of young people around the world, and to eliminate the stigma around mental health.

In service of those goals, the Foundation developed programs like teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA), a partnership with the National Council for Behavioral Health, which teaches high school students how to support their own mental wellbeing and recognize the signs of mental health and substance abuse issues in their friends and peers. “We know from research that young people often turn to each other, so we need to make sure that young people are ready for those conversations if a friend comes to them in crisis,” says Smith. “If someone reaches out and says they’re thinking of taking their life or struggling with a substance abuse issue, how do you meet that person with resources?” At the start of the nationwide shutdown in March, the program was up and running in 83 high schools as a pilot program. Now, the program is in nearly 200 schools, and pivoting to virtual training under COVID.

Another initiative, #BeKind21 campaign, is close to Smith’s heart. “I know I’m not supposed to have a favorite, but #BeKind21 is totally my favorite,” she says. The campaign is an invitation for everyone, including parents, teachers, and students, to practice kindness the first 21 days of the school year. The program first started at Smith’s son’s school, where as “kindness co-chair,” she asked students and teachers, “How can we build a habit of kindness? How can we make kindness be this muscle instead of this transactional thing?” She soon brought the program to the Foundation wherein the first year, 440,000 people signed up, resulting in over eight million acts of kindness. (Smith says this past year, 5.3 million people produced 112 million unique acts of kindness.), another program of the Foundation, is an online platform that captures stories of kindness and community from young people. Smith developed the idea for the program as a response to the negative representation of youth in the media and press. “I was just sort of overwhelmed with negativity and felt like my generation was being painted with this apathetic, disengaged, and violent brush,” she said. She wanted to flip the script and tell a different story about young people and their resilience, kindness, hope, and ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”

For Smith, working with young adults has always been a passion, even as she, herself, is barely out of the demographic. “I think there is something special about this generation of young people,” she says. “We, the millennials, are the most diverse, most tech-savvy, most collaborative, most hopeful…I think as generations continue to get younger, they’ll get even more collaborative, even more diverse, and even more hopeful.” She says that given all of the challenges young people are facing today – unemployment, student debt, political unrest – it is inspiring how they continue to be hopeful, build community, and practice kindness. “There’s something about their belief that they can and will change the world that makes me and so many other people want to leverage every platform and asset that we have to elevate this hope, this talent, and this resilience.”

The need to cling to hope is a defining aspect of Smith’s life. As the child of immigrants, she watched her parents, originally from Romania, give up everything and rebuild their lives for the promise of democracy, choice, and freedom. They struggled, hoping to offer her the chance for a better life. Then, on September 11th, 2001, Smith started her first class of college at Rutgers University. The aftermath of 9/11, Smith says, was a “moment where I understood the power of community, the need for connection, the desperation of finding hope.” And so she’s built her life and her career around it.

Now, as the country faces a new, daunting challenge, Born This Way Foundation has mobilized its resources and relationships to respond to the need they’re witnessing across the country. The Foundation established a Kindness in Community fund as a rapid response funding vehicle to support organizations working on the mental health implications of the pandemic and to invest in Black-led community organizations.

“I think we are more aware than ever of the consequence of inaction right now because of how many people are suffering,” she said. Smith believes that we all have the power to effect change, and we can all find ways to give our time, treasure, and talent to uplift our communities.

In this environment, Smith is relentlessly aware of the privilege she enjoys. “The experience that some moms are having is not okay,” she says. She noted that food insecurity in Black families is up to 40% since the pandemic. “Anything that we can do to try and give people the peace of mind – that I don’t even deserve but that I’ve been privileged to have – is really where I spend the majority of my personal philanthropy. I’m always super grateful for the problems that I get to complain about.”

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