Charlize Theron Africa
Ashlee George is the Executive Director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), a US-based foundation committed to investing in African youth and their ability to keep themselves safe from HIV/AIDS. In the 10+ years that George has lead CTAOP, she has overseen dramatic growth of CTAOP, including increasing the foundation’s grant making, communities served and youth engaged in CTAOP’s vision of a future where ALL youth are empowered to live healthy, HIV-free lives.
George aims to merge the influence of the entertainment industry with strategic philanthropy, working at both a global and grassroots level. George has been a part of Charlize Theron’s team for 15 years, and oversees her philanthropic activities, including her work with UNAIDS and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as well as engagements through Charlize Theron’s position as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
George received her MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management and has an undergraduate degree from UCLA in European studies with minors in Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies (Go Bruins!). She lives in Northern California with her husband, two children and three yappy, but cute, dogs.
This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast and Ashlee George, Executive Director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project.
Alberto Lidji: Today, it is an absolute pleasure to welcome on to the show Ashlee George, who is the Executive Director of Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP). So that's Charlize Theron, the actress and her philanthropic venture. I've known Ashlee for a few years now, we always have a great time exchanging notes. And today we're going to exchange notes, but we're going to do it on the podcast, which is great. Thematically speaking, the work she does is really in investing in young people with the lens of HIV/AIDS prevention. And geographically, they're focused in Sub Saharan Africa, mainly South Africa, that is, Charlize’s home country. So without further ado, Ashlee, a big welcome on to The Do One Better! Podcast.
Ashlee George: Thank you. I'm super excited to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Alberto Lidji: It's a pleasure. And I know it is early in the morning out there on the west Coast. So thank you for making the time, while you're probably having a healthy dose of coffee. Let's start off by finding out a little bit about the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project . It's a bit of a mouthful, but here we go.
Ashlee George: It is a long name, I might call it CTAOP, which even that is mouthful, but we'll get there. And so we started in 2007, Charlize founded the organization, like you said, she's South African, her heart is very much still with her country and wanted to do something that gave back. And she got involved with a project that was a mobile health unit that worked in KwaZulu Natal. And it was focused around adolescence and high school age youth, and providing sexual and reproductive health for them via this mobile health unit that would service the young, like high schools. And along with the unit, it also had this mobile computer lab that would travel with it and be able to provide basic computer skills. So they had this hope to draw on young people, and then also be able to get them accurate health information. And they provided testing. And, should any of the young people be HIV positive - they were able to link them to medication and help them get access to whatever health service they need. So it was really that project that got her connected to this age group of 10 to 20 year olds, and thinking a lot about the HIV epidemic in South Africa, which, for those of you who don't know, South Africa still has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world. It's a country that is 1% of the world's population, but it is 20% of the world's HIV positive population. So it is very much still an issue in South Africa. So she decided she wants to focus her efforts, the foundation's efforts, on trying to help young people stay safe from HIV. But like you said, Alberto, it is about an investment in the whole person. It is not just about simply health in this silo. It's about safe spaces. It's about understanding stigma. It's about ‘Do they have tools and skills and access?’ So it is much more than just ‘Here's some information. Have a great day. Keep yourself safe.’
Alberto Lidji: Sure. And tell me since 2007, the outset, how have things grown? How has your thinking evolved as well?
Ashlee George: Yeah. Great question. So in 2007, we were working with only one organization. And since then we've expanded our network of program partners. So our approach is to find extraordinary organizations on the ground, and then use our resources, our unique network and platform to be able to amplify their work. So right now, we have 13 different program partners. 10 of them are in South Africa. Many of them we have worked with for years and years. And that's part of our approach is to develop these long term relationships where we really walk the walk together and we're on this journey together as true partners to try and help young people. And so it is not a one-and-done kind of grant situation. And for us, it is very much in line with the values and the type of relationships we're trying to cultivate, is to really just make sure we're there at every step of the point for our partners, because for a lot of them, we're able to provide access to resources, and certainly access to a different type of platform, in terms of amplification, then they would be able to get themselves.
Alberto Lidji: That's excellent. It's great you have these long term partnerships. How do you identify who would be a good partner? How do those come around? Because I'm sure everybody, or maybe not everybody, but I'm sure a lot of people in South Africa would be saying, yeah, I'd love to be able to connect with Charlize Theron's outfit. How does that happen?
Ashlee George: Yeah. So, a lot of them started in the early days, when we were developing our strategy. What we did is we literally spent a year on the phone or in person, with everyone we know saying this is where we think we want to focus. We're trying to make a difference within HIV and young people, who's doing the work on the ground, who's the best orgs you know? So what do you think, Charlize should be doing? What do you think our foundation should be doing? Just try to gather as many opinions as possible and as many, like broaden our spiderweb network as much as we could. And what we started to find was a lot of the same names were coming up in terms of organizations and in different areas. And so we got connected to them, and just started those relationships. And through the years, you could figure out which ones our values aligned, which ones are doing the real work and are really community engaged. We have been able to come out with this network of 13. But we're constantly on the lookout for more. And it is a lot of word of mouth, you're right, if we opened up our applications completely, we would just get swamped. So it is a lot of word of mouth and then vetting, our vetting process is intense. And it takes anywhere from eight months to a year for the vetting process to happen. But for us, it is important because we are in these long term relationships. So we really want to do a good job, make sure the partnership is right, for both sides.
Alberto Lidji: Sure. And if there is such a thing as the typical partnership, I imagine out of these partnerships, they all might look very different from each other. But what do some of those look like? Are you helping them with capacity building and expertise? Are you helping them with increasing the profile? Which arguably might be easier to do because of your celebrity angle?
Ashlee George: Yeah. Yes and yes to both, and to all. All of the partners have received program grants and that looks different for different partners, depending on what their needs are, and depending on the concept that they've put forward, and then all have access to apply for capacity building grants from us as well. So once your program partner they can have access to get capacity building grants, they also have access. And we give small grants to be able to do shared learning. So if they wanted to go visit another program partner, they can do that. So we really want our partners to get to know each other and to hopefully share learnings and so ‘yes’ to capacity building, ‘yes’ to programs, and then ‘yes’ to spotlighting too we really try the things that we think a lot about is how are we taking the learnings from the ground at the true grassroots level, and helping use that information to inform Charlize's advocacy on the global stage, she's a UN messenger of peace, she works with the Global Fund, and does a lot of work with UN AIDS. So we try to connect that you can't see my hands, but like joining a circle, you try to connect the dots that way of information and to really, when she speaks to really come from a place of 'this is what the program is, this is what I'm hearing from our long term partners, this is what I'm seeing when I do the site visits.’ So it is not just a sort of high level theoretical speech. She is talking about these stories, and her strength, obviously, because of who she is as a storyteller. So I find she's in that unique position of having the expertise as storyteller but also having these like incredibly rich database of knowledge, because she's actually doing the work, the foundations are actually doing the work with these partners, so you really know your stuff.
Alberto lidji: Is it straightforward connecting those dots, you're motioning to that circle. On the one hand thematically, okay, you have that HIV AIDS, but they are different organizations. So you have the foundation, you have UNAIDS, you have different outfits. Is it always straightforward to connect the dots?
Ashlee George: No. I feel like you knew the answer to that question. No, it is not. But I feel like that is why it is so critical for us to exist, for her to have a team around her that works. We will only work on this. Because you really need somebody thinking about it, and helping them to pick up the phone, make the calls, build the relationship, so that we can put all that together and connect those dots that it is not straightforward at all.
Alberto Lidji: How did you get into all of this by the way? I'm sure it is a dream job. You're doing good. And you're working with an amazing founder. And you get to change people's lives. So it is the job that you can't quite apply for when you're at university. But if you end up there, at some stage in your life, you probably feel quite good about it. Tell us a little bit about your journey?
Ashlee George: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Like, I feel there's no other word. I am blessed every day to be able to do this job. Because I just love the work, I'm excited to wake up. I work all the time. I love it not because it is a job or I feel pressure. I just really love it. And Charlize is incredible. And it is amazing to be able to work for somebody like that. So I'm from northern California, and I went to school in Los Angeles, I was very interested in entertainment, in the industry, and I had some connections already, with friends in the space. And also I was lucky enough to be able to intern for this incredible costume designer, when I was in college. And then after college, I moved away, like so many students, I moved away for a year and to teach English in Japan because I'm of Japanese descent. And on my way back, I was offered this incredible opportunity to be Charlize's personal assistant. Because of the connections I had with people in her world and had recommended me for the position. And everybody was saying, look, if you want to get into entertainment, this is just a great foot in the door, and we'll get to know the business. And I was like sure, I didn't have a job, I was looking to move back to LA. I really got along with Charlize, connected with her on a personal level and a values level. I respect for her so much, and not just as an artist, but as a human. And how she lives her life. And so we have a great relationship. And she started the foundation, when I was still her personal assistant, so I got to see CTAOP, all the beginnings of it. And I was on the trip where they launched and it really moved me in so many ways. And when I was looking to, I was going to, I had been with her for three and a half years. And I was looking at this, thinking about my next step, thinking of going back to grad school. And she asked if I would stay on and if I wanted to help her with the foundation and help her try and grow it, because she really is passionate about it. And she wanted somebody internal to be able to work on this because, prior to me, it was really being run by other members of our leadership team, but it wasn't their sole job. And it was also run in partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which is still our partner. So I chalk it up to, like, the right place at the right time, but then you like, show up and you work really hard. And you stay honest. And the opportunity arose for me, so I was just very lucky, but also when the chance came, like, I proved I wanted it.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. And I guess being there from the early days means that you have the trust and to some degree of the discretion to help shape how things play out.
Ashlee George: Yeah. And the thing about CTAOP is, I feel like we're always shaping how things play out, like we're a small organization and we're constantly trying to adjust and improve based on what our partners are telling us. Based on what we're seeing in the world, nothing is ever locked in stone forever. With us, it is all about how we can continue to be better for the partners?
Alberto Lidji: Yeah. And what does the team look like? So you mentioned you have a small team, but how many people are in the foundation?
Ashlee George: Yep. So we have four full time people and we are very small. But I will say the entertainment industry, which is our fiscal sponsor, runs all of our back office operations, and they are much larger. So that's how our four team members are able to focus where they're able to focus. And you have me. And then we have Lorrie Fair Allen, who is our Chief Program Director. You have Jessie Chiliza, who is our team member based in Durban. And she's our Associate Program Director. And then we have Sabrine Liebling, who is our operations manager, and she really helps keep the ship moving forward.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah. So that's good. You have that the team itself is very... I guess you could say front facing in terms of the activities?
Ashlee George: Yes. Yes. front facing, lean and mean. Yeah.
Alberto Lidji: That's good. And what are you really excited about right now? I mean, what is it that keeps you awake? Hopefully, with optimism and anticipation as opposed to fear? What is it that keeps you awake? What are you really excited about for? Let's discard 2020 to some extent, and look beyond that, if we could.
Ashlee George: Yeah. I think for us, we're most excited about just the growth of seeing our network grow and the network of program partners, specifically, is what I'm referring to. So this year, and I know you said don't talk about 2020. But I have to just
Alberto Lidji: Go for it.
Ashlee George: We were supposed to, for the very first time this year, hold our first summit, which we had named the Swidler Connection Summit after one of our beloved council members (Alisa Swidler) who had sadly passed away last year. So we created a gathering of all our program partners, and it was supposed to be this August (2020), and sadly, we're gonna have to push it. But I think we were just looking forward to that so much, because seeing what we talked about earlier, seeing all these partners that it took us so long to find, and that it took us so long to vet and now it is been so long of building up a friendship and a trust in those relationships, but seeing them all gathered together, and then hearing them talk to each other and learning from each other and figuring out ways that they can collaborate like that's really our dream. And I think it just becomes so clear in those moments of why CTAOP exists and how this approach is adding value. Because they're all doing incredible work without us. But we can help just take it to the next level. And honestly, in seeing those connections, it is something really human that we're just really proud of like, God, you can't I don't know, not to get philosophical like, robots can't do this. Like we only humans can do this and figure, see those links. And then and sometimes you can't even see them. And sometimes you just put people in a room and like they organically arise. And it is so cool. So I think that I'm particularly excited about seeing that growth. And seeing the growth, we haven't even talked about it. I didn't mention it earlier, but we have a scholarship program called the Youth Leader Scholarship. And that's only in its third year, it is relatively new. Obviously, every year we're adding new scholars and so seeing that network of young leaders grow is also exciting, because the focus for us on that program is really about cultivating changemakers and then giving them the opportunity for tertiary education through the scholarship. So our program partners on the organization side have the opportunity to nominate young leaders from within their community for full cost scholarship which includes everything from tuition, accommodation, books, stipend for travel, stipend for food, it is all of it because the idea is let's take all of that stress off of this young leader's plates so that they can focus on school and they can focus on being the best changemaker they want to be and we know they can be -- they already are but like let's again take it to the next level by putting wraparound support.
Alberto Lidji: Since you mentioned the scholarship it is in its third year. Some of those who joined you three years ago are wrapping up their university studies then?
Ashlee George: Yeah, so we'll start to see that soon. I think it will be next year. And yeah, it is exciting. Again, it is a small program, like so much of what we do. The cohort sizes are anywhere from like six to…. I think one year we had nine. So it is not a massive program. And again, early days, and hopefully it will be massive. But I'm very excited to see what they do. Because obviously, all of them have that catalytic effect of like, they're one person, but they're affecting many many more just by nature of who they are.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah. Plus, I imagine if you think full circle, some of that talent could end up with some of your program partners.
Ashlee George: That's the dream. You're seeing it. Yeah.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah, absolutely. Now, one thing you sort of alluded to in terms of having to adapt your schedule to circumstances, how has this whole pandemic impacted you? And I guess, more importantly, impacted those program partners you have on the ground in South Africa, which I know, the numbers are sobering in terms of COVID-19.
Ashlee George: Yeah, in the same way it has affected so many. We had our whole year mapped out everything was - we're ready to go. And then it just exploded. And luckily, we were prepared for a rainy day. And it certainly has been a rainy day. And so we were able to get funds out to all of our program partners. And we're particularly proud of the fact that because we have these relationships, and long term trust built up with them, we were able to deploy funds quickly and make those funds flexible for the partner so that they can really use them how -- they were able to use them how they saw, the need, they saw was most critical. And that looked different for all the partners, but for us, it was like, okay, we know you're going to need additional funds. We don't know what that looks like. But we know you're going to use them the way that we would want you to use them and the way that we trust you to use them. And so yeah, we got out funds quickly. That's good that some of the feedback saying, it literally helped keep our doors open, or we got our volunteers food, which they weren't able to feed their families right now, or PPE for some of their community health workers. And one of the big ways also was, obviously, a lot of our partners' service, people living with HIV, and they weren't able to access their medication. Because they weren't able to come into the clinic. So how do you help? How were they adjusting to be able to get those medications to the people who needed them? Or getting permits and forming teams that go out to community. So it was just a lot of adjustments. And that takes money. And that takes time and takes people so we were proud that we could be there and be part of those adjustments and solutions.
Alberto Lidji: Did the program partners sort of reach out to you as soon as things started going badly, or was it just from head office as it were and you just took stock of the situation and wrote to your program partners and said, ‘Look, we know that situation is challenging and here's how we propose to engage with things.’
Ashlee George: It was a version of the latter. As soon as COVID hit, as soon as we started getting a sense of what was happening really early days, we called all of our partners and said, ‘What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What are you worried about? What do you think you're going to need?’ Just gathered as much feedback as we can. And that's when we realized if we sit and go through any sort of traditional process like ‘you tell us your needs, and we figure out what the budget is’ and then it is gonna just take too long, they need to have that money in their accounts right now to be able to move quickly. So we're like, let's least get those funds. And if there are additional needs, then they could come back to us, but at least they have something to work with early days to get out the resources. So it was a lot driven by us of ‘Let's be proactive and call them and get this ball rolling’ because we need it to roll fast.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah. And it is still a moving target, right? I mean, everything right now is just unpredictable.
Ashlee George: Yeah. Yeah, completely.
Alberto Lidji: One thing that these, these partners of yours are extremely fortunate obviously is having the ability to have someone like Charlize Theron amplify their message and what they do, I'm going to have to ask you, because a lot of people approach me or just in general have the question, a lot of people in the charity space, how does one engage with a celebrity? How does one reach out and try to get celebrities to amplify their message? And since you're very much involved in that world. Any words of wisdom to someone who might be listening to this who thinks, yes, my charity could benefit from engaging with a celebrity, where do I start?
Ashlee George: Yeah, I'm dying to hear your answer to this. So you're gonna have to answer this! Because I think it is a tough question. Honestly, in my experience, I think it varies depending on the celebrity, on who like the best channel is for Charlize, for example. If your cause is in alignment with what we're doing with what CTAOP is doing with what she's invested so much of her time, her money, her efforts into, and it makes sense to go through the foundation to try and reach out to the foundation and talk about the alignment and, and go that way. If it doesn't, then it may be a more traditional route. But in the end, it is a long road, I'm not gonna lie to anybody. But like publicists, agents, it is about just trying to find somebody on the team that can see the connection. But I would just encourage everyone to like know your celebrity, that you're reaching out to, and make sure that it is a fit because obviously, everybody's getting hit up with 101 requests every day. So, they're gonna try and filter it the best they can. And if it is not something that's sort of in the wheelhouse of that celebrity and like a passion point, I think it has got a really tough road.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah, no, I think that alignment is absolutely key. You have to do your research on the celebrities before you reach out to them is the word of wisdom that I would have here.
So let me ask you, in terms of 2030, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, that's a target year for the SDGs. What does success look like to you guys for the next 10 years? If we're having a coffee in 2030 and looking back, what would we like to be looking back on and say, ‘Wow! We did this!’?
Ashlee George: Success for us, is really at the community level. I think it is us being able to look back and say, ‘Okay, look at the work we support at the community level,’ here's how we were able to help these partners prove that their models work, here's how we're able to help them share those learnings, here's how we're able to help them scale, if they want to scale, or connect them to a partner that will help them scale because there's a lot larger funding out there than ours. And I think, seeing how that community level piece fits into the greater conversation of HIV work - the fight against HIV. We would love to be able to say we added value there. And also, what you referred to earlier, I think success for us would be to look back and see the changemakers that we've cultivated through our scholarship program out there and doing incredible things and to be able to share those stories. And honestly, it might be in the HIV sector, it might not, it very well might not. And that's okay for us. Because, part of the scholarship program was we didn't restrict at all the area of study that the young leader can choose, because we wanted to, we firmly believe that leaders need to come from all sectors. So we have the areas of study that are quite varied already. And that's great. And so I think we would love to be able to look back and just say like, look we've got somebody doing work in environmentalism in Port Elizabeth and we've got somebody, just all over the country doing different type of work within their communities but that they had these tools that we provide the base layer for and then they just, it was supercharged from there on out.
Alberto Lidji: And investing in young people that's ultimately at your core.
Ashlee George: That's exactly our core. Yeah.
Alberto Lidji: Very good. Any words of wisdom? Any key takeaway parting thoughts for our listeners before we wrap things up today? What would you love them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?
Ashlee George: Every single thing in our lives, especially here in the US feels so divided right now. And I think part of that in my mind is that we've for so long built up this, it is like these relationships of... it's like tolerance is the standard we're shooting for, like okay I don't agree with you, but I can tolerate you. And we need to hold our bar higher. I mean, it is got to be about like this human connection and understanding and empathy. And we've lost that completely. I am so guilty of this as well, I'm not trying to say that I don't do this, of course, it is so easy. And it is so easy to go to a place of anger or just like us and them. And it is really dangerous. And I think you can see that playing out right now. It's like how, if you let that go for so long, those divides just continue to happen. One of the things and you probably saw it, if you've looked at anything CTAOP, we talked a lot about ubuntu which is this South African philosophy of “I am because we are.” And I really think a lot about that if we've lost that understanding of our interconnectedness, and that we are together in this. And that could be across the world, that could be in our neighborhoods, it could be like the political divide, the geographic divide, the race divide, anything. We've just lost that understanding of how connected we are. And I think we need to get back to that. And I don't think... it is not about tolerance. It's about understanding like we truly are connected.
Alberto Lidji: Yeah. By the way, I love that. I think tolerance is not good enough. We need to be more than just tolerant. And I think that's absolutely right. If you look at the definition of tolerance, it doesn't necessarily say anything about how you're going to be embracing anybody else. It just means you tolerate. And I think we could do a little bit better that and I love the fact that you're highlighting that. Ashlee George, Executive Director at Charlize Theron's Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP). It has been an absolute pleasure having you on the show, and it is always such a pleasure speaking with you. So thanks very much for making the time today.
Ashlee George: Of course, thank you. So much fun.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. And to our listeners. Thank you. As always, thank you for tuning in and for spreading the word.
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