Humanity Unified

Meet Maria Russo of Humanity Unified

A few years ago, I met Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist  and Executive Director of Humanity Unified, a nonprofit organization that invests in education, food security projects and economic development programs to empower people to rise above poverty. I was instantly inspired by her incredible work to improve the lives of women and communities in Rwanda and have followed her work ever since. I had the opportunity to catch up with Maria and learn more about her life and what it is like to lead Humanity Unified. Here is what she has to say.

Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions? Do you have any siblings?

I grew up with my parents, younger sister and maternal grandmother in a quaint little town in NJ called Berkeley Heights. Our house was always full and family time was everything – most weekends were spent visiting cousins, aunts and uncles and home cooked meals were always at the center of the celebration. As a child I was drawn to history, dance and nature. I could spend hours exploring rocks, worms, flowers and trees. I think my passion for humanitarian work was sparked by my involvement with the Girl Scouts of America. The service projects helped me to see beyond my own needs and focus on the needs of others at a very young age.

Did you travel as a child? Where was the first place you went that inspired you? When was the first time you left the country?

Most of my travels as a child were within the U.S, with a few trips to the Caribbean peppered in between. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I traveled across continents to Italy and shortly after to South Africa. These trips, particularly my time in South Africa, sparked an unquenchable desire to see the world that lead me to over 35 countries over the following 10 years.

Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you choose this area?

I went to American University in Washington DC. where I studied journalism and international studies. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in politics and international affairs. I think it was the realization that a vast, complex, dynamic world existed far beyond the world I had known growing up. I became avidly involved in the Junior Statesman of America and traveled to D.C. three times a year for student conferences. It was through my involvement with the organization that I became infatuated with the history and culture of D.C., so the decision to attend college there seemed intuitive. My time at AU deepened my interest in journalism and helped me realize how I could marry it with my love of global affairs.

What inspired you to launch The Culture-ist and when did you start it? Tell me more about the mission behind it and how it is run. What did you learn from this line of work?

My husband and I launched The Culture-ist in 2011 as a passion project that allowed us to engage in and develop our passions – for me that was writing about things I cared most about such as travel, global affairs, sustainable development, women’s issues, entrepreneurship and humanitarian work. The Culture-ist was also a really powerful channel of connection for us. I was constantly interviewing people, working with other writers and collaborating with media organizations and brands…it was truly a gift to meet so many interesting individuals who were contributing to the world in unique and inspiring ways. So far I’ve learned that no matter the line of work you’re in, kindness and openness is key to building a business that is grounded in integrity. I’ve also learned that while it’s important to be flexible, sacrificing your vision to ‘keep up’ with fads and trends will have you chasing something that will steer you far off track only to force you to back pedal to your original intention.

Humanity Unified

Maria and Anthony Russo. Photo credit: Humanity Unified

What inspired you to launch Humanity Unified? 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. To me, a life spent trying to make the world more equitable for all just seemed to make sense. It also creates a deep sense of purpose and gratitude for the life I have now. For years I waited for the right time to launch a nonprofit and an opening finally came in 2014. Right around that time Anthony and I traveled to Rwanda where we explored program possibilities. We knew that we were interested in investing in education, food security and economic development and serendipitously found a local Rwandan NGO that aligned with our vision and mission for Humanity Unified. After almost two years of developing our programming and completing the 501(c)(3) application process we launched our first project.

Food Security Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

How Elisabetta Colabianchi of Kurandza is Helping Girls in Mozambique Go to School

While the world often seems like a rather daunting place, there are some truly amazing, inspiring people out there doing tremendous good and making an enormous impact on such critical issues as fighting poverty, climate change, educational opportunity, and improving the lives of women and girls. Over the years of running my blog, I’ve met some of these changemakers and have been impressed to learn that many of them are women (like Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza) helping other women and girls around the world.

To be a woman or girl in the some parts of the world is a lot more challenging than a man or a boy: Most girls give birth well before 18, are married young, are not able to attend school, live in poverty and have less financial opportunities than men. However, when you invest in a woman or girl, the opportunity to make a difference and impact change is immense and creates a ripple impact throughout the entire community. That is why investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do but also very smart.

This new series, Inspiring Women, is all about the courageous women who are taking a leap of faith and making a huge impact in the world. These women are not getting enough attention in the mainstream press so my goal is to honor them and shed light on their inspiring work.

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders of Kurandza

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders. Best friends and a strong team. All photos in this post are credited to Elisabetta Colabianchi.

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

Where it is Best and Worst in the World to be a Child

Save the Children, the world’s leading independent organization for children, has released the second annual End of Childhood Index in honor of International Children’s Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness on children’s rights and wellbeing around the world. Save the Children’s annual End of Childhood Index ranks 175 countries based on eight childhood “ender” events that jeopardize children’s chance of a happy, healthy and safe childhood. While the report shows that the majority of countries have made progress for children since last year (95 out of 175 countries), conditions in about 40 countries appear significantly worse and are not improving fast enough.

No country is on track to meet the 2030 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) for children.  Over 1 billion children around the world live in countries plagued by poverty and it is not just a developing world problem. In the 2018 report, the United States didn’t rank in the top 10 or top 25. Instead, the U.S. shockingly ranked 36th place smack between Belarus and Russia. The growing urban and rural child poverty rate within the United States continues to widen.  The results of the report may surprise you.

This year’s report has two components: “The Many Faces of Exclusion” and “Growing Up in Rural America”, a new U.S. complement that offers first-of-its kind analysis of rural child poverty rates across America as well as state by state ranking of where childhood is most and least threatened. In advance of the report’s release, I listened in on a telebriefing by Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children to get some of the key highlights of the report and a call to action by governments around the world.

Here are some of the key findings worldwide and in America.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Food Security Global Health Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Humanitarian Poverty SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

International Women’s Day 2018: In Honor of the Women and Girls of Western Kenya

“If we don’t empower women, we don’t allow them to unlock the potential of themselves and their children”. – Melinda Gates

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, a day celebrated around the world in honor of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Women and girls have made a tremendous amount of progress over the years however much work still remains to be done especially within the developing world.

In honor of this special day, I wanted to share a few of my recent photos of some of the inspiring girls and women I met in Western Kenya last week with LifeStraw. It was a truly life-changing trip that fed my soul with joy, compassion and hope. I can hardly wait to share more!

Over the course of a week, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers, rose at dawn and were off on the road by 6:30 am to reach the schools. We were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day. Our days were long but incredibly exhilarating and rewarding as we provided training and installation of safe water filtration systems at each school.

At our demonstrations on how to use the LifeStraw Community (a water filtration system that treats unsafe water making it safe to drink), it was almost always the girls who were up front and center participating in the program. Many of the girls were selected to be prefects in charge of maintaining and cleaning the LifeStraw Communities, a tremendous honor.

I was thrilled to see that in all the primary schools my team visited (15 in all ) and in the 11,923 school children we met, there was not a wide gender gap as you normally see throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. In fact, girls and boys have reached gender parity in schools and that is a huge sign of improvement and success.

CULTURE SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Children at Mosebo Village, Ethiopia

Standing up for all Girls on International Day of the Girl

“It’s about time someone said it. Being born female in one of the world’s poorest countries means your life will be harder, simply because of your gender. Unlocking the full potential of girls and women wouldn’t just transform their own lives, or even their families’ – it could help end extreme poverty for good”. – ONE.org

Today, October 11, is the International Day of the Girl, a day declared by the United Nations in 2011 to raise awareness about all issues concerning gender inequality around the world.  It’s a day when activist groups come together under the same goal to highlight, discuss, and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere. Fast forward to today and the International Day of the Girl has become a global movement of hope, inspiration and advocacy to better the lives of half our planet who is being left behind.

Globally, more than 600 million girls live in the developing world and of that number, 130 million girls are currently not in school right now. This is a huge problem which has significant repercussions not only for girls but for the economy and well-being of society as a whole. Education is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against extreme poverty – so it’s unacceptable that so many girls are still denied the chance to learn.

ONE, a campaigning and advocacy organization of more than eight million people around the world taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, fully understands the power of girls and the way education can be used as a conduit to better not only their lives but society as a whole. ONE is a strong advocate for the rights of women and girls around the world and in honor of this year’s International Day of the Girl, one has released a new report titled “The Toughest Places for a Girl to Get an Education”.  

The report identities the ten toughest places in the world for a girl to get an education and has some tragic facts:

  • The top ten toughest countries are all fragile states and among the poorest in the world.
  • Nine out of ten toughest countries are in Africa.
  • Poverty is sexist. Within the toughest 10 countries, girls are 57% more likely than boys to be out of school at the primary level and 83% at the secondary level.
  • In the 10 toughest countries, half of the girls are married before their 18th birthday.
  • In South Sudan, 73% of girls don’t go to primary school.

Yet there is so much hope. Educating girls can change the world.  The ripple effect of educating one girl in a community is astounding. The math is simple and easy. So why aren’t more girls in school?

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

#IStandForGirls: Kurandza’s Mission to Help Girls in Mozambique Go to School

“I’ve always believed that when you educate a girl, you empower a nation.” Queen Rania of Jordan

Kurandza (which means “to love” in Changana, the local language ) is a non-profit social enterprise that invests in the future of women in Mozambique. Founded by Elisabetta Colabianchi in 2014, Kurandza works to empower women and their community through education, entrepreneurship, and sustainable development programs in Guijá, Mozambique.

Elisabetta was first introduced to Guijá, a small village in southern Mozambique, when she lived and worked there as a Peace Corps volunteer at a local hospital. Her main role was to counsel HIV-positive women on the prevention of HIV transmission to their children. During her work she realized that many patients would abandon treatment because they could not pay for transportation to the hospital to pick-up their medicine each month. Elisabetta and her good friend, Percina Mocha who lived in the community, started an income generation project for the HIV-positive women, with the goal of teaching them a skill that would earn enough income to pay for the monthly transportation costs to the hospital. The impact was enormous and sparked the impetus for Elisabetta to do more.

In the Fall of 2014 after returning to the US, Elisabetta founded Kurandza to continue supporting the community through a variety of educational, business and sustainable development programs. Her good friend Percina works as the Country Director of Kurandza in Mozambique and is responsible for managing all of the programs on the ground.

This month, Kurandza has launched the #IStandForGirls campaign with the goal of sending 100 girls to school in Mozambique.  

What is the campaign?

In the month of September the goal is to bring-on 100 purpose-driven individuals who support girls education, empowerment and gender equality to become monthly donors and will afford an education to girls in Mozambique.

For $20 per month (or $240 a year), someone can join the movement and give a future to a girl in Mozambique. The $20 pays for school fees, uniform, backpack, school supplies, school books, photocopies for exams, and transportation to get to school.

I have just signed on to support a girl’s education. It is something I have always wanted to do especially as a mother of a ten-year old girl who has all the opportunity imaginable simply based on where she was born.

Why girls education? 

I had the opportunity to interview both Elisabetta and Percina (who was the first girl to graduate from high school in her community) to learn more about the campaign and the impact an education makes on a girl. Here is what they had to say.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

“The Story of US”: How Humanity Unified is Supporting Women Farmers in Rwanda

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”. – Desmond Tutu

Do you ever feel like the connections we make in life sometimes seems like fate? The more I work in this tiny niche of social good travel bloggers, the more amazed I am by the incredible friendships and network I’ve made online. I’ve met countless inspiring bloggers and humanitarians online through blogging and social media. One such person is Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist and the non-profit Humanity UnifiedIt all happened because I follow her on Instagram where I noticed the amazing photographs her organization was posting on women and girls during a trip to Rwanda.

I commented on the photos and began a relationship online that resulted in an interview  and a post on her and her husband Anthony’s work as the founders of Humanity Unified. I was instantly drawn to Maria and Anthony’s passion for making the world a better place by starting at the grassroots level by improving the lives of women and girls in Rwanda. I have been working with Maria ever since.

This past International Women’s Day (on March 8th), I held a fundraising dinner to support Humanity Unified and I was elated by the results. In one night, we raised over $400! Although that may seem like a small amount to you and me, in Rwanda that money goes a long way. Roughly 70 % of Rwandans are substance farmers who rely on their harvests for income and with unpredictable weather, environmental disasters and climate change, a good or bad harvest can make a tremendous difference. Humanity Unified is trying to change this reality by empowering rural communities to rise out of poverty through education, food security projects and economic opportunities. They start by investing in women.

Humanity Unifed

Photo credit: Anthony Russo

Since 2015, Humanity Unified has been working in Rwanda with their partner Aspire Rwanda, a local NGO that empowers poor women to rise above poverty. The two organizations share similar missions dedicated to poverty alleviation through education, food security projects and economic opportunities.

Humanity Unifed

Photo credit: Anthony Russo

Humanity Unifed

Photo credit: Anthony Russo

Currently, the organization is empowering 110 women through a farming cooperative project that will ensure each woman earns a self-sustaining, livable income after completing a one-year intensive educational program.

The program provides the women with the skills and knowledge necessary to triple the cooperative’s yields over the course of one year. The 100 women enrolled in the cooperative, most of whom earn less than a dollar per day, are also attending workshops on gender-based violence, women and children’s rights, nutrition, positive masculinity (which includes male partners) and workshops designed specifically for single and widowed women. The program also provides training in cooperative management, financial planning and effective agriculture methods.

Food Security Gifts that Give Back Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Street Photography Havana

International Women’s Day: A Tribute to Women and Girls

“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.— Kofi Annan

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. It is International Women’s Day, a day around the world to honor women and girls and to look at the progress that has been made and the work that remains to be done. For those who have followed my blog for a while, you know that the rights of women and girls lies near and dear to my heart. I’ve witnessed the inequities and injustice firsthand throughout my travels around the world.

Women and girls are more likely to be poor, unable to go to school, be married young and not have the same opportunities as boys and men. Women still die during childbirth at alarming rates, and are being victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking even here in the United States. The list of tragedies goes on and on.

However, the exciting news is this reality is rapidly changing. More women and girls are being empowered with education, training, and access to healthcare, mobile money, micro financing and the internet. The future is looking much brighter for women and girls than it did just a decade ago. So instead of dwelling on the bad things, I want to honor the good things that are happening by highlighting a few of my favorite women and girls I’ve met along the way.

Bolivia

Woman in La Paz Bolivia

Cerro Austria Bolivia

Eugenia, our cook, inside the “kitchen” tent gives us a big smile.

Ethiopia

Mosebo Village Ethiopia

Children in Mosebo Village 42 k away from Bahir Dar in Ethiopia.

Faces of Ethiopia

Faces of Ethiopia

Midwives in training

Ethiopian Woman

Mother.

Ellilta Products Ethiopia

Weaver at work.

Yetebon community Ethiopia

Inside we meet a mother and her expectant daughter. They walked two hours on foot to reach the Lie and Wait house. Her mother delivered all 8 children at home with no help.

Tanzania

Mkura Maasi Training Camp Tanzania

Mkura Maasi Training Camp Tanzania

Moshi Tanzania

I couldn’t resist getting my picture taken with these lovely girls.

Me and Mary learning how to make Maasai jewelry that she can sell to earn a profit.

Haiti
papier-mâché artisans Jacmel Haiti

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Our group, #Bloggers4Haiti

Cuba

Cienfuegos Cuba

Lovely smiling sisters.

Street Photography Havana

The abeulas of Cuba

The abeulas of Cuba

Guatemala

Maria. Guatemala.

Costa Rica

Dos Brazos de Tigre Lokal Travel

Xiña leads the way with her walking stick ready.

Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre, Osa Península, Costa Rica

Inside Zulay’s house

Xiña and her sister who lives in Puerto Jimenez and will be our cook for the next day.

Honduras

The girls in Honduras where I volunteered.

India

Indian girls inside a Delhi slum

Smiling and hopeful Indian girls within a Delhi slum

Meeting with Frontline Health Care Workers in The Indira Kalyan Camp

I will forever be grateful for the amazing women and girls I’ve met along the way that have inspired me to do more and fight for them.

Want to learn more about International Women’s Day and what is happening? Follow the hashtag #BeBoldForChange or #IWD2017 online. 

Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

Kiva: Be Bold for Change, Invest in Her

“Kiva is a simple concept that can change a person’s life.” – Oprah Winfrey

I learned about Kiva years ago after reading the life-changing book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  This book could not have been more timely in my life as after reading it, I immediately began investing in women at Kiva and also using my voice as a blogger and social good advocate to help improve the lives of women and girls.

Kiva is an international nonprofit founded in 2005 and based in San Francisco, with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. What I love about Kiva is the brilliant concept of using small micro loans to empower people in the developing world to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. These are normally people who do not have access to traditional bank accounts and Kiva’s micro loans provide the missing link that they need to succeed. Kiva’s loans not only improve but change thousands of lives and what a greater gift than providing opportunity and empowerment, especially to women.

In honor of International Women’s Day this Wednesday, March 8th, Kiva has launched an exciting campaign called “Be Bold for Change, Invest in Her”.  The ambitious goal is to crowd fund $3 million in loads for thousands of women from March 1-8Kiva is offering 10,000 new visitors the chance to lend the equivalent of $25 on Kiva for free as part of the campaign.  You can choose which woman you want to support – a woman starting or growing a business, going to school, accessing clean energy or investing in her community. 

invest_in_her-preview

 

 

Individual loans of $25 are collected until that woman’s loan request is fully “crowdfunded.” It doesn’t cost new visitors a thing and they can be part of achieving the campaign’s overall $3 million goal alongside Kiva’s 1.6 million individual lenders. Furthermore, 100% of every dollar you lend on Kiva goes to funding loans. Kiva covers costs primarily through optional donations, as well as through support from grants and sponsors.

Gifts that Give Back Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

The Graceful Beauty of a Rainforest Flower

“Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen… yourself, right now, right down here on Earth”. –  Bradley Whitford

As I am filled with utter dread about the stark reality that our nation now has a leader who appears to be against every single thing that matters to me and my beliefs, I search the darkness for a shimmering light. A candle in the unknown that glows and grows within me.

I was not able to attend the Women’s March in DC yesterday nor the local one here in St. Paul, Minnesota. I doubted my choice over and over again but despite not physically being present I was there 100% in spirit. When I browsed over my Facebook feed late last night, I felt nothing but pride. There were all my amazing friends and fellow advocates, all around the world out there standing up for their beliefs. None of the protests that they attended were violent or disrespectful. They were all full of beauty and grace.

It restored my faith in democracy, and it gave me hope again in humanity. I fully believe that every person should be able to have their own beliefs, even if I don’t agree with them. However, I am not going to support a government that does not respect human rights and our planet nor am I going to become complacent. I have joined several causes -even more than ever before – to get educated on what I need to know and what I need to do. I am not going to give up quietly. There is too much at stake.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”. – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.

In the meantime, I wanted to leave some photos of the gorgeous flowers I found in the rainforest of Costa Rica. Their graceful, fragile beauty symbolize the beauty of the women I know and have never met who have fought so hard to be treated as equals.

At yesterday’s Women’s March in Saint Paul, Minnesota (with record attendance of over 90,000 making it one of the largest political marches in Minnesota history) Newly elected State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis (the first Somali woman in the United States to be elected to public office) poetically said:

“I hope to remind people that it is our differences that make our country beautiful.” 

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“Sooner or later, even the fastest runners have to stand and fight”. – Stephen King

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Vanam Foundation: Improving Education and Conservation outside Bandipur National Park

About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.

Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

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Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

Chicabrava: Empowering young girls through learning to surf

To be a girl in the developing world is an additional hurdle to overcome. Not only will you likely be poor, you will also likely be married young, uneducated, physically and sexually abused and lack the potential to follow your dreams of having a better life.

What if we could change this vicious path and instead give young women an opportunity to thrive, to be inspired and to follow their dreams? 

This is the inspiration behind Chicabrava’s Camp Bella and Chicas Adelante. To break the mold of gender equality by offering young women and girls hope. Hope to dream. Hope to change their destiny and hope for a better future.

Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

The women of Chicabrava Photo credit: Chicabrava

Houston-native Ashley Blaylock moved to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in 2003 when it was an undiscovered fishing village. She had fallen in love with the country and wanted to follow her dreams of starting up the very first all-women’s surf camp in Nicaragua. At the time, no women surfed yet Ashley persevered. Over time she developed strong ties and acceptance within the local machismo community and opened the doors to Chicabrava in 2008. By working with the community, Ashley helped transform the cultural belief that surfing was only for men and party goers. On the contrary, Chicabrava broke gender roles by demonstrating that surfing is a serious sport that women can enjoy and feel empowered. 

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