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It’s On Us

Taking a stand against sexual violence with Lady Gaga on the 2016 Oscar stage

By Allison McNearney on February 29, 2016

Halfway through Lady Gaga’s emotional and heart wrenching Academy Award performance of “Till It Happens to You” on Sunday night, the backdrop parted and more than 50 people walked onto the stage. They surrounded the singer at her white grand piano and held out their arms to the camera, revealing messages including “Unbreakable,” “Survivor,” and “It’s Not Your Fault” written in black marker.

These men and women were survivors of sexual violence and they were invited to join Gaga on the stage as she belted out her Oscar-nominated anthem, co-written with Diane Warren, for the documentary The Hunting Ground. 

“There’s no greater international global voice than Lady Gaga…You can really see that she has been very open and honest about her own personal journey and the impact being assaulted has had on her,” Julie Smolyansky, an executive producer of The Hunting Ground told Women in the World the day before she joined Lady Gaga on the Oscar stage. “She’s so brave and strong to come forward, and there’s not that many public figures or actresses or people in the spotlight who will be so honest about their experience. So, it is a very, very powerful thing to have her voice representing this movement.”

The Hunting Ground had an almost immediate impact after it premiered at Sundance in January 2015. Directed by Kirby Dick, the documentary explores the epidemic of sexual assault afflicting college campuses across the U.S. and the widespread failure of school administrators to protect their students and support survivors.

(The Hunting Ground)
(The Hunting Ground)

“The impact of the film has been unbelievable,” Smolyansky says. “Over 15 pieces of legislation have been written out of this directly. It’s been screened on over a thousand college campuses. It’s being used as a tool to have conversations for people to…review what their procedure is and how they’re going to make it better for our students and for our children.”

The movie is so powerful, in fact, that Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance at the Oscars to introduce Lady Gaga’s performance, calling on the A-list audience and viewers at home to take the “It’s On Us” pledge to end sexual violence.

“Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many women and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse,” Biden said. “Let’s change the culture. We must and we can change the culture so no abused women or men like the survivors you’ll see tonight will ever have to ask themselves, ‘What did I do?’ They did nothing wrong.”

While ultimately the song didn’t win the award, Smolyansky says she was proud to “slay that stage” standing amidst strong survivors. “It’s a lot to process…Crushed we didn’t win the Oscar, we triumphed in standing in unity with those who have experienced violence around the world and proved you can not only survive but thrive,” Smolyansky shared with Women in the World after the ceremony.

Smolyansky joined the The Hunting Ground team after a chance meeting while speaking on a panel, but she is no stranger to the fight to combat violence against women and the struggle for gender equality. Early on in her high school years, Smolyansky volunteered at the local domestic violence shelter and was a member of the group of teenagers who helped write the curriculum for teen dating violence in Chicago. In college, she became a rape crisis counselor.

“I am a woman. I’ve experienced my own violence. I’ve seen violence in my community, and, frankly, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear somebody’s own story, [have somebody] come to tell me that this happened to me or this happened to my friend,” Smolyansky says. “I see violence every day in my community, with my friends, with my sisters around the world.”

In 2002, Smolyansky’s father died of a heart attack, and she suddenly found herself the CEO of the family business, Lifeway Foods. At the age of 27, she became the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company. In addition to dealing with her tragic loss, she also had to face skeptics who didn’t think a woman her age could manage the job. These included one of her father’s closest friends, who “stood three feet away from me and said there’s no way a 27-year-old girl can run this company.” Smolyansky says if a man had been in her position, things would have been different — it would have been viewed as a “natural transition.”

“That was a real slap in my face but it also motivated me and continues to motivate me every day,” Smolyansky says. Her father paved the way for her success early in her life when he taught her to believe that she could do anything she wanted. Throughout her childhood, he pointed out strong female role models, like Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky during her early political run and Christie Hefner when she took over her father’s business. When Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Beijing proclaiming that women’s rights are human rights, he called a young Smolyansky over to the TV to watch.

 Julie Smolyansky (D Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Julie Smolyansky (D Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Fourteen years later, Smolyansky has proven her critics wrong and grown the company enormously. But, even more noteworthy, she has used her position to build on her activism and make a difference. Smolyansky says she feels she has an “obligation” as one of the few female executives at the top of a major company to use her platform “to speak out against [violence], to fund projects that are meaningful with scale, [and] to collaborate with others.”

Her activism and support has taken a variety of forms over the years, including working with Christy Turlington’s global maternal health initiative and serving as an executive producer on The Hunting Ground. But in 2014, Smolyansky also decided to launch her own nonprofit, Test400k, after reading in The Unfinished Revolution, by Minky Worden, that untested rape kits were one of the biggest issues facing women in the U.S.

“I was blown away because I thought, wait, this is insane. All of those rape kits that I had been involved with 20 years prior, none of those had ever gotten analyzed?” Smolyanksy says. “And then I thought, well, what the hell, this is ridiculous. I’m a woman, I run a company, I have a strong network, I have access to media…I should be a voice for this.”

Smolyansky is passionate and eager about the causes she supports, but she’s also pragmatic. She knows that governments have budgets — many currently in crisis — and that we are never going to achieve much-needed progress in women’s rights, find the money to catch up on the backlog of rape kits, or create new initiatives to improve equality and combat sexual violence, if women and other diverse communities aren’t involved in the decision-making process.

“It’s the whole purpose of why I think we should push more women into positions of power, positions of leadership, positions where they get to control budgets and funds and be at the boardroom and be at the highest level of government and be representative in legislative branches and parliaments all around the world,” Smolyansky says. “This is how laws are made, this is how accountability is generated. And if there’s not diverse voices at those tables, then we will continue down a path of rape culture where a crime is committed against girls and women and people, and we just think, ‘Well, that’s OK. Culturally, it’s OK to do that.’”

To that end, a glance at Smolyansky’s Instagram feed reveals her latest cause: getting the first female president elected to the White House. But, before she could do that, she had an on-stage Oscars debut to attend to.

“I’m really proud and humbled to stand side-by-side with a really powerful, brave group of individuals, and having Gaga sing her heart and soul out is just going to be super powerful,” Smolyansky says. “it’s just been really special to be part of this film, and I have just so much gratitude to be in a position where I can support a film like this.”