Homemade Cookies and a Social Revolution

fiveWith three grown sons and plenty of energy left for a new challenge, Anna McDonnell launched ‘5 for Fairness,’ an online foundation modeled after a social network, dedicated to helping girls.

‘This is philanthropy from another angle,’ says McDonnell, who was never satisfied when she gave money to a good cause but had to let an executive board decide how to spend it. ‘I want to put philanthropy into the hands of all the individual members of the group.’

The name, 5 for Fairness, is a mission statement squeezed into three words. ‘Five because you can become a member for $5 and I want everybody to be able to participate,’ McDonnell says. ‘Fairness because this is about making the world fair for girls, which it truly is not.’

Putting money in the mail is just the start for anyone who signs on to this grant-making community. I know because I joined last year, when the group was new.

Members nominate programs for the group to consider. (Recent nominees have included a school in Afghanistan and a program for boys that aims to end violence against girls and women.) They join teams that represent each of the programs in the running, ask questions, take part in forum discussions, and when the 5 for Fairness till reaches $5,000 they vote for the program they most want to see get the grant.

‘The only way this can work is if members are engaged,’ says McDonnell, who lives in Brentwood. She learned the power of group dynamics while she was earning a master’s degree in social work from USC. As a group-therapy leader working with mentally ill people adrift in the social-welfare system, McDonnell listened to them describe their hallucinations, helped them separate the delusions from the rest, and told them they did not need to be ashamed. ‘All any of the people I worked with really wanted was to be loved and valued,’ she says.

She also learned a lot about social justice while she was earning her degree. ‘It isn’t all about raising money,’ McDonnell says. ‘It’s about expanding awareness. All the imbalances in the world won’t change until men and women are valued equally.’

Shortly after the launch of 5 for Fairness it went global, thanks to the Internet’s unbounded reach. For more than a year, members met online only, while their numbers doubled every few months to the current 325.

The first grant, awarded last December, went to Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where local doctors are taught how to treat girls and women who have been raped and mutilated as the social conflict there continues.

One weekend in late October the ‘5-fers,’ as McDonnell calls members, had their first face-to-face gathering. Some 20 of them got together at her house in Sullivan Canyon for a reception honoring the second grant recipient. The winner, MOSTE (Motivating Our Students Through Experience) is a Los Angeles-based program that matches mentors with under-served girls in middle and high school, to help them get into college and grow to be community leaders. There are about 150 girls in the group.

After a pick-me-up of apple cider and homemade cookies, everyone sat near the living room fireplace. MOSTE president Alejandra Valenzuela accepted the grant money, surrounded by the four mentors and five ‘mentees’ at the celebration.

‘This money is for our college fair,’ Valenzuela said as she accepted the grant.

The fair is an annual event organized by MOSTE every autumn where mentors develop contacts with colleges and universities from around the country and ‘mentees’ talk to recruiters and get inspired. A number of MOSTE alums are now scholarship students at schools around the country.

‘One of the things I like best is having somebody to talk to about personal problems,’ said Tavera Rand, a shy eighth grader at Samuel Gompers Middle School, who has been with MOSTE for two years.

‘My mentor sets a standard for me,’ said Sara Roschdi, a sophomore at Environmental Science and Technology High School near downtown Los Angeles. ‘She is a role model.’

‘Knowing that I’m not alone in figuring myself out,’ said Diana Salmeron, a senior at Rosemead High School, about how the program helps her. ‘MOSTE is my main source of support.’ She is applying to nine colleges and universities this year.

Salmeron helped to bring a world-class promoter of ‘girl power’ to the MOSTE fundraising luncheon this year. Greg Mortenson, whose book, ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ tells the story of how he started a school for girls in Pakistan, agreed to speak at the luncheon after Salmeron and Valenzuela, her mentor, introduced themselves to him at his book-signing event in Los Angeles last winter. He attracted such large crowds to the $85-per-ticket luncheon and the $175-per-ticket evening event, both in downtown Los Angeles in April, that MOSTE was able to hire a program director, their only full-time, paid staffer.

Mortenson and Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who has made the ‘girl effect’ his theme, are shining bright lights on the subject. Meanwhile, McDonnell and the members of 5 for Fairness are changing the world their way, with a bit of women’s folk wisdom for a motto: ‘If you want to catch a lot of rain, put out a lot of teacups.’

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