You probably don't need me to tell you that Idina Menzel is a force to be reckoned with and admired. Just look at the past two years the Broadway star has had and the fact that you still can't get "Let It Go" out of your head. But, her impressive acting resumé and the fact that she's headlining a world tour in 2015 aside, one of the most important projects the Broadway veteran is working on right now is her charity, A BroaderWay Foundation. On Wednesday, Menzel was honored at USA TODAY's Make A Difference Day. Before the event, I spoke to Menzel who says starting her charity with co-founder and BFF Heather Zuckerman was "just one of those things that we thought just couldn’t wait any longer."
"I’m going to be completely honest, it’s something I wanted to do for years and years," Menzel tells Bustle about A BroaderWay, which she launched in 2010 with Zuckerman and her ex, Taye Diggs. The program offers young girls from urban areas the opportunity to express and empower themselves through arts programs at a country summer camp while promoting self esteem, leadership, and the importance of women-supporting-women. "A BroaderWay gives the girls a safe, beautiful sanctuary to escape their lives in the city and go up into this peaceful country and explore who they are as young women," Menzel says.
But one of the most important things about what A BroaderWay is teaching the young women that attend camp each summer (it's a four-year program for most girls) is how to support one another. "I do feel, especially in the business that I’m in, that women are actually out to tear down other women," Menzel says, "And that it’s so important that we’re supportive of one another and don’t allow that to happen." For the actress, going to summer camp as a child is one of her fondest and most cherished memories, mostly because of the three friends she made there and how she "could be whoever I wanted and they respected who I was." And that's exactly what she hopes to bring the girls that enter the program.
"I think that, in essence, we’re helping them find their voice and to know what may be something that they are ashamed of or that has made them feel alienated or ostracized in their communities for whatever reason," she says about how ABW is preparing these young women to thrive in our society as it more actively embraces and engages with feminism. The actress tells Bustle, "If they embrace it and learn to love it, it can help them stand out in the world." However, the actress is candid about the struggles of young girls cohabiting and learning to communicate with one another and explains that, yes, bullying can exist in this supportive space.
"We discuss those issues," she says. "If someone is upset and crying the night before because someone said something negative to them, we work through that with everyone." And Menzel has had the rewarding experience of seeing some of the first girls to join the program taking it upon themselves to keep the camp "all in this together." Mostly, Menzel is realistic about what these types of struggles do to help us grow.
"All of that stuff, as women, is so important because the world will try to tear at us and try to divide and conquer and we need to understand ourselves and be able to build each other up," she says.
And speaking of young girls that could use some building up, what does Menzel think Frozen sisters Anna and Elsa would gain from spending some time at her camp? "They probably would’ve been journaling," she says with a laugh, "And we would’ve discussed it and turned it into a song and a dance." The Frozen star also jokes that Elsa would "put on an ice show" and "Anna would’ve had her opportunity to not live in Elsa’s shadow," while learning to communicate with one another about their disagreements and sibling rivalry so they could spend less time running away from one another and more time enjoying their relationship.
Menzel, who's the mother of five-year-old Walker Nathaniel Diggs, has also learned something from her time helping these girls grown into self-aware young women.
"You can’t talk down to people — you have to talk to them on their level, on the same level," she says. "And there’s always something to learn about yourself from a young person, so you have to be humble and treat them with respect." Both are important things that she's integrated into her own parenting. But, really, she says she could "go on and on" about all of the things she's learned and cherishes after four years of running the successful program. "The smallest things, I guess are the biggest things," she says.
I know, you're entirely unsurprised that Idina Menzel is making the world a better place (I did warn you that you probably didn't need me to tell you how inspiring she is). I mean, she did star in the first Disney film to place sisterhood over romance, after all.
Images: Michael J Collela/USA TODAY (2); Giphy