With all the fame and fortune afforded to celebrities these days, my typical expectation is that they will buy a palatial mansion and spend all day posting boastful photos on Instagram. However, more and more famous people are lending their voice to worthy causes that could otherwise go unnoticed, and it's causing a ripple effect of contagious inspiration.
Here are 11 celebrities who did more than just donate to charity for the photo op; these humanitarians and activists are effecting change at the local and global level by using their platform to make the world a better place.
1. Emma Watson
Major cause: HeForShe Campaign as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador
In July 2014, Emma Watson proved once again that her casting as the socially aware and endlessly intelligent Hermione Granger was spot-on. That's when she was appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, tasked with empowering young women and promoting gender equality across the globe. Using her platform to call for the inclusion of women in more political, scientific, and social spaces, Emma frequently lays down truths that make me hopeful for the future:
Our society in general devalues the 'she' – qualities that are associated with the feminine that are found in all of us. As a result there’s this imbalance and this distortion and it’s hindering our progress.
2. Mark Ruffalo
Major cause: Water Defense, a non-profit dedicated to clean water access
During a commencement address at Dickinson College for Global Environmental Activism, Mark Ruffalo told graduates that "activist" is not a dirty word, and he lives that philosophy in his own life. If you follow him on Twitter, you already know that Ruffalo speaks passionately about challenging climate change, gentrification, extensive corporatization, fracking, and many social justice issues. His mission statement is clear: Be active, and don't settle for problems that already exist.
I'm asking each of you at some point or another to act up. Be misbehaved. Buck the system. Fight for what you believe in. This is the time to do it; you’re the ones to do it.
3. Miley Cyrus
Major cause: Happy Hippie Foundation, a place and resource for homeless LGBTQ youth
At 22 years old, Miley Cyrus receives a lot of criticism for her antics as a performer, but her unyielding work within the LGBTQ community is what should really get people talking. This year, she established a center for homeless youth in marginalized populations, offering not only a physical safe space in Los Angeles but also an online community to answer questions. Miley recognized that this population is way more likely to be kicked out of their homes by their parents even before they turn 18 years old, and she quickly did something about it:
We started a year ago with Jesse and we were focused on the homeless youth in L.A. and different support groups in San Francisco. Now, we’re going bigger and wanting to take on America. And by the end of it we’re going to be taking on the world.
4. George Clooney
Major cause: Satellite Sentinel project, tracking military movements and attacks
You may have seen (or even mocked) George Clooney's ads for Nespresso, which frequently air in Europe, but it turns out that Clooney uses most of his profits from those commercials to fund a satellite program that keeps watch over the border between Sudan and South Sudan. He has taken it into his own hands to keep an eye on Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president who has been indicted for genocide in Darfur. Here's the awesome perspective Clooney has on the heartbreaking issue:
[Omar al-Bashir] puts out a statement saying that I’m spying on him and how would I like it if a camera was following me everywhere I went and I go ‘well welcome to my life Mr War Criminal’. I want the war criminal to have the same amount of attention that I get. I think that’s fair
5. Angelina Jolie Pitt
Major cause: Humanitarian service to refugees as Special Envoy to Antonio Gutterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
By now, everyone across the globe has become aware of Angelina Jolie's extensive humanitarian work, but she's one celebrity that deserves all the praise she gets. In 2012, after years of carrying aid workers and food supplies across the globe and donating millions to UNHCR, Jolie was appointed a special envoy to the group's High Commissioner. The expanded role sees her take on massive population displacement caused by large-scale crises.
It is not enough to defend our values at home. We have to defend them here, in the camps and in the informal settlements across the Middle East, and in the ruined towns of Iraq and Syria.
6. Leonardo DiCaprio
Major cause: Environmental activism through his own foundation
The actor, a lifelong environmentalist, founded the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 with a focus on protecting the Earth's last wilderness and promoting a more harmonious bond between nature and humanity. Most recently, he's poured his money and soul into saving the world's oceans, and he has passionately spoken at events hosted by the State Department
It’s the Wild West on the high seas. These last remaining underwater bio gems are being destroyed because there isn’t proper enforcement or sufficient cooperation among governments to protect them.
7. Matt Damon
Major cause: Water and Food Aid through H2O Africa and ONEXONE
Matt Damon has been vocal about his political views for years now, but he's one of the few that actually puts his money where his mouth is. Along with his opposition to the war on teachers, Damon has been extremely active in bringing water to remote regions of Africa, fighting AIDS and poverty in less developed countries, and feeding the hungry children of America and Canada. The best part about Matt Damon's approach to his humanitarian work is that it's direct and inspiring.
More people have a mobile phone than a toilet. Let’s cut the sh*t.
Major cause: Clara Lionel Foundation promoting health, education, and the arts
In 2012, Rihanna started the Clara Lionel Foundation (named after her grandparents) and proved that her interests go way beyond that hard partying the media typically associates with her. Though it has a wide-reaching range of concerns, the foundation has been consistently committed to providing global help for those with HIV/AIDS, and Rihanna herself has spoken out to get her young fans more familiar with the issue.
It’s as simple as this: one day, you could be the one in need. Your kids, your kids’ kids, your loved ones, nobody is exempt from disease and poverty. You just never know. But we will fight for you the same way.
9. Lupita Nyong'o
Major cause: Animal conservation as WildAid's Global Elephant Ambassador
After winning an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave, Lupita Nyong'o rocketed to superstardom and the front row of many couture fashion shows. She was never content to be just a pretty face, however, and she quickly leant her voice to challenge the growing ivory trade in China that has led to a surge in elephant poaching in Kenya. She kicked off a media campaign and helped raise money to combat this ever-encroaching danger.
I am proud of my Kenyan heritage, and part of that heritage is the incredible wildlife haven that is in our care. Poaching steals from us all.
10. Jennifer Aniston
Major cause: Cancer awareness with Stand Up to Cancer
As a major advocate for cancer awareness, Jennifer Aniston has leant her very famous face to promote the cause for St. Jude's Children's Hospital and the charity Stand Up to Cancer. She brought this commitment to the TV screen, creating a Lifetime movie Five that follows the story of five different women struggling with how breast cancer affected their lives.
Our goals are small. We want these films to move people and empower those affected by breast cancer to stand tall through this challenge, which impacts all of our lives, no matter who we are.
11. Ben Affleck
Major cause: Eastern Congo Initiative
Many celebrities visit developing countries for the positive press, but very few actually do something about any local issues. Ben Affleck is an exception, and after visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo frequently in 2010, he began the Eastern Congo Initiative. It has does phenomenal work ranging from reintegrating child soldiers into their communities to helping find housing for survivors of sexual violence. Affleck has also made himself familiar with the country's culture, meeting with Congolese leaders and refugees to really immerse himself in the political life there.
Despite the many challenges, the Congolese people refused to be defined by their country's past and in spite of those who may question the effectiveness of our foreign assistance I can tell you firsthand that U.S. diplomatic and financial investments in Congo are working.