Since its founding in 1992, AWARE has been giving social good a grassroots makeover in New York City. Focused on aiding gender equality by arming communities with education and resources, AWARE works alongside a new charity every year, to bolster its visibility, raise money, and help communicate its narrative. In an interview with co-founder Rachel Justus, she explained how keeping the mission personal has been creating a measurable difference.
AWAREness: How AWARE Works
"We choose off-the-beaten-path charities doing phenomenal work locally." Justus says- It's just a matter of finding them. The type of charity is different each year, but they are always aimed at helping local women and girls, and are light on resources-- a place where AWARE's three-pronged approach of Fundraise, Volunteer, Educate can swoop in and make an immediate impact. Chosen charities must have a direct service component within the community, so that AWARE can build sustainable pipelines to take them beyond the partnership.
They have a unique approach to initial fundraising.
"We wanted to make a difference without having to write huge checks." AWARE fundraising events come with a suggested price-tag, but they never turn anyone away who wishes to participate. "Whatever you can do is welcome and celebrated. $20 for one person is the same as $2,000 for another, and those people have contributed in an equally meaningful way."
It's an inclusive approach to charity, which too often comes with the red tape of sticker shock. It also understands the reality of the community it is serving, by treating the desire to contribute with respect.
Keeping things local helps AWARE extend this respect to the people they're helping, in an authentic way. "We meet the women or girls that we are serving. When you're able to put a face to a cause, that makes you so much more connected to it." That accessibility also creates lasting relationships, especially through their volunteer outreach and educational programs.
One such event was a women's health fair, where women learned how to conduct their own breast cancer checks, were able to get skin and dental screenings, and learned yoga and mental health exercises-- life skills that can be carried forward, and passed on.
"It's very local, hands on, tangible."
AWARE Partner Projects
AWARE's projects have had a powerful local impact.
With Restore NYC, which aids victims of sex trafficking in New York City, AWARE held a community panel on the subject. An estimated 18,000 foreign nationals are brought into the United States every year to be trafficked.
"It's happening in our backyard. At the 23rd street subway stop."
AWARE helped rebuild and refurnish RESTORE NYC's safehouse in Queens. To empower the women themselves, they additionally supplied a $250 Target gift card to all residents, so they could personalize their rooms. For many of these women, who viewed the bedroom as a traumatic place, this was emancipating. One in particular, "She had never had her own bed before... she was able to choose her own sheets, comforter, pillow. She was sobbing on the checkout line."
"For victims of sex trafficking, a bed isn't a safe space. ...she was able to transform a space that had been negative into something that was her own, something beautiful." She chose orange, blue, and white; bright, optimistic colors.
Their work with current partner, WVFN (Women Veterans & Family Network) is focused on providing women veterans a full listing of the benefits they are entitled to, and how to access them.
"Many female veterans do not self-identify as veterans." Justus explains. Whether it is because they suffered from abuse and unequal treatment within the military, or have been stigmatized by unemployment since returning, this poses a major hurdle-- even for AWARE. "When we decided on a cause to do with female veterans, we couldn't find one. It took months and months."
They think "[Their] contributions aren't seen as meaningful... it's wrong." The tide maybe changing now that women are allowed combat roles, but there has been misogynistic backlash.
AWARE hopes to help end the stigmatization of female veterans and "Remake [the WVFN] website into a one-stop resource..." for their needs. "Housing, jobs, healthcare, social support, mental health services... all there, in one place, so women can easily access it and take advantage of it."
Keeping In Touch
Though partnerships with charities end after the year-long program, AWARE does keep in touch, checking in and doing resource management where they can. But they hope their involvement helps to get these charities into the public eye.
"We aim to be ambassadors of the cause."
The community framework is its greatest strength. Relationships and visibility that sticks with people. Grassroots at its best.
To suggest a charity, volunteer, or donate with AWARE, please visit HERE.
AWARE was co-founded by Rachel Justus and Amy Saperstein. It is currently led by Cassie Avirom, Kira Copperman, Ellen Friedman and Rachel Justus.
This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.