Natalie Portman loves the Babysitter’s Club. “When I finally stopped reading them, I had like 100 books. I was obsessed,” she proclaims while settling into her dressing room backstage at WE Day California. A fictional YA series about a group of teenage girls who start their own babysitting business, the young entrepreneurs living out their ambitions between the pages of each BSC book were strong female role models for Portman.
These days, Portman—a Harvard graduate and Oscar-winner—is the role model. A passionate and respected supporter of women’s rights, she is one of the founding signatories of Time’s Up, a movement, predicated by #MeToo, founded to address inequality, as well as to support safe, fair and dignified work for women. Its purpose, as the actress explains, is to “allow women to earn a living in a way they don’t have to fear for their own safety, they can just do their jobs and do them well.”
Portman also happens to be a long-time ambassador for WE, the charity behind some of her earliest advocacy work. As a movement, WE believes that by working together people can create a better world. Founded over 20 years ago by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, the charity acts as a resource for would-be social advocates looking for the inspiration and tools to create positive change.
Like WE, Portman understands the importance of solidarity when advocating for a cause. “Being so united, like a large sisterhood, is a big part of the fight for women’s empowerment,” says the mother of two. “That’s where our power is. We are half of the population, so joining together really is the key to all of it.”
“Being so united, like a large sisterhood, is a big part of the fight for women’s empowerment. That’s where our power is. We are half of the population, so joining together really is the key to all of it.”
While being a voice for her silenced sisters is what motivates Portman today, she wasn’t always aware of the struggle—often invisible—going on around her. “I think I was brought up to believe that the fight was over and that I had equal rights,” she says. “It took me into my adulthood to realize that we still have such a far way to go.”
For Portman, advocating for equality is a never-ending learning process. “I’m still learning about all of the ways in which women are held back from reaching their full potential because of various historical systems of oppression—even in very subtle ways.”
The quest for knowledge has taken her around the world. Years before the Harvey Weinstein controversy revealed Hollywood’s unsavoury behind-the-scenes dealings to the world, the issue of women’s rights was already of high importance to Portman.
In 2011, she joined WE’s the Power of a Girl campaign. As an ambassador, she encouraged youth in North America and the UK to fundraise for girls’ education in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With WE’s newly opened Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School in the region, change was on the horizon.
Four years later, Portman visited the school herself during a ME to WE Trip—a culturally immersive service-learning experience offered in WE’s international development regions. The visit was a revelation. While meeting with Kisaruni graduates, she listened as students explained the imbalance of power caused by educational disparities between boys and girls in Kenya—something not uncommon in developing communities. There in Kenya, she saw firsthand the universality of inequality. Whether a classroom in Kenya or in a boardroom in California, the fight for equal rights is the same for women around the world.
The WE Villages development model, though, has helped usher in transformation. When the community broke ground on Kisaruni, it opened the gateway to opportunity for local girls. Here, young women, like the ones Portman met during her trip, treasured the chance to earn an education.
Their earnest passion gave Portman a new sense of perspective. “To think about all the days that I groaned about going to school or that I was annoyed about doing homework,” she recalls. “Then to see these girls’ pride and work ethic, and how seriously they take the privilege of having education, it made me more grateful for my opportunities. It helped me realize how much I had taken for granted.”
Stateside, Portman’s passion for girl’s education was invigorated by her ME to WE Trip. “It absolutely brought me back with new eyes.” The following year, in 2016, Portman used her status as Miss Dior to promote the global fashion and beauty brand’s online charity initiative, Love Chain. Launched to create positive online conversations, the campaign asked people to post what they would do for love on social media. For every post, Dior donated $1 to WE to help provide girls in Kenya with access to education.
Evidently, Portman’s list of advocacy work with WE is long, but it wasn’t until 2019—after nearly a decade into her relationship with the movement—that she finally made it to the big show: WE Day.
A stadium-sized event that unites thousands of youth across North America and the UK, WE Day sees inspiring speakers and talented performers, including Selena Gomez, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Chance the Rapper, take the stage before an audience of young change-makers. As for how you get a ticket to the event, that’s what makes WE Day as unique as its audience; each seat is earned through service work.
Seeing the audience’s enthusiasm at the event made Portman think of how pure giving back can be. “We all start out really idealistic and seem to get more pragmatic or jaded as we get older,” she says. Between optimism and sheer determination, the actress envisions boundless opportunities forged by the generation of change-makers she met at WE Day California. She points to the WE co-founders as prime examples of the heights young people can reach when they take a chance. (The youngest Kielburger brother, Craig, was only 12 when WE was founded.) “Look at what Craig and Marc did. By the time they were in their 30s, they had really created a massive movement.”
From her dressing room, a few hundred yards from the stage, the cheers of 17,000 young people are audible. Glancing at a TV playing the live show, the camera pans to the exuberant crowd. “To see all of these young people inspired by these values of empathy is a real antidote to the larger culture,” Portman says. “Seeing how much young people care is incredible.”
Zoe Demarco is a writer and production manager for WE Stories. A third generation journalist, she has a natural curiosity for other people’s lives.