Natalie Portman Hates Poverty, Loves Lattes
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwogger Pierce Stanley was lucky enough to attend CPU’s presentation on microfinance (starring Natalie Portman!) Here, he reports back with notes on Natalie’s outfit, micro-lending, and Village Banking.
So it looks like Homeboy Jeffrey isn’t the only celebrity with a Harvard degree taking on poverty at Columbia these days. Fresh off the releases of Wes Anderson’s Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited, none other than Natalie (nee Hershlag) Portman descended on Lerner 555 today for an all too brief, hour-long discussion of microfinance and the fight against world poverty entitled “Action and Leadership in the Fight Against Poverty.” While Natalie was rather autumnal in a super-short pumpkin-colored dress and sandals that looked more like mini deconstructed baskets, the event sponsored by the CPU and FINCA was ultimately more bark than bite.
Microfinance was the topic of the hour (Natalie is the FINCA Ambassador of Hope), however the event turned out to be a lot of fluff: more an exercise in watching Natalie sip a Starbucks grande latte and wax poetically about her trips to Uganda than an engaging discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of microfinance lending. Indeed, it was hard to take Portman seriously. When asked later about this apparent disconnect, Portman said, “Its not about feeling bad about what we have, its about giving and sharing what we have with others. Its very easy to condescend. Seeing the reality of the situation changes everything, so you have to travel.”
Natalie hurried into the packed room amidst a swarm of agents, handlers, and of course her mother who follows her to most of her engagements. The few stragglers who weren’t able to get in scratched anxiously at the windows trying to catch a glimpse of the former queen of the Galactic Empire. CPU and a SIPA grad student opened the function in classic fashion, providing a short history of microfinance, discussing the Village Banking concept, and of course celebrating the Banker to the Poor himself, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. It was even revealed that SIPA offers 6 classes in microfinance, and MiCrolumbia is a student-run lending campaign that is just starting to get on its feet but has a ways to go.
After showing a brief video made by FINCA in Mexico of Natalie struggling to articulate why she likes being the poster child for micro-lending, Natalie had a chance to redeem herself by speaking in person, and here she demonstrated a delicate balance of grace, cuteness, and intelligence. Portman spoke mostly about the integral role of women in the Village Banking system, arguing the necessity for groups to go into villages in which the majority of women make under three dollars a day and create a village bank that supports individual business enterprises, fosters social responsibility, and empowers women and children. Portman noted, “Once you’re there, you say to yourself I am not going to forget this.” She touched upon her trips to Israel and celebrated Queen Rania of Jordan as her inspiration for joining the microfinance cause, a cause that she said she wish she had known about during her college days.
As such, the actress urged college students to join the cause early saying, “You have the ability to spread the word, fundraise, and spread technology.” Indeed, Portman suggested that technology is an important way to promote microlending efforts, citing the creation of Natalie Portman MySpace and Facebook groups as “hip ways of reaching kids in 2007.” She drew giggles from the audience when she said about Facebook, “I know you all check it like twenty times a day. Its what I’ve heard, you know, word on the street.”
Q and A was a weak attempt at building room-wide discussion. Instead, it turned into about five questions that were answered by Portman and then supplemented by a FINCA director afterwards. A discussion of the effectiveness of lending projects ensued, and the event got technical with descriptions of the need for cultural sensitivity and the hiring and training of local people. Particularly interesting was one student’s asking of advice for his attempt to build a microfinance project in Ramallah and another student’s wondering if lending projects offer any real benefit beside feeling good about yourself at the end of the day. Portman laughed this question off by wondering if people would be more inclined to contribute to microfinance projects if there was an incentive like, “I’ll kiss you after you give us fifty bucks.” However, she was quick to suggest that microlending for no profit may not be as effective as organizations that provide small loans for profit, noting “the more the better” and suggesting that competition ensures that those who seek loans will choose the best lender. Ultimately, Portman declared that the “mission of microlending is social” and that we need to “try to measure returns that way.”
Tags: celebrities on campus