I am lucky enough to work in the travel industry, and my greatest passion is building a more sustainable future for the industry — one in which all travel acts as a catalyst for social good and empowerment. Every day, I am humbled and inspired by the actions of those who I am fortunate enough to collaborate with. One of these incredible individuals is Maria Russo.
Maria and I volunteer together for Travel+SocialGood, a community and nonprofit aimed at making the industry more sustainable. We connected over our love of storytelling and journalism (Maria runs the Media Network), and over the course of working alongside one another, we have become close friends.
One of the kindest individuals I have met, Maria is a powerful and determined force, and is the co-founder of one of my favorite nonprofits, Humanity Unified. HU is an empowerment program for women in Rwanda, and their mission is close to my heart because I visited Rwanda for the first time in the summer of 2013. I am beyond thrilled to be returning to Rwanda with Maria and her team this fall. Below, Maria shares the inspiration behind HU in her own words:
In July 2015, my husband and I headed to Rwanda, a country that suffered one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen – more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. We met a small group of women there that were living in terrible conditions and had faced the most unimaginable circumstances. Many are victims of rape, are widowed, orphaned and lost children of their own. These women inspired us to do something drastic.
To give a clear picture of the whole story of how we ended up in Rwanda, let me first rewind to November 2014, during our first trip there, a journey we were inspired to embark on after spending the last 14 years traveling around the world. A writer and a photographer duo, we took the time to deeply connect with many fascinating people we met along the way and to learn more about incredible cultures we came to love. We saw the juxtaposition between wealthy and poor and it gave us that unsettled feeling of enjoying something that was only available to those who could afford it.
As travelers, it is important to us to leave the planet a better place. Our journeys abroad brought a richness to our life that no material object ever could. So we thought – why not return this good to the world and pay it forward?
So back to that drastic life-changing thing we did.
Last year, we launched Humanity Unified International, a nonprofit organization that empowers communities to rise above poverty through education, food security programs and economic opportunities. We start by investing in women.
I gave up all my opportunities to earn an income through my online magazine to focus solely on building the organization and our current project in Rwanda. For the past year, my life has been completely dedicated to serving and empowering the women involved in our project.
Now when my husband and I travel, we spend our time doing something meaningful and impactful in Rwanda. We’ve chosen to work with a local NGO that is leading a women’s farming cooperative project with us. Our approach to sustainable development lies within investing in local organizations and stepping away from our own ideas and beliefs of how things should be or what development should look like from a Western perspective. We trust our partners and we know that they put the needs of the community first.
As a travel writer, I knew I could write stories to help spread awareness about the work we are doing with Humanity Unified Int’l. I’ve been sharing our story with people all over the world in hopes that it will inspire those drawn to our mission to get involved and to come together in making this planet a kinder, gentler, fairer place for the good of humanity.
Become part of our story of empowerment. Learn more at humanityunified.org.
About the author
Maria Russo is a writer, an editor and the co-founder of Humanity Unified Int’l, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to lifting vulnerable populations out of poverty through education, food security programs and economic opportunities. She is also the co-founder of The Culture-ist, an online magazine that covers travel, culture and social good. Russo has worked in television, print and broadcast media companies such as: MTV Networks, People, Harper’s Bazaar, Warner Bros. and WOR News Talk Radio and is currently a contributing writer at Inc.com. Her work with The Culture-ist has been featured by Architectural Digest, National Geographic, BBC America, The Huffington Post, FATHOM, StyleList and Men’s Health among others. Russo is a humanitarian and avid traveler who loves nature, slow food, yoga and good conversation over a cup of matcha tea. Follow Maria on Twitter @MariaCultureist