When Maria Bello took to the podium at the State Department this spring, she was among friends and longtime allies. It’s that characteristic of the League--women helping women, on behalf of women--that Bello is hoping to put to good use in Haiti with her NGO, We Advance. In 2011, the actress’s organization provided health resources and education to over 50,000 people in Haiti. She colorfully describes We Advance as a conspiracy of these "fucking fierce, incredible women" who advance the health, safety, and well-being of women and girls throughout Haiti.
She spoke to Fast Company by phone as she prepared to head to Cape Cod to film Grown Ups Two with Adam Sandler. "Funny, right?" she said. "Don’t I have a strange life?"
How did you get involved in activism?
I have always been an activist at heart, particularly for women’s rights. I started at 18 years old, studying peace and justice education in college and working on a women’s law project in Philadelphia. I was on my way to law school to be a women’s rights lawyer. But at the end of my junior year, I took an acting class as an elective. This was so clearly what I wassupposed to do! So I asked my mentor for advice. I was told: You serve best by doing the thing you love most. Use all your bits and pieces and your passion. That’s how you have the greatest capacity to serve. So, for all of these years I’ve had the opportunity to have a large stage and platform because of my acting.
What is it about Haiti that moves you?
When I first stepped foot there, I knew: I was fucked for the rest of my life. It’s an incredible place. All of my friends on the ground in Haiti are these fierce, incredible women. I’m totally inspired by their stories, what they accomplish in the grassroots. I’ve lived there half the time for the last five years. I have a clear vision, and always have, about women’s full participation in the world. But Haiti--it’s so clear that women will lead the way.
You’ve framed your work clearly: it’s not just about civil rights. You’re making a case for business, too.
That’s exactly right. Look at it economically--it’s not a “nice” thing to invest in women and girls. It’s an important thing. It’s a save your country thing. You’re a stupid idiot if you don’t.
In Haiti, the prime minister is a friend. Now 50% of his cabinet is women. He worked to get the quota passed that 30% of elected officials should be women, and he advocates for the economic participation of women. When more women are empowered economically the more stable economically the country will be. Women are the workforce now; not the paid workforce, necessarily, but they’re involved in everything.
You’ve been outspoken about how NGOs in particular overlook the needs of women.
Yes! I think about this a lot. I’ve worked with big NGOs who don’t even know the women in the communities. Never met them or spoke with them. The needs are so basic. For example, I’m working with women fish farmers who need two more nets and can’t get them. Fish nets. It’s a travesty that we don’t have clearer channels to funnel our aid money.
When did We Advance come together?
I met Aleda Frishman and Alison Thompson [We Advance cofounders] after the earthquake. I’d already lived in Haiti for a while, so my network of women friends asked us to start a women’s clinic. We put up a tent and they had their clinic. We did it for $5,000. No proposal, no “we have to check with our donors,” nothing. I had my friends on the ground--like Anne Valeri Milford from Femmes Democracie and Barbara Guillame, who became our other We Advance cofounder--who took 500 orphans living in the street after the earthquake and started the health clinic for them. Meanwhile pallets and pallets of medications sat on the tarmac because the big groups didn’t know how to distribute them, because they don’t work with grassroots organizations.
Do you have an outlet for your work on gender-based violence in Haiti?
Alongside the health clinic, we developed an empowerment project, a six-week course on health and hygiene and gender-based violence. We interviewed about 500 people about their needs in the community and developed the program around that. The course has important basics: how to contain a cooking fire, care for a small wound, avoid cholera, don’t put a machete where your two year old can get it. That sort of thing. And we’ve included human rights and gender-based violence in the curriculum. What we have seen come out of this program is pretty extraordinary. “Thank you so much for this class. I never knew before that I wasn’t supposed to do that to my wife,” we hear all the time. And we teach people to teach others.
What’s next for We Advance?
We are working with the State Department on social impact investing, trying to develop businesses and products that can sustain people. So we don’t have to keep asking for money. We are in the middle stages on that. And we’re an employer as well. We have 36 people, including security drivers, nurses, and doctors. Everyone except one is Haitian.
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company.