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‘Buffy’ star, African aid charity founder to highlight ‘Deis Impact conference

Published: January 25, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Actress Eliza Dushku and her mother, Judy Dushku, will deliver the keynote address Feb. 6 during Brandeis’ “Deis Impact 2013: Exploring Social Justice on Campus, In Waltham and Around the World.” While Eliza may be extremely involved in Hollywood, starring in TV shows and movies such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Bring it On” and “Dollhouse,” she argues that charity work has made the biggest impact in her life.

The Dushkus founded THRIVE Gulu, a nonprofit designed to help Ugandans heal from many years of civil war.

“I’m well aware there are people who think, you are an actress, are you really coming to try and preach to us about how to be a good person,” Eliza said. “But it’s about a journey, and my past with my mother, and the rewards that have come from [being involved in THRIVE Gulu] that have never come from anything else I’ve done in my life. It is true and real and I’ve been there.”

Eliza was not positive from the start she wanted to become an actress, instead she believed she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a professor. She saw herself in the future as another version of her mother, “a professor and feminist and world traveler … as a young girl I was already joining my mother on trips.”

She believes her ascent into Hollywood was “sort of an accident,” describing Judy as “the opposite of a stage mom.” While Eliza was thrilled by the opportunities involved in being an actress, such as meeting many different types of people and traveling, Judy mentions, “I didn’t even drag her around to auditions. I was amazed and frightened when people called and asked for a call back.” Eliza adds, “[My mother] actually hung up on the first producer that called and asked [me] to fly to LA for a callback.”

Eliza, now an active actress for twenty-two years, boasts an impressive career. When asked about her roles during her younger years, she says, “It’s funny having my teenager years, puberty, everything, documented … I’d say Buffy is probably the one role as when I sort of exploded on the scene. It was amazing, the strong female character had a universal appeal.”

Since then she has been involved in films such as “Bring it On,” “Wrong Turn,” and television shows such as “Tru Calling.” Currently, she is involved in a remake of a television show from the 1960s, titled “The Saint.”

“There’s action and humor and the scope is kind of unlike any television show I’ve ever done, given the size of the show and the audience we’re looking to deliver to, it’s a pretty big one,” Eliza said. A self-described, “big Twitter person,” Eliza has 1,361,512 followers and uses online media to discuss everything from her nonprofit to her daily activities.

Eliza described herself saying, “I’m my mother’s daughter.” As she became involved in the Hollywood business, she realized that “there are creative elements of the business, but also superficial ones, you can get sucked into narcissism and live in a bubble, or you can use it as an opportunity to be a voice and a role model.” Along with this passion to inspire others in creating her charity, Eliza also drew upon her past, where she would travel to other countries along with her mother and her students.

“Since I was a kid, my three brothers and I joined my mother on these amazing trips around the world, we were traveling to third world countries, you know, socioeconomic study tours … they were unbelievably educational,” she said.

Her mother mentions that Uganda was always a place she was interested in.

“There’s a place I can actually take students, can go study conflicts, what happens post conflicts, people involved in the war, people were kidnapped … I had a class with 23 students and we went to Uganda for two and half weeks,” Judy Dushku said. While there, both Eliza and Judy had a life changing experience. Staying in a bed and breakfast, they invited former child soldiers to come down and talk to them. “It was such a delicate situation,” said Judy.

Eliza agreed, commenting, “When some of the teenagers came down, that first day when they walked in, I remember it was terrifying in a way, and unexpected, are they still teenagers? Are they still children? Their innocence must be rocked but … there’s still a light or a hope or an innocence in their eyes.”

The Dushkus realized they could help these people using group therapy. “There’s so much hope and so much recovery that’s possible if we help lay a foundation,” said Eliza. “We need to really listen and hear the things they’re yearning for, not our methods of healing and recovery; we need to integrate.”

THRIVE Gulu has now been a nonprofit for three years, and operates its own center in Gulu, Uganda.

“We have a couple-hundred people who’ve come into it,” said Judy. “And a very strong feeling that people are helped by talking through what happened in their lives.”

The nonprofit offers classes at the center and therapy, to encourage confidence and independence in those whose lives were torn apart by civil war. It also focuses on women’s empowerment, literacy and computer instruction. “You’re changing somebody’s life, that’s an extremely powerful thing,” Eliza said.

The Dushkus seem to enjoy running a charity together. While Eliza admits, “the teenage years were brutal,” now she says, “there was a shift in me, in the past five years … in realizing how amazing my mom is and how much happier I am following her and learning from her and working with her, it makes me a better person.”

Judy acknowledges that Eliza’s young age is a great aid to her. “It is nice to have somebody with so much energy,” Judy said. “It’s great to be able to do this with somebody who is young, my daughter, and know she really connects to these people I love so much.”

The Dushkus also commented on KONY 2012, as both Invisible Children and THRIVE Gulu have similar areas of operation. Eliza admits that KONY 2012 was helpful because of the worldwide attention it brought to Uganda. “It was helpful because I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on Twitter trying to get celebrities to donate, I’d try to tell them about Kony and the atrocities … I didn’t get quite the response, but the video [of KONY 2012] gave so much exposure to the situation it created.”

Other than that, the Dushkus have “sort of separated ourselves and focused on what our initiatives are,” said Eliza.

“He interviewed some 12-year-olds, they’re just out of the bush, they’re a mess and I think there should be some sensitivity to the fact that this child doesn’t want to be all over the web,” said Judy. She went on to explain that in Gulu, there are still people who live there that were rebels, and children on a worldwide video could be living in danger because of the broadcast.

“Twelve-year-olds can’t give their permission to have films made about them at that age,” Judy argues. Eliza also brings up the point that THRIVE Gulu isn’t just about bringing Kony down, it is more grounded charity. “[It’s] on another level for us, the people on the ground, it’s not about finding Kony, it’s about finding identities that were stolen from [Ugandan people] and that happens with rehabilitation of their societies,” she said.

The Dushkus will speak on Feb. 6 in Levin Ballroom and students are encouraged to pick up free tickets with their student IDs from the box office in the SCC atrium. For the student who just wants to help out a nonprofit and start to change the world, but doesn’t know how to go about it, the Dushkus’ advice is to just dive in and start. “I know it can be overwhelming,” said Eliza. “You need to find something that interests you, that you are passionate about, that connects to a story—and don’t for another minute or day—doubt yourself and the kind of difference you can really make.”