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Edward Norton, Don Cheadle: Celebrities For A Cause

The United Nations General Assembly regularly attracts heads of state and dignitaries to U.N. headquarters in New York City. But the gathering draws big stars, as well. For more than 50 years, the United Nations has tapped musicians, actors and other household names to raise awareness about pressing international issues, from hunger and clean water to HIV and AIDS.

Actors Don Cheadle and Edward Norton are just two of the many Hollywood stars to serve as U.N. goodwill ambassadors, joining an elite group that has included Mia Farrow, Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas.

But beyond photo ops and trips to far-flung locales, what does a U.N. goodwill ambassador actually do?

"What I try to do more often than not, is listen," Cheadle tells NPR's Neal Conan. Cheadle was appointed goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program in June 2010.

Cheadle recently returned from Rwanda, where the government has made linking its environmental and economic policies a priority.  As a goodwill ambassador, Cheadle says he's looking for similar model initiatives around the globe "where I can learn and try to explain in other places, if I can, how that can be done."

Norton has been on the job as a U.N. goodwill ambassador for biodiversity only since July 2010. But he says the environmental movement has made great strides in the past decade, momentum he hopes to tap in his new role.

Some used to dismiss environmental activists "as people who cared more about animals than people," Norton tells Conan. "That era of talking about natural systems versus human needs is over."

Now that environmental concerns have become more mainstream, Norton says, "We have to come up with sustainable ways for people to get what they need out of the environment while preserving that environment."

Cheadle knows his celebrity status can help the U.N. promote its environmental priorities, but he also says he has a lot to learn from the communities he'll be visiting while ambassador.

"We're here to be focal points for issues that are hard to get in the frame," Cheadle says. But he adds, "I'm still in very much the educating-myself process."

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