For actress and activist Maria Bello, a commitment to helping others in her community was instilled in her from an early age. “My mom was a nurse and always volunteering,” she says. “So for us, that’s what we did.” A cofounder of We Advance, a charity established in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there and dedicated to aiding the country’s women and children, Bello first studied international women’s rights as a student at Villanova University.
The Norristown native made her first foray into women’s activism as a phone counselor for the Women’s Law Project, a local organization that its executive director, Carol Tracy, calls the “legal arm of the women’s rights movement.”
Bello returned to the City of Brotherly Love this May to receive the Women’s Law Project’s Myra Bradwell Award, an honor presented annually to an individual who has demonstrated commitment to the advancement of women. “Maria has continued to do the work [of the Women’s Law Project] with the same kind of philosophy that we do,” says Tracy.
The homecoming was overwhelming for Bello, who never imagined she’d be recognized by the organization that sparked her passion. “I remember the girl that I was,” she says, “in jeans and a T-shirt and not enough money to get downtown on the subway.”
Bello carries on the spirit of the Women’s Law Project through We Advance, a charity that gives the women of Haiti a more powerful voice, both in their own country and internationally. As she found through her years of volunteer work, it is the women of a community who know best what the community needs. So unlike some larger agencies, We Advance puts women in control of their own projects.
“A lot of these big organizations—not all of them—they come in and they decide what the people need,” Bello says. “I find it very colonialistic, patronizing, and bureaucratic, and I wanted nothing to do with it.” Frustration with the established charities in Haiti was a catalyst for the founding of We Advance. She adds with a laugh, “My Haitian friends and I like to say that we started We Advance because we were pissed off.”
After a $5,000 gift from Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting, allowed Bello and friends to open a women’s clinic, she sought funding from other organizations to open similar clinics across the country. “They all said the same thing, which was, ‘You need a proposal; we have to go through our system and donors,’” says Bello. Tired of dealing with the maze of red tape, she and cofounder Barbara Guillaume, a human-rights activist raised in Haiti, decided to strike out on their own.
We Advance was not afraid to give aid to the areas where most other groups feared to tread. “We put our center of operations in Wharf Jeremie in Cité Soleil, which is the poorest and most dangerous slum in the Western Hemisphere,” Bello says. “The bigger organizations wouldn’t work there because of insurance reasons; it was too dangerous.”
The results so far have been spectacular. We Advance opened its clinic two years ago and has since instituted children’s and empowerment programs, as well as an adult English class. Bello and her team are also now working on We Advance University, an online educational site for women’s groups throughout Haiti.
While the charity’s work takes place outside the US, Philadelphia remains an important touchstone for Bello. Most of the members of We Advance’s board of directors are located here, and the actress returns home for fundraisers several times a year. “I like to stick with my Philly roots,” she says. “I feel they’re the most generous people around.”
“Maria wanted to raise awareness in her hometown because she still has very close ties with her community,” says board member Gail Slogoff, who hosted the first local We Advance fundraiser at her home in Merion. “She still has a very strong support system here.”
As for the organization’s name, Bello explains that it comes from the notion that women should be constantly moving forward instead of simply responding to current pressures. “The new women’s movement isn’t about fighting for or fighting against anymore,” she says. “It’s about saying we are advancing, whether you like it or not.”