“With all due respect, what makes you think you have all the answers?” teenaged Alyssa Rodemeyer asks Lady Gaga. They’re both seated on stage at the launch of Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, which seeks to empower young people to be braver, kinder, and while they’re at it, prevent bullying. For Rodemeyer, whose younger brother committed suicide after years of bullying, the question is deeply personal.
“I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have very few,” Gaga is quick to admit. What she does have is a lofty goal and a Foundation stacked with experts well-suited to help achieve it.
Among them is Professor Dewey Cornell, director of UVA’s Virginia Youth Violence Project. He joined Lady Gaga and other luminaries, including Oprah, at the foundation’s first symposium in February.
As a forensic clinical psychologist with decades of experience examining criminal defendants, Cornell has a long-standing commitment to understanding violence and bullying. He recalls in particular a case he worked on nearly 30 years ago in which a 16-year-old boy was accused of murdering a 14-year-old girl. The girl had been teasing him, calling him names, and other kids followed suit. In time the boy became depressed and angry, and one day, he killed her.
For Cornell, the case really drove home the severity and importance of the bullying problem. “I realized that as a psychologist I didn’t have a very good understanding of why something seemingly as simple as calling somebody a name could lead to murder, and so I began to study juvenile homicide and safety in school, and eventually, bullying.”
When it comes to prevention, however, Cornell says there’s much work left to do. “So far, our efforts to reduce bullying have had mixed success. I think there’s general agreement that we have programs that can reduce bullying to a certain extent,” says Cornell, “but we’re not satisfied with that, so there is an active search for more effective ways to reduce and prevent bullying.”
The Born This Way Foundation, harnessing Lady Gaga’s celebrity power to fundraise and inspire, has the potential to greatly augment these efforts. “[The Foundation] really wants to facilitate cultural change so that young people … help us construct a better society that’s more tolerant and inclusive and productive,” Cornell explains. “I don’t think you can get much more ambitious than that as a goal.”
Lady Gaga and Professor Cornell take different, but complementary approaches in pursuit of this mission. While Gaga gets the Born Brave bus ready for its national tour—a kindness tailgate party at every stop, as she envisions it—Professor Cornell will be hard at work identifying research needs, examining evidence and helping pave the way to a kinder, braver future.
Video from the launch event includes Ophrah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and others asking Gaga about her vision for the foundation.