Oscars Big Week: Sean Penn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus Among Celebrities Putting Philanthropic Endeavors At The Forefront

Malina Saval
·7-min read

The Governors Ball has been canceled and the Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit bash has been relegated to an online format. But the absence of Oscar-season fanfare has an upside: awards hopefuls, usually swept up in press junkets and formalwear fittings, have more time to undertake philanthropic pursuits and parlay their celebrity status to create positive systemic change.

It’s not that the Academy Awards aren’t valuable pop culturally or that they don’t give a deserved bump to talent and artisans, and the ceremony itself certainly adds joy to moviegoers’ lives. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world is in desperate need of repair. Society will endure without golden statuettes; it will sink without communities coming together to fix that which is broken. And who better to advance humanitarian causes than industry insiders who possess the professional clout and media bandwidth to shine a spotlight on issues demanding reform.

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Sean Penn is one such activist. The Oscar-winning multihyphenate was mocked on social media for his unruly hair during appearances on “Morning Joe” and this year’s Golden Globes. But that shaggy coif indicated a person who has forsaken vanity in order to focus on his work with CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), the nonprofit org Penn co-founded in 2010 following the earthquake that ravaged Haiti.

Since then, CORE has expanded its reach around the globe, including in Los Angeles. As COVID-19 numbers spiked, CORE stepped in.

“We saw the rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles — our own backyard — and knew it was essential to take action, without hesitation, in order to save lives,” Penn says. “It goes without saying that the federal government, in a seismic failure of leadership with the previous administration, simply did not step up quickly enough to the grave national circumstances we all found ourselves in, which made CORE’s resolve to carry out our mission even more urgent. We took our lead from medical experts who understood what we were up against, and implemented testing and other essential services aimed at giving communities the best shot at minimizing the rate of infection and, most regrettably, the death toll.”

According to Ann Lee, co-founder and CEO of CORE, more than 4.9 million free tests have been administered at its sites since March 30, 2020. Of those, 3.8 million were given in Los Angeles.

“So far, we’ve administered over 850,000 vaccine doses throughout the city and recently launched vaccination operations in Georgia and Chicago as well,” Lee says. “In just one week of activating our mobile units, we have supported communities with over 100,000 vaccines in Georgia. We have supported over 1 million shots into arms across the U.S. and are committed to increasing that number exponentially.”

Lee further notes that “like all disasters and crises, COVID is a human-made disaster,” signifying an even great need for CORE to help rectify its devastating fallout.

“This pandemic’s impact is from the convergence of the racial, socio-economic inequalities, the lack of adequate and equitable health care in marginalized communities and a failure of leadership,” she says. “The disjointed response in different jurisdictions simply created a pee section in the pool. In the absence of a government that cannot respond quickly and effectively due to systems failure and lack of leadership, communities typically are the most effective in collective action to help their family and friends to get through crises. CORE leverages the strength of communities, grass root orgs and local leadership to bring to scale their priorities in the face of a disaster.”

But not all disasters are as high profile as the pandemic. Some, like diabetes, which, according to the American Diabetes Assn., affects 34.2 million Americans (10.5% of the total population), lack the media attention needed to educate the public at large. This is one reason that multi-platinum selling recording artist Nick Jonas, who went public with his type 1 diabetes diagnosis in 2007, co-founded Beyond Type 1, a nonprofit that implements social media tools to educate, advocate and support those living with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

In February, his wife, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, joined the org’s board of directors. Launched in 2015, Beyond Type 1 has since evolved into the largest diabetes organization online.

“Diabetes is personal for me,” says Jonas. “I was diagnosed with type 1 when I was 13, and it’s something I manage every day. I co-founded Beyond Type 1 because I know firsthand the power of getting connected to a community of people who share this experience. I also know how misunderstood diabetes, both type 1 and type 2, are by the general public. Beyond Type 1 is working to create content and programs to address that gap, while also raising funds for research and outreach.”

Even small contributions pave the way for beneficent change, notes multi-Emmy-winning actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who’s teamed up with Kidizenship, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media platform promoting civics education and creative expression.

Kidizenship, in partnership with YMCA Youth and Government Programs, has launched a contest for students 8-18 years old to write and perform a presidential speech. The “Veep” star is one of the contest’s judges, along with comedian Baratunde Thurston, former White House speechwriter Jon Favreau and former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd.

“This contest is about thoughtful communication and understanding as to how our government works,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Its nonpartisan mission is to promote civic awareness and discourse for young people, which is critical right now given the fact that discourse has become so fraught. And I love the idea of encouraging young people to use whatever platform they have to do the right thing.”

In that same vein, “Palmer” breakout star Ryder Allen, all of 8 years old, is already a social activist, advocating on behalf of orphans and foster children through Orphan Myth, a nonprofit organization that aims to place foster children — of whom there are about 420,000 in the United States alone — in loving homes worldwide.

Allen, an Orphan Myth ambassador, took part in the org’s 100% Participation Campaign, which ran March 25-April 8 and helped raise donations for the campaign’s more than 30 nonprofit partners.

“There’s just so many myths about orphans,” says Allen, who plays a child abandoned by his mother in the poignant Fisher Stevens drama. “One of those myths is that orphans don’t have any parents, but an estimated 80% have at least one living parent. Eighty percent of orphans are in the foster care system because of poverty. Orphan Myth is making the world see the truth.”

While you obviously don’t need to be a movie star to make a difference, Penn says, “if you’re lucky enough to make a living being creative, and particularly in Hollywood, then it’s incumbent upon you to use that platform to pay it forward.”

CORE is and has always been a community-focused creation, led by individuals from all walks of life,” he continues.

“That I may personally be in a position to bring attention to the organization for fundraising and awareness efforts is undoubtedly helpful, but CORE is driven first and foremost not by a want, but a need — a need to step in and step up for others, regardless of what platform you might have. If others in the industry so desire, I would encourage them to get involved and surround themselves with like-minded individuals. If they can use their own platforms to affect positive change for others, we’ll all be the better for it.”

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