Harvard Goes Gaga

A star-studded panel celebrates the launch of the Born This Way Foundation.

Lady Gaga poses with a fan near the Science Center before the Sanders Theatre panel.

[extra:Extra] Scroll down to see a video excerpt from the event with Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga may have been the center of attention at the event held today to announce the launch of her Born This Way Foundation, but the foundation’s power, she said, rests in the hands of her audience.

More than an anti-bullying foundation, she said, “this is a youth empowerment foundation.” Pressed for specifics about the best ways to fight bullying, the singer (whose real name is Stefani Germanotta) time after time turned the question back to her listeners and fellow panelists.

Change starts at the bottom, she said—not by training teachers to spot bullying, but through individual students telling their peers that bullying isn’t OK.

“What this is all about is saying the power is in your hands,” she said. “How can we come together with the greatest experts in the world—you—and come up with all of the amazing ways we can inject love, acceptance, and tolerance into the culture?”

She was joined onstage by some of those experts: Oprah Winfrey; Deepak Chopra; U.S. secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius; Climenko professor of law Charles Ogletree; actor, chef, and gay-rights activist David Burtka; Susan Swearer, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Alyssa Rodemeyer, whose brother, Jamey Rodemeyer, committed suicide last year at age 14 after being bullied for being gay. The event started as a discussion between Gaga and Winfrey; later, Ogletree led a mock-courtroom-style interrogation, complete with a gavel; Gaga, the chief witness, answered questions from panelists and audience members, occasionally calling on the panelists themselves as expert witnesses.

Gaga said she saw her primary role as calling attention to the cause: “If anyone knows how to get a message out there, it’s me.”

The always-flamboyant singer toned it down for her Harvard appearance, choosing a simple, long, black dress; distinguishing details were lace gloves and a sculptural hat, made of black mesh and wider than her shoulders.

Also smartly dressed in black was Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, who will run the foundation. (“This is our first collaboration,” Gaga confided.)

Earlier in the day, Gaga had attended a youth summit (organized as a companion event) at the Graduate School of Education, in which a dozen students shared their stories of being bullied for being gay, transgendered, or just “too different.” Being in the same room with their idol (who herself was once a target of bullying) proved to be an emotional experience: “I’m so nervous I can barely speak,” said one female student from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Those speakers, along with other high-school students who attended the summit, also received tickets to the Sanders Theatre event; many were visibly in tears as Gaga spoke.

There was a certain amount of mutual admiration among all the participants in the day’s star-studded festivities. President Drew Faust said she was honored that Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Graduate School of Education are partnering with the Born This Way Foundation. (The MacArthur Foundation is a third partner; neither Gaga nor the organizations involved have commented on what their specific roles will be.)

“What a banner day for Harvard to have all three powerful women”—Gaga, Winfrey, and Sebelius—“here in Sanders Theatre combining their power and directing their influence to advance, as the Born This Way Foundation puts it, kindness, bravery, acceptance, and empowerment,” Faust said.

Walking onstage to a standing ovation and a cheering crowd, Gaga’s first words were: “I just have one thing to say before we get started: ‘We got Oprah!’” To that, Winfrey replied: “I’ll tell you, what’s so impressive to me is that you got Harvard!”

Gaga urged her listeners to visit the foundation’s website and join its e-mail list. The site will serve as a resource for distributing information, but the “movement,” she said, will rely on the efforts of students, parents, and teachers everywhere to “foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.”

“In terms of Harvard, it’s incredible how many people want to bring humankind together to do great things,” Gaga said. “Sometimes people say to me, ‘How hard is it to change the world?’ and I say, ‘Not that hard.’” 

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