The model and Every Mother Counts founder talks about using her platform to drive change.

By Christy Turlington Burns as told to Laura Brown
Jul 15, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

If you equate being a badass to taking risks, then for me it was when I paused my modeling career [in 1995] and applied to New York University. I thought, “If this all stops tomorrow, I want to be on the path to becoming a full human being.” It was scary at the time, but I was ready, and as soon as I’d made that decision, everything fell into place. I applied, got in, and started school within five months. And I made sure that there was a clause written into my [modeling] contracts that my clients had to agree to. People respected it. I spoke up for myself, and everyone kind of rallied around me.

All clothing and accessories, Dior. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

Even before going back to school, I did a lot of advocacy work to try my hand at what’s a cause and what’s an issue. I wanted to give either physically or financially if I could. So I began doing humanitarian work in postwar El Salvador because my mom is from there. I also got involved in public-health work around tobacco prevention and cessation since my father had lung cancer [he died in 1997].

Prada dress. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

In the beginning I didn’t go out and say, “Look what I’m doing and listen to me.” I took the time to really know my shit. It wasn’t an overnight thing like, “I’m a model, now I’m a student, and now I’m a business owner” — I did start businesses — “and now I’m an activist.” There was nothing ever manufactured or manipulated about what I was trying to do.

Max Mara blazer and pants. Etro shirt. Clergerie shoes. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

I started Every Mother Counts 10 years ago, and our mission is to improve maternal health for mothers everywhere, with a focus on the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. There are people of color in every country we work in. We started programs trying to dismantle the racism that exists in every one of those places, including the U.S. Why are we one of the only industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate? At the top of that list is structural racism, the way Black women are treated, and that they’re not listened to. The work here is ongoing.

Dior shirt and shorts. Hunter boots. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

Empathy is central to what we do. It’s really about being human. I believe in the goodness of people and think that it is stronger than all the other stuff. But I do feel that people require guidance and need to practice kindness. Listening and learning is a big part of that, particularly at this time. You can’t just say, “I’m a compassionate person,” or “I’m a spiritual person.” You’ve got to show it!

Emporio Armani jacket and trousers. Sacai boots. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

So many people going through crisis management now are just trying to figure out what to say. But this is a time of “How do we feel?” We can’t acknowledge what’s happening and simply say we’re going to do better. This can’t just be something that’s written up by the diversity officer. We’re going to take a closer look, and we’re going to be better.

Chanel jacket and skirt. Hunter boots. Photo: Sebastian Faena
| Credit: Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens

Photographed by Sebastian Faena. Styled by Julia von Boehm. 

For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 17.