By Chesley Turner
photographer: Michael Muller
This is the Ashley Judd you don’t know, but you probably should. Her eloquence is surpassed only by her passion: a driven dedication to humanitarian issues you also may not know about. Yet.
Because changing the world requires an awareness campaign, and Ashley has risen to the challenge.
Ten years ago, representatives from Population Service International (PSI), a multi-national NGO, visited Judd’s agency. As she relates, they were “looking for someone to help raise awareness about very inexpensive, sustainable, scalable health interventions that save lives, strengthen families, build communities, and also have enormous macro-impact on local and global economies, as well as contributing to safety, peace and stability.”
They were looking for a spokesperson and standard bearer who could reconcile two extremes—someone who could go from being on the ground with these grassroots programs to representing them to local dignitaries and government officials, someone who was equipped to stand before pan-national UN representation.
So they sent Ashley a letter.
“And I thought, what a neat idea. And how in the world does one begin to do due diligence on an international public health NGO? How do I vet their programs in Madagascar, in India, in Sri Lanka? How do i know what family planning really looks like to them in Laos?” She laughs here, probably remembering the enormity of the task, and the seriousness with which she addressed it. Because Ashley believes that “gender equality is the common denominator and that ground level at which real and lasting change must happen,” she was determined to ascertain if PSI was a feminist agency. Behavior change is a slow road, but an important aspect in the public health NGO schema. “We can capture and reify all kinds of impact with Disability Adjusted Life Years, which is the international standard by which healthy years are added to an individual’s life. But how do you capture changed attitudes, and improved behaviors, and the reduction of harmful practices?”
Ashley references The Elders, the international NGO of notable elder statesmen and activists like Mandela and Archbishop Tutu and Mary Robinson. “They all talk about this very well, the letting go of harmful traditional cultural practices, while also reinvigorating and maintaining cultural practices that support individual dignity and human rights. And so I was like, this is just completely overwhelming.” Ashley responded to PSI’s letter with a letter of her own, which she describes as a single-spaced feminist manifesto. In response they told her, basically, “Yeah. We get it.”
The next thing she knew, Ashley found herself in the child brothels of Svay Pak outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia, as an ambassador for Youth Aids. “And it clearly wasn’t just HIV that I was sitting with. I was looking at gender violence, at all kind of gender identity exploitation, [at] inequitable access to healthcare, unsafe drinking water, diarrheal disease, maternal health, all of that stuff.” She went back to PSI and said, “I’m all in.”
And so for over ten years, Ashley has been a Global Ambassador for Population Services International (PSI), drumming up awareness of the realities of the exploited poor, social injustice, gender inequality, and the sprawling spiderweb of issues and oppression that interconnect around these touch points. She’s expanded her sphere to work with additional NGOs, like the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Demand Abolition. “Because obviously if I’m sitting with the supply side of sexual slavery, I have to work on the demand side as well, and demand reduction…. And so it’s been extraordinary. And I absolutely love it.”
It’s difficult to put these ideas and efforts into one article. It’s difficult to bring awareness and explore solutions without being reductionist, but Ashley is adept at beginning to craft the conversation. She’s resolute about appending resolutions to every awareness campaign about issues and problems, highlighting solutions that are accessible, affordable, appropriate, and that have quality. “That’s called the TripleAQ and it’s health and human rights.”
“I believe that [solutions] are legion. It’s like sliver buckshot, as Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn say.” And yet, Ashley believes the true silver bullet is gender equality. “I think patriarchy is not individuals; it is a system in which we all participate, covertly and overtly, so gender equality includes the full empowerment of girls and boys and men and women, so that they can live in and express the fullness of their potential and they’re not constrained to notions of what “masculinity” is and is not.”
Call her a feminist, and she says, “Um…Thank you.” She brings up the idea of intersectionality. “I remember reading an article about twerking, about how twerking became co-opted by white people and became loaded with various kinds of meaning.” She sites the jezebel.com article wherein a woman of color explains twerking from a completely different point of view, thus changing its significance and meaning. “This word pluralism comes to mind. I mean, feminism is, to me—it’s very simply the full equality of girls and boys and men and women. Everyone has the access to and capacity and they are met in such ways, individually and socially and culturally, that they may live up to their full potential.” She’s quick to recognize that not all people live up to that potential; not all people are good stewards of their gifts and opportunities. But we must begin by providing opportunities and removing barriers.
“I’ve been reading a lot of Jung lately, and Joseph Campbell, and I’ve been reminded that the closer I get to those inner sweetnesses, the real essences of myself, the more furiously the systems of repression rise up to meet that. I think as we’re more empowered as a society to identify subtle forms of discrimination and those covert forms of violence.…” She stops mid-sentence. Her voice picks up volume and passion, laying aside the calm pragmatism of the analytical academician and becoming the voice of the rally-cryer as she says, “Like, how fantastic is it that those rapists at Vanderbilt who were the non-intervening bystanders were charged with the same kind of sexual assault as their raping peers? That is a huge step forward in identifying the more “covert” kinds of violence. And again, those systems of repression will rise up, with such ferocity, to try to keep that at bay, and yet I also believe simultaneously that our higher selves will equally meet us with the tools that we need to get past those repressions.”
Ashley recognizes the power of “strengthening, vivifying anger,” and yet presents a fuller reality of that anger, identifying that “empathy for myself and others is absolutely crucial. “I’ve been really thinking a lot lately about how one of the great taboos in our society is to have empathy and compassion for perpetrators.” She lights on the idea of presumed goodwill, saying she finds it to be a helpful spiritual tool. “The forgiveness piece, of course, although one would hope that it becomes self-evident and adheres naturally in the conversation, it probably needs to be repeated with every iteration. It doesn’t mean condoning the act or behavior. It doesn’t mean justifying or minimizing it. And acceptance doesn’t mean that I approve. But non-forgiveness is something that binds me to the pain of the behavior, and it’s something I do for myself. It is really an autonomous, inside job, and totally independent from the other person and their behavior. And, I can forgive and prosecute at the same time, and I have.”
Yes, let’s take a moment to remember that this is the same Ashley Judd who you’ll see on screen in Insurgent. That gift of acting is very near and dear to her, a gift she is careful to be a good steward of. She promises her reprised role of Natalie Prior in Insurgent will afford us further opportunity to see the emotional mother-daughter relationship we got a taste of in Divergent last summer.
“And it’s gorgeous. I’ve seen it, and it has so much reverberation. It can be just an intensely well-done action movie with a hero and heroine who are trying to overcome evil and odds and doing it for social reasons and for love reasons, but it’s such a heartfelt family story.”
She springboards into another mother-daughter relationship that is dear to her. Ashley recently returned from a two-week, full-immersion yoga teacher training at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where there was zero internet access and zero cell service. But her Valentine arrived in the mail: chocolate, a word quiz from reader’s digest, a card, and a family picture from the one and only Naomie Judd. “We never outgrow our needs for our mothers, and those turning points in life, whether they’re with us now, or they’ve gone on to heaven as I like to say, there’s that necessary invocation of, you know, ‘Mom, I’m here. I need you. What do you think of this? I need something from you right now.’”
Other upcoming films include Big Stone Gap, and Good Kids, although you might get a better taste of Ashley’s personal passion by watching the Kristoff & Wudunn film, The Path Appears, in which Judd talks about sex slavery in America, helping bring voice to identifying the underlying vulnerability factors that make girls susceptible to it. Based on a book and a follow up to Half the Sky, this film will resonate with Moves readers. Former Moves cover women Susan Sarandon was involved in the filming of Half the Sky and former Moves cover woman Malin Ackerman also participates in The Path Appears.
Judd says, “To be able to bring both my personal and academic perspective to [Kristoff and Wudunn’s] perspective, about access to education and capital inequity and all that kind of stuff, is just fantastic.”
It’s almost difficult to believe this is the same woman who left college just shy of graduating to road trip to Hollywood and become a movie star. But Ashley is the multi-faceted film star that challenges and inspires us. She escapes reality one minute—bringing fabricated stories to life—then turns around and digs her fingers into the life-affirming business of effecting real change in the real world.