Variety Entertainment Philanthropists of the Year: Sean Penn and Ann Lee, Co-Founders of CORE, Are Racing to Save the World

CORE Sean Penn Ann Lee Variety
Courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis for CORE

Sean Penn’s golden retrievers scamper around his Malibu home, tails wagging with insouciant abandon, their winged, flaxen fur flapping against their snouts like the long, blond hair of 1970’s supermodels. They are the Bo Derek of dogs. If you ascribe to the theory that pets resemble their owners — and vice versa — then these fair-haired canines recall Penn circa Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Black-and-white framed photographs of said dogs snapped by Penn’s wife, Australian actor Leila George, line the foyer wall, along with tiny, squared pictures of Penn’s children, Dylan and Hopper, in varying stages of youth. A retro silver Airstream is parked on the front lawn, the words “Just Married” painted on the back. Inside, a pile of books arcs across the living room floor, texts on architecture, art and music. It is a home well-lived, the house of someone far more invested in humanity than the trappings of fortune and fame.

In this setting, in the here and now, Penn’s celebrity feels peripheral, incidental. Since co-founding the nonprofit organization Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) in 2010 following the massive 7.0 earthquake that ravaged Haiti — the org’s original name was JP/HRO — Penn, who is also board chairperson of CORE, cuts the figure of an impassioned activist who just happens to be an internationally decorated writer, director and a two-time Oscar-winner for his mesmerizing lead turns in “Mystic River” and “Milk.”

He and his CORE co-founder, Ann Lee, are Variety’s Entertainment Philanthropists of the Year.

On this hot July day, Penn emerges onto the backyard in flip-flops and a black CORE hoodie, his cerulean eyes catching the hazy glint of the blazing morning sun.

Penn’s hair, infamous in the wake of his December interview on “Morning Joe,” stands at attention, a wild font of graying blond. (Shortly thereafter, Penn’s hair will be cut and coiffed for the Cannes premiere of “Flag Day,” the true-life drama in which he stars and directs daughter Dylan.)

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Penn pals around with local children on the grounds of the refugee camp he helped build on the Petionville golf club in the outskirts of Portau-Prince, Haiti, in November 2010. Corentin Fohlen/Abcapress.com/Alamy

“I am a hair actor,” Penn quipped in a 2001 interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose.

But outward esthetics have never been one of Penn’s primary concerns, at least not on the surface. And now, as the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to erupt in a fiery rage and Haiti weathers the aftershocks of president Jovenel Moïse’s assassination — prime minister Ariel Henry is set to organize new elections — Penn’s hair has never been less important. At a pale wood table, he pulls cigarettes from a carton of American Spirits, a half-drained glass of soda functioning as a de facto ashtray. Penn is moody and reflective and smart, but more than that he is spirited, a person deeply concerned for the state of the universe and committed to enacting positive change.

Looking back, he says, the impetus to fix our broken world was always buried inside him; it just took time to emerge in its current form.

“I think that for all young people there’s a kind of calling that, if not answered, leaves a hole,” says Penn. “I always looked with an admiring eye at people who were giving back to whatever degree they’re able to do it. But you know, you start to live in your own head when you’re young and you get into theater and movies, and it took a while for me to start to have some of those things articulate themselves.”

Much was made of Penn’s 2005 rescue mission in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in which he was photographed dragging survivors through the muddied flood waters. And it was, as Penn says, a “defining moment.” But it was well before — from the “pride of service” example set by his actor-director father, Leo, a military veteran of World War II, to the galvanizing force of simply being an American on Sept. 11 — that Penn actively embraced the social imperative of giving back.

“For me, the real kick-off point was 9/11,” says Penn. “I remember being at a burger stand with my very young daughter. I remember the bow that was in her hair. And knowing that the new norm in the world that she would live in had far less relationship to the one that I’d lived in prior to that. And so that started taking me around the world, to some journalism and then, ultimately, Katrina.”

It was during Katrina that Penn was hit with the transformative realization that governments, even under the best of circumstances, “can’t handle these things by themselves.”

“They need help,” says Penn. “And so, you find you look for where you can have a productive impact. And then, of course, in 2010 it all kind of came together. I don’t want to say it was a perfect storm —it was, in fact, an imperfect storm — but a storm.”

Ann Lee’s philanthropic trajectory is of a far different kind. CORE’s co-founder/CEO and Penn’s partner in global humanitarian efforts, Lee has held positions in public service for 20 years. A native of Palos Verdes, Calif., Lee is a career humanitarian and international aid expert holding master’s degrees in urban planning (NYU), as well as economics and conflict management (Johns Hopkins). Prior to joining CORE (then JP/HRO) in 2016, Lee worked at the U.N. Organization for Coordination and Humanitarian Affairs.

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Penn and Lee confer with a team of full-time staff members and community volunteers at a CORE service site in Haiti. Liam Storrings Photo/J/P Haitian Relief Organization 2017

“There’s a deep sense of sort of unfairness that just kind of gets under my skin and makes me very filled with rage,” says Lee. She lived in Haiti before and after the earthquake that snuffed out an estimated 250,000 lives, displaced an additional 2.3 million, and changed the face of the impoverished third world nation — ranked poorest in the western hemisphere on the Human Development Index — forever.

Penn was one of many celebrities — including Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore — who lent aid to the quake-battered country that year, touring the shantytowns, dishing out food, writing checks for medical supplies. But where most movie stars dedicated a day or two, or a week, to such volunteer efforts in Haiti, there was something in Penn that Lee recognized was markedly different. If at first Lee was skeptical, Penn proved his unwavering dedication. He wasn’t there to relieve himself of the burden of privilege or fulfill some fleeting altruistic impulse — although that, too, is necessary and admirable. Penn was there because he could not not do whatever he could, in whatever way he could, to rebuild communities, to salvage lives. One might describe it as a magnanimous compulsion.

“A lot of times the actors came in and took photo ops and left. But Sean was there to learn and listen, and he wanted to absorb as much information as possible,” recalls Lee. “He wasn’t like, I have the answer for it. He was very humble. And that was a kind of a watershed moment. Sean was in the camp, in a tent, with the Haitian refugees. The first time he came, he was there for nine straight months.”

In Haiti, Penn witnessed children dying on the streets, quake victims undergoing amputation surgery without anesthesia. It changed him; it changed everything.

Long after other celebrities returned home to their mansions in Pacific Palisades and Brentwood, Penn was managing a tent community in Port-au-Prince for 60,000 displaced Haitians. He was on the phone with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to secure a planeload delivery of morphine and medical supplies.

“It’s not enough to just be an artist — not today,” he says. “I think [in Haiti] that that’s how I finally felt. I was ready to fill that hole. I had other stuff to give. And so I found a place to do that.”

That was the beginning of CORE.

Sitting beside Penn in her green CORE T-shirt, there’s a palpable kinship between Lee and Penn of the sort needed when collaborating to do such pressing philanthropic work. Thoughtful and focused, Lee shares her perspective on everything from the ongoing food crisis in Haiti, a country of 12 million people, to the percolating danger of civil unrest — “everything is shifting so much, so we are always bracing for what comes next,” she says.

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As COVID-19 raged, Lee traveled to Navajo Nation to help its community members in need. Courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis for CORE

Personality-wise, Lee presents as Penn’s foil. Where he is bursting with self-effacing wit and existential angst — the emotional domain of an actor often compared to Marlon Brando — she is measured and calm. They are in a sense a real-life buddy movie, one in which the lead protagonists are racing to save the world.

Nowhere has this urgency been tested more than during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Penn and Lee, it was not just a matter of wanting to rescue the human population from the throes of a viral plague that has, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killed more than 600,000 Americans. It was a matter of the U.S. government, under the Trump administration, concocting and advancing a “maddening” campaign of lies and misinformation — “the craziness that was promoted from the top of the White House,” as Penn describes it — that exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 and made an already emergent situation all that much uglier. Penn and Lee knew they needed to do something.

And fast.

Via CORE, Penn and Lee have spent this past year-and-a-half on the ground, sleeves rolled up —administering tests, providing PPE and vaccines. In the United States alone, CORE has administered 5.3 million COVID tests, 4 million of those in Los Angeles. The org has administered 1.6 million COVID-19 vaccinations (1.3 million of which were in L.A.). If you got tested for COVID-19 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, or received the vaccine there, it was in large part due to the tireless work of CORE. While people at home were poking fun at Penn’s hair, he was masking up on the frontlines, doling out 6-inch-long cotton swabs for drive-through tests.

Outside the United States, CORE has administered an additional 60,000 vaccines in Brazil, Puerto Rico and India.

“CORE has been an indispensable partner in our COVID-19 response efforts, and a lifeline in our communities,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Together, with our own L.A. Fire Department and other partners, they delivered vaccines to every corner of our city, and in doing so saved thousands of lives.”

“While federal leadership was non-existent, there was leadership in the city of Los Angeles,” notes Penn. “We found a really good partner in Mayor Garcetti and we just went in with sharp elbows and some good connections and stayed the course. But having to get around the distraction of the federal government — it’s surreal.”

José Andrés, famed Spanish chef and founder of nonprofit org World Central Kitchen, dedicated to providing meals to communities upended by natural disasters, has teamed up with CORE on myriad emergency operations over the past decade. Andrés praises Penn and Lee for “walking the walk.”

“I have always been amazed with Sean’s spirit, his empathy, his ability to be an agent of change in the world,” he says. “He and his team just go out there and get the work done — I think we are brothers in that way. We don’t want to be sitting in a conference room having endless meetings, making statements and giving applause, but instead getting into the community and making sure people are taken care of. CORE is out on the frontlines, helping to give vaccines against this virus, supporting the hardest hit communities that so often do not have the resources.”

Don Hardy, who directed the 2020 documentary “Citizen Penn,” which charts Penn’s journey from Academy Award-winner to activist, believes that if there is one lesson to be learned from the showbiz activist it’s that “you don’t need to be Sean Penn to make a difference.”

“The most important thing is that people feel motivated to get involved in something,” says Hardy. “For Sean, that was Haiti. And now it’s become so much more with everything that his organization is doing in terms of COVID testing and vaccinations. It’s been amazing to watch it unfold over the past decade.”

But nothing has come easy. CORE began coronavirus testing in Los Angeles in March 2020, but received no funding from government or federal sources until August, five months later. What Penn discovered in Katrina and continues to hold true: “The cavalry isn’t coming to save us.” At the height of the virus’s impact, CORE was forced to draw down on several millions of dollars per month from the private sector and longtime philanthropic partners.

“We were scraping and borrowing and stealing from existing programs to start our testing activities in the beginning,” says Lee. “It’s really thanks to [Twitter founder] Jack Dorsey that we were able to scale up as we did across eight cities in the U.S. doing the over 5 million tests that we did, and then move into vaccinations at the scale and speed that we did. Rockefeller Foundation early on kicked off a number of our cities with us, from Navajo Nation to New Orleans and across California. There’s no way we would have lasted as long as we did without Dorsey and the Rockefeller Foundation.”

Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of Rockefeller Foundation has remained a steadfast supporter of CORE. “CORE’s on-the-ground, passionate commitment to expanding access to critical public health resources makes them an invaluable partner in the battle to beat back this pandemic,” he says. “We started working with them to mobilize testing and other services in California before expanding to reach hard hit places from the Navajo Nation to New Orleans. CORE has been extraordinarily effective at engaging both local and state governments and — most importantly — local communities. Trust is CORE’s currency.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Navajo Nation, an American Indian territory comprising 175,000 members and spanning 27,000 square-miles across northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico — but with only 170 hospital beds and 13 ICU beds — was another key priority for CORE.

“CORE’s contribution to the Navajo Nation throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of hózhó, a word so sacred and vital to the Diné people,” says Allie Young, a Navajo Nation activist who launched nonprofit org Protect the Sacred. “Hózhó means ‘beauty’ or the ‘beauty way,’ which is our Diné way of life, a life and lifestyle that strives to live in harmonious balance with one another, our surroundings and Mother Earth. CORE showed up in Navajo Nation open to learning our way of life and embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming relatives to our communities and people, and stepping in to aid in every way they could. Building and providing shelters for families that did not have the room or means to social distance or self-quarantine, is just one way the CORE team helped to prevent the spread of COVID in Navajo Nation.”

Other humanitarian orgs that came through include Direct Relief, supplying PPE, emergency medicine and oxygen and donating $1 million toward vaccination units and food programs for pregnant women in the favelas of Brazil, and the American Red Cross, with which CORE worked in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, which ravaged the Bahamas in 2019. “It’s partnerships like these that really extend the scale and scope of our programs everywhere,” says Lee.

CORE’s annual fundraising gala event draws a steady parade of movie stars and entrepreneurial tycoons, from Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts to Facebook founding president-turned- philanthropist Sean Parker. Actor-director Soleil Moon Frye, singer-songwriter-producer Linda Perry and Bryan Lourd, partner and managing director at CAA, are among those in the biz who sit on CORE’s board. The organization’s 10th anniversary soiree, held at L.A.’s Wiltern Theater in January 2020, raked in a cool $5 million. CORE thrives on the generosity of high-profile individuals. But in terms of funds needed to implement its services on an ongoing global-wide basis — and that ideal number, in Haiti alone, scores way above $5 million — it’s a Sisyphean challenge, Penn says, to keep money in the proverbial coffers.

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Anderson Cooper and Julia Roberts came out to support Penn and CORE at its fundraiser gala. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images Entertainment Video for CORE, formerly J/P HRO

“Power and money are two things that people have a very hard time parting with,” says Penn. “And it’s difficult to compete with some of the super established organizations that are able to afford to put television commercials on late at night and get those $1 checks coming in from millions and millions of people.”

But there’s an upside as well, Lee points out, to being a smaller, grassroots organization.

“We don’t have the bureaucracy that bigger organizations do — the team of internal lawyers, the in-house department of communications — and that allows us to be fast and be more risky,” she says. “We want to be in a place where we’re not constantly struggling for every single dollar; there’s a cost to that. But because we are smaller, we can be more program-focused.”

“The personality of the organization has never been to find an entrepreneurial strength,” adds Penn.

What has been a defining strength of CORE is its extensive network of doctors, volunteers and emergency workers, including a staff of 150 full-time employees in Haiti, that have remained an indefatigable on-the-ground force, heroically rebuilding communities torn asunder. In the face of a seemingly endless barrage of obstacles, improvising and developing ideas outside the box — “rolling with the punches,” as Lee says — are vital instruments in carrying out CORE’s humanitarian work.

COVID-19, for example, is a catastrophic problem in Haiti, with infection numbers underreported due to its lack of testing. The country is in a state of political volatility, and there are no vaccinations. But this reality has not stopped Penn or Lee from brainstorming ways in which to carve out a path forward, to jump back into “the COVID space” as soon as they can and “double down” on CORE’s collective efforts “to make sure the population is as safe as humanly possible.”

“We understand how difficult it can be working in Haiti, especially during these times of crisis,” says Lee. “But we’ve been around for 10 years, and we’re not at all considering giving up on it. We will be there. And we will figure it out.”

Stateside, CORE’s battle to stop the coronavirus is also long from being won. The Biden administration’s response to the pandemic has been “very encouraging,” says Penn. But, as breakthrough infections surge and the Delta variant, a far more contagious strain of the virus, wreaks havoc, CORE is reckoning with a follow-up plan. Per CDC data, only 48.8 % of Americans are vaccinated as of late July, and a refusal among communities nationwide to get the vaccine poses a dangerous threat. The question now, says Penn, is “How do we attack? How effective can we be in the face of this resistance?”

Penn himself has stated that he will not return to the set of “Gaslit,” the Starz series he stars in opposite Julia Roberts, until everyone on the production has been vaccinated.

“If I had my way,” says Penn, “we would be doing drive-by dartings. Just go, you know, down to that bar they closed down in Burbank or wherever because the patrons refused to wear masks. And we can drive by in our Ninja suits and dart them with the vaccine.”

It sounds untenable, but there’s wisdom in Penn’s premise. How do you help those people who refuse to help themselves?

Both Penn and Lee are optimistic that through their partnership and CORE, they will discover the best answer.

“I lit a match,” says Penn of what he’s accomplished these past 10 years. “But this woman,” he adds, gesturing to Lee, “is the fire that was beyond the powder on the match.”

Lee, in turn, credits Penn for “expanding the narrow space of what she once thought possible.”

“Sean comes at things from a completely different angle,” says Lee. “We’ll be trying to figure out the solution to a problem, and he’ll suggest something and I’ll say, ‘what world do you live in in which that can even happen?’ He’s got this incredible ability to just crack things open. It’s this infectious — I wouldn’t say dreamer quality because that just sounds ephemeral — but it’s more about widening the goal, widening the vision. And you need that. It allows us to do the things that I might before have just thought wacky. Do all the testing and vaccinations in Los Angeles? But it’s a real thing. We made that happen. There’s nothing in front of us that I feel we can’t figure out. Nothing is impossible.”