At UNICEF events and galas, eager to contribute towards the bigger good and change, you’ll find Emma Ferrer attentively seated with an air of innocence about her evoking charm and compassion- with that hard to miss contagious warm smile. Deeply passionate about humanity and people, Emma was raised by a family and heritage that has always encouraged and prioritized giving back, the giving of yourself and time, giving to others who are clearly and unfortunately in need.
As a parent, you look around society with different eyes. You want to protect your children from life’s realities but you always want to teach them ways in which they would be seen as inspiring adults, ones that are fulfilled and happy. You start thinking about values you want to instill- is it dog eat dog for survival or does kindness always triumph? I ended up looking up to those who made the right choices and raised their children with dignity and responsibility by integrating philanthropy in their upbringing. Listening to Emma’s story on the values she was raised with and whom she’s developed to be- an inspiring young woman that cares, is every parent’s dream on how to raise your child- compassionate, kind and beautiful inside out. Here’s her story.
Who is Emma?
I’m an artist- a painter to be exact, a poet, and an advocate for children and refugees. I’ve lived in New York for the last four years after having lived half my life in Florence, Italy, and the other half in Los Angeles. I was born in Switzerland. I also work as an artist liaison and a curator in the New York art scene.
How did you get into the world of philanthropy?
I was exposed to charitable work from a very young age. I was involved in family efforts from as far back as I can remember. Marching for peace through the streets of Los Angeles during the height of the Iraq War, volunteering with the Hollygrove Foundation to assist at-risk children in creating large scale multi-media art pieces for auction, and listening to a music album my dad curated for UNICEF with songs being sung by children over the world to raise funds for children’s education. It’s as though doing good for others and providing for those who have less were words that constituted a family vocabulary of implicit values. I grew up watching my father’s efforts to make a difference in the geographical and metaphoric spaces that meant something to him. I learned that that is not only a possibility, but a human responsibility. I was always allowed to be a part of whatever projects were going on, which exposed me to ideas of how to creatively make a difference from very early in my life. I guess in my family the gap between ‘I feel motivated’ and ‘how do I get involved?’ was always bridged, which was and is a privilege I am immensely grateful for.
For those not familiar, what role do you play at UNICEF?
I am a national ambassador for UNHCR, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. With unicef, I am a spokesperson, and I guess one could say an educator. I address large audiences about the current state and achievements of unicef, the lesser known history of its early origins, and my grandmother’s contributions and dreams that propelled her forward in her trailblazing.
How has your work made you feel; what was your experience?
I think the thing that has and continues to strike me the most while working with differently privileged people from myself is that people who seemingly have nothing, have come from nothing, and struggle to hold on to and maintain a direction is that they are immensely grateful, often happy and lighthearted, and present. In my experience they are curious about myself and my life, they ask questions, they want to play.
I worked in a refugee camp in Greece, as well as visited Real-home refugee situations that were facilitated by the 2015 EU Relocation Scheme for Refugees. I was lucky enough to interview families and children. I learned about truly horrific stories of loss, grief, and fear. Yet their children were so happy and joyous, and the parents so full of optimism. Their gratitude always stunned me, their sheer thankfulness to be alive and to be safe. As though that were enough in that present moment. They weren’t ever worried about what was to come, what they would do, or how they would be seen. They wanted only to share their story with whomever would listen and to continue on in their journey, smiling all along.
At the present moment I do counseling work with female incarcerated detainees at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island here in New York. These women have had lives that are extremely divergent from my own, and have lived truths and norms that I couldn’t imagine living. Their reality is our stigma. And what always surprises and inspires me is that many of these women are grateful to have the opportunity to be incarcerated, to not only have a place where they are safe, fed, protected, and forced to stay sober, but to have a place where they can work on themselves. To think about their lives, and to reap all of the benefits that the myriad of programs offered by the New York City Department of Corrections brings into institutions. This work has confirmed my instinct that all people are innately good, and want to do good things. It’s the circumstances that are so complex.
Is philanthropy addictive?
Yes! When I get up to speak before 500+ people at a unicef event, I’m always shocked at how emotional I become speaking of these things. It gets to me every time. Because for me, I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak about something that’s greater than myself, and spans generations and generations in my family.
I think about ancestral doctors in my family who worked to eradicate cholera in Cuba and in South America, often putting their own lives in danger, and that of their families. I think about my maternal grandmother as a nurse in colonial India, putting aside politics, religion, and ethnicity for a greater good of a people. There were engineers, artists, writers, lawyers. My paternal grandmother devoted her life to children and to advocacy, spreading a message that we can still hear today. I see my father’s devotion in continuing on in her legacy, and me doing the same is part of this immense thing.
It’s a way that I feel connected to all of that; to that intangible network. And I learn everyday that doing good is only a stone’s throw away. We don’t have to look far to lend a helping hand. Like my stepmother says, ‘all you have to do is walk into your own garden for a great journey’. Getting to know our own lives, and the lives of those that are in our emotional vicinity, can reveal incredible opportunities to serve.
“I learn everyday that doing good is only a stone’s throw away. We don’t have to look far to lend a helping hand. Like my stepmother says, ‘all you have to do is walk into your own garden for a great journey’.”
Have you developed any interest to initiate your own cause ?
Right now I’m really focusing on addiction recovery and rehabilitation for incarcerated individuals. I’ve learned so much through my own relationship with substances and alcohol, and am grateful for the opportunity to carry on a message about physical, emotional, and spiritual sobriety. I’m also thinking about ways that for-profits can function, and how to potentialize that. It’s an area where I’m little educated, but interested in learning.
What changes may a person noticed after volunteering?
Calmness, inspiration, wellbeing.
2019 relevant: Given the current political and environmental changes, do you feel that society is heading towards a change in culture, encouraging more philanthropy?
I’m not sure about this one. At times I feel like we’re headed toward a universal consciousness evolution, and at other times I think that things have always more or less been the same, and that we’re just living things presently through the lens of our own historical experience and perspective which can magnify what we think and feel.
I do think that the more evolved we become financially, politically, educationally, and energetically the more space we create to focus on bringing other areas, groups, and places up to speed. So individual advancement and progress is a key here to the whole.
There are so many organizations out there, how would you recommend navigating a start?
When I first moved to New York City I immediately set up a meeting with Caryl Stern to try and become involved with UNICEF in some way. The advice she gave me changed my life, and still I carry it with me today as a means to evaluate my time and effort expenditure. She said, “Just slowly start exposing yourself to things: healthy forms of news, reading, and listening to others around you. Wait until you hear about a cause, something going on in the world where you feel so moved that not being involved is no longer an option. Then, you’ll know exactly how and when to do it’.
I think that this is such a key way to look at things. I think that becoming involved with charitable efforts is often easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable than we think it’s going to be. I also think that it brings us to a place where things match up almost synchronistically at times, and it’s all about knowing when to make those first steps, and what direction to make them in. Then, I think that if it’s the right thing, things will happen relatively swiftly and purposefully. One just needs to have the intention of opening themselves up to receiving those opportunities.
When I think of the word ‘chic’, I think of your grandmother Audrey Hepburn and how she carried the title perfectly. What are your thoughts on what makes ‘chic’?
I think that chic is confidently being grounded in one’s own style and individuality. I think my grandmother did that, and she did it showing a relative lack of skin. I think that at a time of Marilyn Monroes, Anita Ekbergs, and Greta Garbos, Audrey was just Audrey, and that was chic.
A quote you love
The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say: Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
By Bertrand Russell