#TeaWithMrsG featuring our Maya Smith!

April 02, 2020
This story took place in United States

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For a special edition of #TeaWithMrsG, our co-founder Cynthia hosted the show’s first guest, our executive director Maya! They teamed up to answer questions from Born This Way Foundation’s community about topics like what we can do to support our mental health, their favorite moments working with the Foundation, and advice on how young people can follow their dreams. You can find the full video on Cynthia’s Instagram (@momgerm) and the full Q+A transcript below. 

Question: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in these days of quarantine? 

Maya: I think, now, and always words really matter and so I think this concept that we’ve popularized of social distancing is so important and it represents such an important action that we’re taking to care and be kind for the people around us. But what’s actually happening is we’re asking people to take physical distance from each other and we’re asking them to stay socially connected. So I’ve started to change my language with my family, with my circle, with my platforms, to say that we’re in a moment of physical distancing but social connection. So I think that’s really important. I think for someone who’s extroverted like I am and like I know you are it’s hard to wrap our brains around the idea of socially disconnecting from people. Physical distance, I’m ok with. Social distance, I’m not. And then, there are so many ways, at this moment, to be kind, to reach out, to stay connected. Mitu, one of our incredible colleagues, had a game night with some friends over Zoom. I didn’t even know you could do that, but the examples are all around us of ways to stay socially connected and physically distant. 

Cynthia: So important, thank you for that. 

Question: How do you practice positive thinking during times like these? 

Cynthia: Some of the things that I’ve been doing is I start my day with a gratitude journal, and I’ve been writing, you know, three things that I’m grateful for that morning. I follow that with a little bit of an inspirational passage in another book and what that does is it just sets my brain and my mindset to a point of feeling grateful for what I have. I have also for self-care been doing meditation. It’s called Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s been incredibly helpful and I have also been limiting the news intake. That definitely helps to keep me in more of a positive frame of mind. I look for good news as well as listening to the realities right now. 

Maya: On my mind, I got a puppy. Everybody knows that I joined – Kai joined our family and he’s been a great way of self-care. I am also a big proponent of the naps, and I think giving yourself permission to do whatever it takes to keep yourself well and have grace with yourself. There are some day’s success looks like changing out of your day pajamas into your night pajamas. Be kind to yourself in this moment. 

Question: Does journaling or expressing your feelings out loud help you guys more?

Maya: So much, so much. My husband asks me if I want him to listen or fix when I just start talking cause I have to start just processing things, and he’s like “is this listening, or fixing?” I’m like I just have to say it. So it is true that naming your emotions and the experiences that you’re having are a very very important way to begin this processing about everything that we’re all holding right now, right? And so what I’ve been doing is thinking about different things that I’m grateful for but then also allowing space to the emotions that I’m having that are like big and sad, right? Like I’m sad that my kids can’t go to school. I’m sad that Hunter’s missing time with his incredible first-grade teacher. I’m sad that I can’t go to Starbucks and see my favorite baristas. And naming those, listing them in whatever form that you want to allows both things to be true. You can be grateful for being able to feed your family for an incredibly fulfilling job, for incredible friends, and you could be heartbroken for these other things. So absolutely, it’s an important thing to do and for any of the people that are watching, if you wanna write about the experience that you’re having, we would love to have you on the Channel Kindness platform. It is a platform built for and by young people. So please check out channelkindness.org and add your voices.

Cynthia: So powerful, writing. It’s a great way of getting your emotions out and on paper or talking to someone.

Question From Maya: “How do you keep yourself from not getting overwhelmed? You just radiate this like “calm.” And I was telling the team this morning that when we were in Geneva and you got named an ambassador for World Mental Health by the UN, that a gentleman came up to you and said that the reason you were chosen among many, many other reasons, was that the world needs a mother. And that’s a comment that has stayed with me since we were there and it’s what I’m seeing you do with these tea times. So how are you able to access that “inner calm,” and radiate such peace in the way that you do?”

Cynthia: Thank you Maya, that’s a beautiful complement. I don’t know that there’s a trick or a scope for that. I had an incredible role model that was my mother who happens to have a very deep inner strength about her and had a very calm presence and so I don’t know, perhaps that was some of it. But the other thing that might help that I think everybody can adopt is, you know in our household, we were always day at a time, moment at a time, people. I mean even though we’re planners, and I plan and I think it’s incredibly important, if you deal with that moment, you can create a more peaceful and a more calm environment if you’re just simply focused on what’s happening. I guess some people call it mindfulness right, and the practice of being in the moment. I think that really helps to ground us, and it helps develop a sense of calm.

Question: What are some of your favorite memories at Born This Way Foundation?

Cynthia: One of my favorites was the day that we launched because it was one of the greatest moments of my life. To have the privilege to work with young people, to learn from them, to help create a world that inspires and empowers them to take hold and feel valued was so important and then, on top of it, to do that with my daughter and with our family was really really special for me.

Maya: I can’t imagine the pride, every day, that you must have and the way that you, your daughter’s, Joe, everybody have chosen to use their voice and this responsibility and opportunity in the world. No pressure for Hunter and Logan. 

Cynthia: But now it’s your turn. What are your favorite moments? 

Maya: Two come up for me. The first thing that is just so fresh in my brain, especially just given the work that Team Rubicon is doing today to respond to the pandemic, is we had the incredible privilege in December of 2017 we served alongside Team Rubicon in Houston, Texas. You were there, some members of our team were there, and Lady Gaga was there. And I’ll never forget when I got that phone call from LG and she said, “I want to serve, I want to get in the community because it had just recently been hit by a hurricane and I want to help. There’s so much suffering and so many houses are still in bad shape and I want to do something on the day of my show.” 

So I called Jake Wood, who’s a dear friend of mine, and he’s the Founder of Team Rubicon, and I said, “we want to come and we want to help someone get their house in order” and he said, “Great, well we’ll just find a house that volunteers are working on and you guys can just swing by and do a press conference and then she can be in and out in 15 minutes.” And I was like, Jake I don’t think that you understand what I’m saying to you. Lady Gaga wants to do some good and the famous quote has now become “get nasty with the sledgehammer” 

And so that afternoon, that we spent at Ms. Pamela’s house when Lady Gaga was taking down her ceiling, that had received water damage and that mold and those unfit for living conditions that Ms. Pamela had so bravely kept her family in, that’s one of the most important moments for me at the Foundation. Both because I got to see the impact that our work was having in communities through supporting organizations like Team Rubicon, but I think more than anything, I saw who Lady Gaga truly was, what your family was about in the world. I remember she didn’t introduce herself to Ms. Pamela other than to say, “Thank you for having me in your house. Is there anything I can do to help you” and she ended up getting lunch for Ms. Pamela and her friends, but a couple of hours into us being there, Ms. Pamela pulls my shirt and she says, “Is that really Lady Gaga in my house?” And I said, “yes, Ms. Pamela, it is.” 

Cynthia: [Laughs]

Maya: Right?

Cynthia: Tearing it down.

Maya: Yeah, I’m so sorry. [laughs] But there wasn’t a single camera, there wasn’t a single reporter, it was just about her in the community doing good. So that’s one of the moments that rises to the top for me, but truly every day at the Foundation is just so incredible. Thank you for this opportunity to do this work. 

Cynthia: Thank you. We have an amazing team and yeah, that moment in Houston. That was so profound and I know we all walked away with a better appreciation for the magnitude of heroism not only for Team Rubicon but then the tragedy that Pamela and her family and everybody that went through that was experiencing. So I can see why that was a special moment for you.

Question: Is it difficult or stressful for you sometimes to work on mental health, which is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things to lead with?

Cynthia: Maria, that’s a great question and, you know, I will answer and Maya will have a comment as well. Yes, it is both difficult and it is stressful to work on mental health for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it has personally touched my life. Our family has been touched by it. Nobody is immune from this happening in your family, so when you come from that base, it reminds you of those feelings. They’re constantly pulled up, you know, what you dealt with personally. And you look back on it and you say, “Maybe I could have done something better. What did I miss?” So it digs up all of these feelings but it also teaches us that, you know, we’re fallible and we make mistakes and we learn from them and we learn how to make it better moving forward. And I know through Born This Way Foundation, working with young people, all of the incredible research that we do that we have learned so much about mental health from young people and what their needs are. So, I thank you for asking that. And Maya, any comments that you have?

Maya: I think for me the words that come up of how this work makes me feel is it’s urgent and hopeful. Right? So the urgent piece, what Cynthia talked about, is we are so aware of the cost of inaction, right?, in the most basic human life quantity, right? So we know we have to do this work because as Cynthia said, I think all of us have been touched in some way or another by mental health. My father-in-law committed suicide – died by suicide, apologies, ten years ago and so when I think about the work that we’re doing, it’s to spare one other family from what we went through and then it’ll have been success – so it’s really personal and urgent. But I think when you look at the ways that young people are taking their mental health into their own hands, whether it’s Ali at Find Your Anchor Box, whether it’s the incredible team at notOK App, whether it’s Crisis Text Line and the amazing, life-saving work that they’re doing, young people are really at the forefront of solving the problems that they’re facing and so that makes me very hopeful. 

Cynthia: That’s just great. 

Question: What is the one thing that you both love most or are most proud of when it comes to your work and what would your advice be to young people around the world who have taken inspiration and would like to follow in your footsteps?

Maya: The idea of anyone wanting to follow in my footsteps is just overwhelming. You’re perfect just the way you are, follow your own footsteps! I think the thing I am proudest of… I think I would be remiss not to in this moment talk about #BeKind21. And Cynthia, I know you’ve had this experience as a working mom. There are very few moments in life when like being a working mom, when you get to make the right choice personally and professionally. A lot of the times the choices are at odds. And so with #BeKind21, I think a lot of folks know that it started as a project that I did for Hunter’s kindergarten class and it was a way for me to continue to stay engaged and volunteer in his classroom and so I met with his class and we talked about how it was important to build the habit, a muscle around kindness. And so we created a calendar, 21 things to do for teachers, parents, and students to start the school year off kindly. And then I had the incredible privilege of being in Malibu with you Cynthia, and with Lady Gaga, and I was telling you both about this campaign and you so keenly said “I think there’s probably other moms having similar conversations with their kids, we should make a campaign out of this.” And so in the first year, because of this conversation that I got to have with Hunter, 440,000 people signed up for #BeKind21. Next year, this passed year, over 1.9 Million people signed up, resulting in 42 Million acts of kindness, and for me it’s an incredibly successful foundation campaign, but it represents one of the chances that I had to make the right choice as a mom and as a leader here at the Foundation. And so I think what I would say to other people who want to find their passion and their purpose, is think about what you have that’s unique. What do you have an abundance of? Right? And for me in that moment with Hunter’s class, I had this platform that could spread kindness. Right? And I could’ve very well said, I’m too busy I don’t have time, but I thought to myself, “how could I use what I have in this moment with these kids to do something as a mom and as an Executive Director. So I refuse to make the choice between the two in that moment, and #BeKind21 was created. So I’m really proud about that. What about you?

Cynthia: Well you should be proud, and we’re proud of you and also Hunter for doing that, so see, the success came from little people or babies as you [Maya] call them. So myself, one of the things that I’m most proud of, is seeing the enormous success and growth of young people. You know, we consciously built a platform to always consider the voice of young people, that their voice should always be heard and valued. And seeing that happen, seeing young people share their stories and rise up on platforms like Channel Kindness, on BeKind21, through teen Mental Health First Aid, that to me has been my proudest – feeling a sense of accomplishment, by enabling young people to do what they love and follow their passion. And I think you gave great information and inspiration for young people looking to follow in whatever footsteps’ they should follow their own. But I would also just encourage [young people] to start somewhere. There is so much incredible work going on in the nonprofit space. Learn about it. Read about. I mean, we have incredible partners, you can read some of their stories online. And you can volunteer or you can work there. I mean there’s a lot of opportunities out there for you to get started and go on your way.

Maya: And I think you would agree. I – when I was studying in college, when I was picking a major, I could not have imagined this life and this work, right? So, if I had followed – there was nobody who had a path like Lady Gaga, no one had a path like your family, no one had a path like running this foundation, so I think it’s really important for you to, like, imagine the unimaginable. Nobody told me that I could make this type of work my life’s work. I can’t imagine that you this what you thought this is what you’d be doing in the world. 

Cynthia: No, for sure. You know, and I would also say, don’t expect your path to be a straight line – it’s a long, winding curve. Allow yourself to follow it. Allow yourself to have all of those interesting experiences. I mean, I spent 25 years in the corporate world. Never in my life would I imagine that I would be doing this now and it’s just a wonderful discovery, it’s a self discovery, it’s a discovery of other people, it’s a wonderful surprise. So, again, follow that incredible path and journey of yours and enjoy every moment of it.

Cynthia: Well, Maya, I can’t thank you enough for having this conversation today. I’m so grateful and proud to work with you each and every day. And you’re an amazing leader and an amazing example for young people, so thank you and also thank you everybody out there for listening. We hope to do so much more of this and we will talk to you soon. Be kind, stay brave, and we love you all. 

Maya: Thank you! Bye everybody! 

Cynthia: Bye! Bye, Maya!

Maya: Bye!

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