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She may have made her name as Luke Skywalker’s mother in Star Wars, and has since gone on to make some of the most interesting art-house films produced in the last five years, but young starlet Natalie Portman is more than just another Hollywood bimbo. Under the beauty lies a brain and heart many people only dream of possessing.

Born Natalie Hershlag in Jerusalem, Israel, to an Israeli father and an American mother, the 26-year-old actress comes from a family with a long history of social and political activism. Her grandfather, for example, was a socialist economics professor of the developing world who set up one of Israel’s first Kibbutzes. It was an atmosphere that left its lasting mark on Portman – she became a vegetarian at the age of eight, and joined an environmental dance troupe at the age of 12.

The star of the Star Wars prequels, as well as independent films such as “Closer” and “Garden State”, is an enthusiastic advocate for animal rights, and refuses to wear products made from fur, feathers, or leather. In 2007 she even launched her own range of vegan footwear, and she has also appeared in a documentary in which she trekked through a Congolese national park in search of the endangered Rwandan Mountain Gorilla.

But the Harvard University psychology graduate’s real passion is alleviating poverty in Third World countries. In May, 2007, Portman joined Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan to launch the Village Banking Campaign for the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA). The campaign is designed to provide financial services to the world’s lowest-income entrepreneurs so they can create jobs, build assets, and improve their standard of living.

“I really wanted to work on Middle East peace, because I’m from Israel originally,” said the young star. “And I really wanted to work on something with Queen Rania of Jordan, because she’s probably the woman I admire most from my region. So I got in contact with her and her staff, and they recommended for me to get involved with FINCA.”

Portman is immensely proud of her role as an Ambassador of Hope for FINCA, and has visited programs run in countries such as Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Uganda. She even produced a charity album for the organization, Big Change – Songs For FINCA, that featured songs by artists such as Norah Jones.

“My goal for this campaign is to galvanize my generation to support Village Banking, and take a leadership role in the fight against poverty,” she said at the launch of the initiative. “We have the ability and the responsibility to make our shrinking world a more hopeful, stable and peaceful place. With all of the tools we now have at hand – new anti-poverty approaches like microfinance; technology that helps us mobilize even greater numbers of people; and a growing understanding of the imperatives – we have no excuse to miss this opportunity.”

Portman has also recently been chosen to represent the Listen Campaign, joining Hollywood legends such as Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, and Jessica Lange in a new and exciting multimedia charity initiative designed to highlight the plight of needy children around the world. The scheme, launched in November 2007, hopes to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years.

“I understand that people might be jaded,” said Portman. “I know I get turned off by most celebrity joining-in efforts. But I’m interested in this because it’s about diverting some of the unwarranted attention we have in our celebrity-crazed culture and passing it on to something else. We can give people a voice who would not normally have one.”

The Listen Campaign website includes a video of Portman visiting a young 17-year-old boy named Nicholas in Uganda – an HIV-positive AIDS orphan who is trying to raise his sister and three brothers.

“The thing that upset me most is that we weren’t taught about this stuff at school,” said Portman. “We weren’t taught that half the world lives on less than $3 a day.”

Although she has had a lot of success in films, the young actress has thought about trading the position in for work in a non-profit organization, and claims that her travels through some of the poorest countries in the world has really opened her eyes about life, ambition, and true happiness.

And if she has one wish for the future of the planet, it would be this:

“People [should] pay attention, look to their neighbors. I think we’ve lost so much community. I think that’s one of the things I’ve appreciated most seeing in these villages is just the sense of community, where an entire family – an entire community – takes care of each other. And we’ve really lost that. And when you lose that on a personal level, you lose that on a global level as well. But I see a lot of people really wanting to do positive things in the world. And I feel that it’s like a new generation. You can watch the news and it feels like it’s the end of the world, very apocalyptic. So I just try and find people around me who are doing positive things.”

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