Just Like Us

UPDATED: April 3, 2009
PUBLISHED: April 3, 2009

Maybe it was her “chaotic” childhood or the college years
she describes as “transformational.” Or, maybe, it’s simply a
way to move in the world—an innate sense of compassion—
that compels Ashley Judd to give back.

Judd may be best known for her film career, with starring roles in Kiss the
Girls, Double Jeopardy, Norma Jean & Marilyn, De-Lovely, Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood
and scores of others. She is the daughter of country singer
Naomi Judd, who formed an iconic singing duo, The Judds, with Wynona Judd,
Ashley’s half sister. She has been married since 2001 to Scottish auto racer Dario
Franchitti, with whom she lives on a farm in Tennessee and in Scotland. She
is also the face of Estée Lauder’s American Beauty cosmetics line.
That is the glamorous life that most people ascribe to Judd, but
it is only one side of her story.

The list of social causes that Judd has been involved with
is impressive, not only because she is genuinely committed
to them, but because they are rooted in the most disenfranchised
populations on Earth. Unlike many of her Hollywood
peers, the successful actress has dodged the diva bullet
and embraced global issues like HIV/AIDS, overpopulation,
disease prevention and children’s health. Her focus
these days is an organization called Population Services
International (PSI), a nonprofit organization with grassroots
health programs in 65 developing countries that is
focused on prevention and treatment.

“We have a very strong focus on reproductive health,
family planning, maternal health and child survival,”
Judd says. “Child survival includes, but is not limited
to, safe drinking water, TB and upper respiratory tract
infections, malaria prevention and treatment, and
diarrheal diseases. We also work in HIV and sexually
transmitted infection prevention, and those we call our
youth-based programs.”

Judd says she has the “extravagantly flattering
title” of global ambassador for the organization,
which involves quarterly board meetings as well as
speaking engagements and travel around the world
to see firsthand the kind of suffering most Americans
cannot imagine.

“I am often considered the public face of PSI because we are a very
serious, very dedicated nongovernmental organization that does
hard-core work around the world. We are very serious about our
bottom-line impact,” she says.

The work can mean standing in a Mumbai slum with a young
girl destined for a life of poverty, disease, even human trafficking,
or visiting a genocide memorial in Rwanda—experiences Judd says
inevitably result in a “pretty profound spiritual crisis” every time.

has dodged the diva bullet and embraced global issues like HIV/AIDS, overpopulation, disease prevention and children’s health.

Mumbai was a point in fact. “I was just sitting with this little girl
who was so ripe for opportunistic infection due to malnutrition and
exploitation for sex and labor slavery,” she says. “My circumstances
were very different when I was growing up—no way am I
comparing my young life to hers—but I did identify
with her vulnerability and sense of chaos. Because, to
a very large extent, I had a very unsafe childhood, and that doesn’t
mean my parents didn’t love me because, of course, they did. I can say
this with genuine, heartfelt clarity; they did absolutely the best they
could with what they had at the time.”

And sometimes that wasn’t good enough, she admits. In her early
years she was shuttled to as many as 13 different schools in 12 years,
alternately living with her mother, her father and her grandmother.
She became what she calls a “hypervigilant child,” raising herself
under unpredictable circumstances, becoming lonely, depressed,
isolated—all feelings she kept under wraps for years.

In fact, Judd has been open about the treatment program she
entered in 2006 at the Shades of Hope Treatment Center in Buffalo
Gap, Texas, to address the issues arising from that childhood. “All
I know is that I am grateful now for those experiences because I
had the opportunity to do a lot of healing work on myself, and that
has endowed me with a fairly awesome capacity for compassion
and empathy.”

It is that empathy that seems to illuminate Judd’s life these days,
but she says we all have a way of serving. “Oh, there are many ways of
giving,” she says. “We all have a way of serving.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine a woman with such a high profile not
bending to the pressure of Hollywood, not immersing herself in the
culture of success and visibility. It’s hard to imagine trading in Malibu,
Calif., for a farm in Tennessee.

“If I looked back from a timeline perspective, an interesting series
of things happened that set me up to live in Tennessee,” she says. Her
Malibu home burned, she returned home to Tennessee and then she
broke an ankle in a riding accident, which also kept her in Tennessee,
she says. Then she starred in Picnic
on Broadway, followed by movies that
kept her traveling around the globe.
“And I would come home to Tennessee
and connect to the rural lifestyle that
really speaks to my soul,” she says. “The
next thing I knew, I had settled into a
way of life, and I’m really grateful for
it because I have a really deep sense of
community here.”

But that community is, again, only
part of Judd’s life; her place is also on
the global stage, with a global perspective
she has gained from her work with
PSI. We asked why a global perspective
was so important.

Judd says the very poor people in
developing countries are no different
than anyone else in their aspirations,
their hopes for their families, their
desire to raise healthy, well-nourished
children. “They are just like us. That’s
the humanitarian reason,” she says. “If a
person doesn’t get it on that level, there
are so many practical economic
reasons, not the least of which
is overpopulation, competition
for resources, the degradation
of the natural environment due
to stress on the environment,
preventable disease. They are
a massive threat to national
security. When we can help
poor women have fewer children
and space those births
with healthy intervals, we can
help the mother’s health and
give better care to the children
they already have. That helps
the American economy. Overly
large populations are unstable

Judd’s hit list for social
change includes stemming
overpopulation, energy independence,
“especially solar
and wind,” and the cessation
of mountaintop removal coal
mining. “Those are my biggies,”
she says.

And they are also the big
reason she is involved with
PSI and other social causes. “I
have been given such unique
and special opportunities to do
the work in incredibly meaningful
ways,” she says. “It’s very
empowering knowing that
there are problems but not stopping
there, because I think it’s
abusive to point out a problem
without highlighting a solution.
Not only do I get to help find
the solutions; I get to implement
a practical plan of action.”