Championing Kindness





In 2012, Cynthia Germanotta, M.A. ’78, and her daughter Stefani–better known to the world as Lady Gaga–launched Born This Way Foundation. Their mission: to support the mental health of young people and to work with them to build a kinder, braver world.

Drawing from her daughter’s experiences and conversations with young people around the world, Germanotta and her team at Born This Way Foundation have developed a vast array of mental health tools for youth. They model healthy conversations, connect young people with resources and services, and build communities that understand, prioritize and foster good mental health.

The input of young people informs every aspect of the foundation’s work, and the team has collected feedback from tens of thousands of youth both in person and online through advisory boards, academic research and surveys. The resulting message is clear: Kindness and mental health are undeniably linked, and kinder environments are key to nurturing better mental health.

“GW Magazine” spoke with Germanotta about her leadership of Born This Way Foundation and how it has changed lives, including her own. (We also asked a few questions about her time at GW, surprises in life and her superbly talented daughters.)




Q: You and your daughter have been incredibly open about her experience being bullied and mental health issues. Why is it so important to talk publicly about mental health?

A: Mental health is an important part of overall health, and yet it’s still often overlooked or stigmatized. When my daughter began sharing her struggles about mental health publicly, I was nervous about how people would react. But she taught me that it is actually brave to share your story, and it’s also an act of kindness because it encourages others to do the same and reminds them that they are not alone. We’ve learned that speaking out and having those open and honest conversations with your loved ones is extremely healthy, a step toward ending the stigma, and helps us understand one another at a deeper level.

My daughter and I hope to encourage others to talk about their own struggles so that they can get the help they need. It is also important to me that we lead by example, showing other families who may be going through similar struggles that there is strength in vulnerability and support available if you reach out.

Mental health issues are very common, yet so many of us don't feel comfortable talking about them openly due to fear of being judged or misunderstood. One in five adults lives with a mental illness, and nearly half of all mental health issues arise before the age of 14. My hope is that by creating safe spaces for youth to share and modeling health conversations around mental health, we can help eliminate the stigma.


Q: Born This Way Foundation celebrated its 10-year anniversary recently. How has the foundation helped change the lives of young people, and how has it changed your life?

A: In the last decade, Born This Way Foundation has been able to make a positive impact on millions of young people around the world. We have worked to create safe, inclusive and braver spaces for young people through our programs and campaigns. We've been able to empower young people to build and find kind communities as well as hone skills such as resilience, empathy and self-expression so they can feel confident in who they are. I’m also proud that we have helped reduce stigma around mental health issues by engaging in conversations with youth about topics related to mental wellness.

Founding Born This Way Foundation has changed my life in so many ways. Above all, it’s given me an even greater appreciation for how resilient young people are when facing adversity, and how much they can accomplish when given the right resources and support. Youth want to make a difference in the world, and I learn a new way they’re doing so every single day.

This work has given me the opportunity to learn about and share the steps I could have taken to better support my daughter. It has been incredibly rewarding, and I'm so proud of all that we have accomplished in the last 10 years. Most importantly, it has shown me that together we really can make a difference in the world—no matter how small or large our actions might be. That is something we should all strive for every day!  



“Building a kinder, braver world with my daughter, our team and thousands of young people is one of the greatest honors of my life.”





Q: Can you share some of the stories of the young people you’ve met?

A: I've had the honor of meeting so many incredible young people through my work with Born This Way Foundation, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I recently joined a call, organized by our friends at United for Global Mental Health, where I heard from youth leaders from across the globe on the urgent need for mental health support resources for young people everywhere—especially those navigating the continuing challenges faced by the pandemic and other ongoing, overlapping crises.

To address these issues, they each shared their perspective on the actions we can take to better support youth mental health in their communities. For example, Vinicius from Brazil advocated for the use of media to connect all young people with helplines and urgent care in order to address the suicide crisis. Jennifer emphasized the importance of checking in with young people to see if the care provided meets their needs, because recovery is not linear and looks different for everyone.

Jamie-Lee showed us that stigma for seeking help for mental health still widely exists in South Africa and called for a more open conversation regarding mental health issues worldwide, including the need for increased advocacy and more mental health education in primary, secondary and high schools. Lastly, Fatima-Zahra energized me with her powerful message that organizations need to work in the spirit of true partnerships with young people, which means that we need to go beyond advisory councils and involve them in the development of mental health programs. In other words, when inviting young people to collaborate, we should make sure they are co-owners of the entire process.

Each of these young people continues to be an inspiration for me and reminds me how much we can learn from the youth of the world. They prove that when given the opportunity, young voices can effect real change in their localities and beyond. I am so proud to work alongside them in creating a future where everyone is supported and empowered to live as their authentic selves.

Born This Way Foundation has been committed to involving the youth voice from our inception, through research, direct interactions and our youth advisers.  


Q: Any advice for young people struggling and for their parents?

A: First, it’s OK to not be OK or feel OK. My advice for young people who are struggling is to ask for help—there is no shame in reaching out and seeking support. Whether it’s talking to a trusted adult or friend, a mental health professional or even using an online resource such as Mindfulness Coach (which offers free self-help resources), know that you don't have to face your struggles alone.

For parents, I encourage them to take the time to really listen and understand their child’s feelings without judgment. Showing empathy and providing unconditional love can make all the difference in helping young people feel understood and supported. Additionally, it's important that parents create an environment where their children can openly talk about their mental health needs so they feel comfortable doing so.

Above all, I want young people and their parents to know that help is available and seeking it out should never be a source of shame or embarrassment. There is strength in vulnerability, so don’t be afraid to reach out for support.


Germanotta participates in the “Washington Post Live” Global Women's Summit.

Germanotta participates in the “Washington Post Live” Global Women's Summit.



Q: Would the 20-year-old you be surprised at how your life has turned out?

A: I know for sure that the 20-year-old me would be surprised at how my life has turned out in many ways. My upbringing was quite simple and humble, growing up in a coal mining town on the banks of a river in West Virginia. My parents worked hard to give all of their children an education, and they raised us to be independent, strong, compassionate and confident.

My life journey, both with career and family, has not been a straightforward one, but it’s definitely been interesting. I have worked in both the corporate and government sectors, with much of my time spent living and working in New York City, and also have come full circle to applying the knowledge I gained at GW in public administration.

It’s been the challenge and joy of a lifetime to start a nonprofit organization in a very innovative and still relatively new space. Still, never could I have imagined that this path would have led to the privilege of getting to meet and work with incredible young people all over the world. Building a kinder, braver world with my daughter, our team and thousands of young people is one of the greatest honors of my life. When folks ask me for advice on their career journey, I always lead with encouraging folks to allow themselves to be surprised and take risks. It can be so rewarding.  
I’m blessed to have a wonderful family and two incredible daughters who have had the opportunity to develop and share their talents while also doing good in the world. I practice gratitude every day and encourage others to do the same, as well as understand their potential to commit to actions large and small to make the world a better place.  


Germanotta and Born This Way Foundation colleagues volunteer with nonprofit Miry’s List.

Germanotta and Born This Way Foundation colleagues volunteer with nonprofit Miry’s List.

Cynthia Germanotta’s sitting in the floor with a group of young people

Hearing from young people is a critical component of Cynthia Germanotta’s work.






Q: Can you tell me a little about your time at GW? Any favorite memories?

A: After graduating from West Virginia University, I moved to Washington, D.C., to study for my master’s degree at GW. It was a huge change, but one I was so excited about and ready for. Coming from that small coal mining town, I remember how cool it was to go to school and live on a beautiful campus, nestled in the midst of a big and unique city. So many experiences and resources were available as long as you took advantage of them, from a great education to diverse culture and opportunities for adventure–all at the epicenter of domestic and international affairs.   One of my other favorite memories was learning in school, which I know may sound strange to some. It was long days, long nights and early mornings–so much studying! But with the support, encouragement and camaraderie of friends, I felt like I could conquer anything that came my way. You can’t get that time back, so the most important thing is to enjoy and make the best of every moment and opportunity!  

Q: Do you have a favorite Lady Gaga song and outfit?

A: I call my daughter Stefi, and I admire and support all that she and her sister, Natali, have accomplished–ALL of the songs, and ALL of the outfits, and above all, ALL of the good they put in the world. I love that they also get to work together often, as Natali has designed many of Stefani’s costumes. However, my favorite thing I love about them both is they have good hearts.  



 Courtesy of Born This Way Foundation