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Natalie Portman on Her New Role: Giving Women Hope

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In this exclusive interview, Natalie Portman talks about her work for FINCA International, how she balances her activism with her career as an actress, and her advice on making a difference.

(Note: A portion of this interview originally appeared in a piece I wrote for Entertainment Weekly's website, EW.com, Banking on Natalie Portman's Passion. This is the full, unedited transcript. )

Marianne Schnall: For people who may not be familiar with FINCA, how would you describe the overall goal or mission of the organization?
Natalie Portman: Well, it's a microfinance group and it works in twenty different countries and it will be expanding to more countries this year. And what microfinance does is based on a concept called "village banking," wherein FINCA will go into a small village and find clients who want to be involved. They're primarily women, and they start a village bank. So that means the women insure each other's loan. And they get small loans - they're called 'microloans' - they usually start around fifty dollars, but can go up to five thousand dollars after women have been with FINCA for a while and have proven their responsibility. And the women insure each other while they start these businesses - and they make all their own rules and everything.

And so it basically gives them a way to have agency in their own lives to sort of make their own destiny. Because what you find in these places is that women become sort of slaves to whatever jobs are available - I mean if there's a factory in town, there's that one factory and that's where they have to work. And this allows them to open their own businesses, which means that they can stay home with their children if they need to - they can maybe run the business from home - and they are able to make better wages, so they're feeding their children better, educating their children better - getting better health care, living conditions - I mean, all the side effects of poverty are helped by this one program. And it's sustainable, so that you go in once to a village, you put money in once, and that money continues forever - once that money is in the bank, because the women pay back their loans with interest at such incredible rates - it's like 97, 98% - it's better than wealthy people in the United States [laughs] - the money continues and it turns over three times a year, so one amount of money serves three women every year - and their families of course.

MS: There has been increasing awareness about the urgency and the growing crisis of world poverty, and people are starting to look at creative solutions - how do you see the role of microfinance contributing to the solution?
NP: Well, it's definitely just one of many creative solutions that as a package I am sure can help poverty, and the problems associated with poverty. Look - the one thing that I find really shocking, I mean, that is something you don't learn in school that I was really surprised to find out about, was that not only are two-thirds of the world's population in poverty, under $3 a day - that's like 4 billion people - 70% of them are women and children, which I think is shocking. They're calling it the feminization of poverty - it's becoming more and more so. And when women are the poor ones in society, are disproportionally making up the world's poor, you get an imbalance of power obviously between the sexes, which obviously leads to other social inequalities for women, more violence probably, and when a child is brought up into a world where his Dad has money and his mother does not, they might be more likely to follow their father into violence or drunkenness - these are a lot of the sort of problems you find in many of these communities in terms of how children make their choices.

And this gives women power over their sexual reproductive rights: they find the thing closely associated with controlling birth rates is women's education, which is obviously related to women's socio-economic status, so the more money a woman has, the more educated she is, and the more educated she is, the more she knows about how to prevent pregnancy, and also has more reproductive control - she feels a greater ability to say no to a man when she doesn't have to depend on him for money. You really see this chain of events, and obviously women can really be at the core of changing things for the next generation since they are the ones caretaking for the next generation.

MS: It is amazing the interconnection of all these issues. I was thinking about how the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Muhammad Yanus and Grameen Bank for similar work to FINCA's. How do you see the connection between helping these individual poor families, and larger issues such as fostering peace and stability in the world?
NP: Well, I think it's been well-documented that economic stability brings more peace, if you can look at Northern Ireland as a great example of that. And also there does seem to be something obvious in it - people are so concerned about the border crossing issues with the United States and Mexico - I mean, it's also the biggest money disparity, the biggest wealth disparity across the border in the entire world! And that seems rather obvious that if you're somewhere you can't figure out a way to feed your family, and there's a place right next door, that happens to be across an arbitrarily-placed border where you can find a way to feed your family, obviously you are going to go there. And the restrictions on that movement obviously create conflict, so I think that exists in many places in the world.

And it's sort of shocking to me when politicians decide to spend money building walls between such places, instead of economically developing inside - it's so costly to do all this crazy security walls and building walls between human beings. No one wants to leave their homes - people want to stay where they live, with their families. You just want to create economic opportunity in those places and this is really what microfinance is about - it's really just about spreading the luck. I mean, we are completely lucky to be born in a place where you have access to a bank. If you have access to a bank then you are lucky - that's not the majority of the world. And this basically just spreads that luck. It's very simple - it's not even charity - it's just opening up access to the world's population.

And also when you say connecting to other issues, I mean it even has connections to the environment, when you think about it, because the biggest threat to the environment right now is population growth - you know, they are estimating that by 2050 there will be between nine and ten billion people, and the best way, as I said earlier, that they have found to curb population growth is through educating women. And that obviously is one of the positive side effects of microfinance.

MS: There are so many organizations you could have lent your support to, and you have now worked with FINCA for four years - what first attracted you to their cause and how did you first get involved?
NP: Well, I really wanted to work on sort of mid-east peace, because I'm from Israel originally. And I really wanted to work on something with Queen Rania of Jordan, because she's probably the woman I most admire from my region. And so I got in contact with her and her staff, and they recommended to me to get involved with FINCA, which was something that she was part of. And she talked a lot about the hope gap that exists - that what you're dealing with in these conflicts is - I mean the economic gap can best be described, in her words, as a hope gap. And it's true - the despair leads to sort of nihilism, and that can be very, very dangerous. But this hope gap, mending the economic divide, is sort of the first step, or a first step towards bettering the situation we find ourselves in today.

MS: I had read that meeting her had an enormous impact on you.
NP: She was my introduction.

MS: Speaking of hope, I see that you have the title of FINCA's "Ambassador of Hope" - what does that title entail or mean to you - how do you see your role?
NP: Well, you know, it seemed a little bit extravagant to me [laughs] but - look, I also have an issue. I don't want to be a celebrity who's trying to like say, 'look at this charity work I'm doing,' [laughs]. You know, I think it's such a hard thing because you don't want to ...I'm trying to use whatever attention is focused on me and divert it to something that really deserves the attention and try and sort of stay out of the way of the rest of the stuff.

So, I don't know, it's a complicated thing when you're in the public eye to decide which kind of organization you want to work with, especially when every non-profit, charity thing is worthy, you know? They're all doing amazing things. But this just seemed really...I don't know, when I started traveling with them - I traveled them and sort or learned about the program on the ground with them before I started doing any work because I also wanted to have a real understanding of what it was like. I didn't want to just go in and be some celebrity face, smiling with kids or whatever, you know? [laughs] It's a pretty wonderful idea and I wanted to understand it enough to be to convey it to other people. And it is a simple concept and really successful, and its proven itself over the years. And it seems like a sustainable way to help world poverty.

Look - there are a lot of bandaids that are needed right now because it's gotten so extreme that we do need to send food and medicine and build houses - all of those things are incredibly important - but how are we going to make a meaningful change, that is sustainable that allows people to take control in their own lives and not be waiting for foreign assistance? Not being sort of impotent in their own destiny? So that's been really impressive in that way.

MS: I hear that you are expanding your role - that you are going to serve as the co-chair of FINCA's new Village Banking Campaign with Queen Rania. What will you be doing in that capacity, in terms of working with that campaign?
NP: Well, there are going to be some new programs this year in new countries, so we have a campaign to raise funds for those new banks. So I am co-chairing a benefit with the Queen in New York in May. And I just helped work on a documentary about the programs so that people can access it online and it will be shown on TV as well, so they can see on the ground what it's like. So we just filmed that in Mexico. And I will also be going to Uganda later this year to visit some of the projects in Uganda and work with the board at a board meeting there to figure out next steps.

MS: On behalf of FINCA you've visited programs in many diverse parts of the world...
NP: Guatemala and Ecuador and Uganda and Mexico.

MS: What are those trips like for you? What are some of your most memorable experiences from these trips?
NP: It's sort of the most amazing thing - I mean, I've gotten so much out of it. The coolest thing is the opportunity to meet these people. These women are incredible. You go to these villages and usually, as an American, when you travel, even if you go to places like Uganda or Guatemala - you're probably not going to get to interact with locals. And especially not locals who are like living in squalor. You might meet some wealthy people who live there, you might meet people who are working at your hotel or whatever - but to actually be in the villages and get to talk to people is such a lucky experience.

I was in Uganda and I met this woman who had ten children and she had been in FINCA for eleven years. And she had ten children - when she started out her husband was beating her because she couldn't have a boy. She had only girls. So he had kicked her out and she was living on 80 cents a day. With ten kids. And she was like begging her neighbors to give her like old laundry water just to clean their clothes. And she started on a $50 loan with FINCA eleven years ago, and she now has, I think it's a $2,000 loan, eleven years later, and she owns a huge restaurant. She sends one of her daughters to university and she employs seven other women in her village.

And you just see like in one generation how someone can turn it around. They are the most amazing people - they're up against everything you can imagine in the world - I mean, extreme poverty, extreme disease. I mean in Uganda, so many people are affected by AIDS, but also malaria is terrible as well. And their life expectancy is forty-six years old; the average birth rate for every women is 6.7 children per woman, and they all adopt their sibling's children if they pass away, so it's just extreme, extreme pressure that I can't even begin to imagine. And yet they're so loving and hard-working and positive and find so much joy - not to be completely cheesy about it, but it's inspiring, and it's just incredibly moving to be around them.

MS: I read in an interview that you commented about your work with FINCA, "I'm at my happiest when I'm working on stuff like this." Why is that? What does your involvement bring to your life experience?
NP: Well, it completely broadens my view of the world. I had no idea. Really. I had no idea about anything! [laughs] And I am traveling to these places and meeting people - places I would just never go. I would never have ended up in, and really to getting to talk to them also. You sit down and you really talk to people. And it's just an incredible opportunity. I mean, sometimes I feel like it's more for me, you know? [laughs] I'm like, wow. I mean, I'm not really helping them in any way near as much as they are helping me.

MS: To advocate for this issues, I've heard that you have met with members of Congress as well as a Member of Parliament. That's a change of scene for you - what was that like? How did they react? Were they supportive?
NP: Oh, yeah. I mean that's the really exciting thing is that people are very enthusiastic about microfinance - especially recently and especially with Muhammed Yanus' honor - the Nobel Peace Prize honor. It's really gained a lot more - people know about it a lot more. And it's very exciting. It's unfortunate - I mean U.S. governmental funds for foreign aid have really been cut drastically, I'm sure because of the expense of the war and all that, which I understand. And luckily a lot of like private citizens are pitching in. And really we live in a small world, and we all are affected by everything that happens everywhere. And to look at it less selfishly, we also need to be grateful for the luck of where we're born and how we ended up where we ended up.

MS: What is most needed in this area - what can other people do?
NP: Well, going onto the FINCA web site, it's very easy to contribute to Village Bank. It's very easy to give. $50 is like a loan for one woman, $5,000 opens an entire bank, so $5,000 will serve twenty women or something. It's a pretty incredible turn-over. And also just to read up on it. It's really interesting. I don't want to be like any sort of like know-it-all [laughs] but I just find it to be such an amazing thing to learn about, how women live in much of the world.

MS: There seems to be greater awareness about the serious issues we are facing, such as world poverty and global warming, which is spurring a growing, hopeful movement for change. What is your perspective on the current situation in the world - are you optimistic?

NP: I am exactly for every reason you're saying. I see a lot of people really wanting to do positive things in the world. And I feel that it's like a new generation - I hope. You can only be optimistic because I don't really know how you'd wake up in the morning if you felt pessimistic. I mean, it's obviously easy to feel that way with the news - you can watch the news and it feels like it's the end of the world, very like apocalyptic [laughs]. So I just stay away from the news and try and find people around me who are doing positive things and look to them.

MS: Where do you think your own activist roots came from? I read somewhere that you were a member of an environmental song and dance troupe at age twelve and that you've been a vegetarian since you were eight years old - did you always, even as a child have a strong sense of caring and conviction, a calling to do good?
NP: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I definitely have always sort of had this sense of injustice. And also - I don't know, I've been really, lucky and sometimes you think, 'Why? How did this happen to me - what did I do to deserve this?' And you realize how much it's just luck. And then you see that there's a lot of people who are not as lucky as you are, and I want to like share that luck, you know?

MS: How do you balance your cause that you care so deeply about, and then your career, and then also have time to re-charge and stay centered, time for yourself?
NP: I actually have a very lucky profession in that it's very intense but for short periods, so when I'm doing a film it's a few months or so, and then you have a lot of time off, that actually allows more than I think most usual jobs to do this kind of thing. It's not like you have a nine-to-five where you're expected to be there everyday, you know? [laughs] We get off for a few weeks.

MS: One of the interesting parts of your background is that you received a degree in psychology from Harvard - I'm not sure many people know that about you - do you think that your psychological studies had an effect on you and how you understand and relate to other people and view these issues in the world?
NP: Well, I learned to observe other people - that's sort of what it teaches you. To pay attention. Which can also be a really natural human skill [laughs] so I don't think I'm better equipped than other human beings. If you're a person and care about other people - I don't think I have any sort of special understanding or anything, I think any feeling person would experience similar things if given the same opportunities to see the things I've been lucky enough to see and meet the people I've been lucky enough to meet.

MS: Oftentimes people want to contribute to positive change in the world but they don't where to start. What advice do you have for people on finding their own cause and getting involved?
NP: Well, I mean the Internet is like the luckiest thing - we have everything at our fingertips right now. So you can easily do a search about volunteering locally. I just learned about this thing in New York that is called New York Cares where you can volunteer for a certain day, and a certain field, and they'll match you up with an organization that wants you. I think the opportunities are all over the place - around your corner or in more exotic locales. But everyone finding their own interest - sometimes it's hard to know what you're interested in, I think. [laughs]

MS: But the amazing thing is what you were saying where it's nice to know that it's something that is so rewarding, when you hear you talk about it, and you say how much you get from it - that's something that always needs to be conveyed, whereas some people just think, "oh, god, no more work!' that it's like, actually no, this is something for you.
NP: Oh, no, I think it's the most fun thing. I don't know maybe it's not everyone's most fun thing, but it can be really, really amazing and rewarding and meaningful.

MS: As a woman working with an organization that puts a special focus on empowering women, what is your perspective on how the status of women relates to the problems we face around the world?

NP: Well, it's a huge issue - there's an imbalance. And I don't know - you can really feel it in the way everything is going, I think. I don't know - sometimes I feel like it's a bit of fallacy to try and say like, 'men are violent and women are non-violent' because I don't think that's necessarily true.

But I do think there is a sort of natural balance in nature between men and women, and that it's being thrown off-balance by the social and economic inequities between men and women. And one of the reasons FINCA's primarily women is in many places when they would have mixed groups of men and women together, the women just wouldn't run for office, they wouldn't try and be president or vice president. And you see that so often. And that's something that's totally socialized, you know? I read some study when I was in college about how in the United States if you see class president elections, it's like all girls and then in eighth grade - no girls run. It's like - what happens in there that tells girls to be quiet, be submissive, be meek? And it's ridiculous - we're missing out on 50% of our potential great people.

MS: You just finished filming a documentary in which you visited some of FINCA's projects. You've probably seen so many examples of the positive effects of this type of support on FINCA's clients on individuals, families, and communities - do any other stories or people stand out?
NP: Yeah, we were in Mexico and we met this woman, her husband had to go to the United States to work because he couldn't find any work locally, and so he left for a year and she was left alone with her two kids and they had nothing. They had absolutely no money. And she started a loan with FINCA and now she's employing her husband, so he was able to come back and be with the family. And she started this company - they make clay goods, like pottery and that kind of thing. So he's back - she helped him to get sober, because he was an alcoholic, and they also have a daughter in university now, and neither of them can read or write. And one of their neighbors passed away and they are taking care of their daughter as well now. And they are employing seven other people in their village so you just see how just one woman's hard work, using the opportunity given to her by having access to a bank, is like changing an entire village. And obviously it's through her hard work, it's not our work. It's so moving, you just see this will to work.

MS: What would your wish be for humanity's future? What change would you most like to see happen in the world?
NP: I guess just that people pay attention, look to their neighbors. I think we've lost so much community. I think that's one of the things I've appreciated most seeing in these villages is just the sense of community, where like an entire family, an entire community - they take care of each other. And we've really lost that. And when you lose that on a personal level, you lose that on a global level as well. So to sort of re-gain that.

For more information on Finca International, visit www.villagebanking.org.