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14 ways empowered women are already changing our world for the better

“There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.” — Malala Yousafzai

When women are encouraged to nurture their gifts and empowered to embrace their ambitions, they can truly change the world for the better. Upworthy and Tory Burch partnered this year to help women do just that by honoring amazing women for their contributions and giving them $5,000 on behalf of the Tory Burch Foundation to donate to a non-profit of their choice.

Meet the 14 women who have been honored in 2021 for their diverse commitments to making the world a more hopeful, healthy, and just place.

Victoria Sanusi: Destigmatizing Mental Health

Victoria Sanusi started the Black Gals Livin’ podcast with her friend Jas in 2018. Victoria and Jas chat about various things, but listeners especially appreciate how the podcast destigmatizes mental health. “I think perhaps for our listeners, hearing someone who looks like them experiencing low moods, depression, and anxiety makes them feel less alone,” she says. Sanusi donated her $5,000 to the Black LGBTQIA+ Fund, which helps fund therapy sessions for people in the Black LGBTQIA+ community.

Caitlin Murphy: Supporting Healthcare Heroes

After founding her own technology-based freight forwarding firm, Caitlin Murphy used her talents in logistics to help get over 2 million masks to hospitals and senior care facilities across the country early in the COVID-19 pandemic. “To all the working mothers out there, you are doing amazing ladies,” she says. “Juggling all that is motherhood and all that is a working female is no easy feat. You are capable of more than you can imagine.”

Murphy donated her $5,000 to Camp Circle Star, a nonprofit that provides summer camp opportunities to children with disabilities.

Varsha Yajman: Fighting for Climate Justice

In high school, Varsha Yajman helped organize a school strike for climate action in Australia, which involved 80,000 people in Sydney. Today, at 18, she works at a legal firm that pushes for climate change equity. “Being a teenager, I believe it is my duty to fight for justice. Seeing people around me change their opinion on climate justice has been the most rewarding part of the fight,” she says.

Yajman donated her $5,000 to the Australian Youth Climate Commission, a youth-led organization building a movement of young people to lead solutions to the climate crisis.

Simone Gordon: Providing Direct Assistance to Families

After she was helped by a handful of women when she needed it most, Simone Gordon created The Black Fairy Godmother, a non-profit with 12 volunteers who connect people in need with givers who provide direct assistance. “I want people to understand how direct giving can make a major impact,” she says. “We can change lives and save lives by donating and providing resources.”

Gordon’s $5,000 donation will go to five single moms who are enrolling in college or trade school programs to better their future through the BFG Scholarship Program.

Shalini Samtani: Transforming Pediatric Hospital Experiences

Shalini Samtani founded The Spread the Joy Foundation and Open the Joy in 2019, after her baby daughter was diagnosed with a rare disorder that had her in and out of pediatric hospitals. Her organization delivers free activity kits — ”Joy Boxes” — to pediatric patients all around the country. “I knew at the time that there had to be a better solution, or even just a balm, to soothe the bleeding hearts of all mothers sitting in my seat,” she says, “and I was determined to find it for my own family, as well as for others.

Samtani will use her $5,000 to provide even more Joy Boxes to kids in hospitals around the country.

Judy Vaughan: Housing People Experiencing Homelessness

Vaughan helped found Alexandria House, a transitional housing space in Los Angeles for families that need a little help getting back on their feet, 25 years ago. Of the 200 families that have utilized the house, 92% have not gone back to homelessness. “It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families,” Vaughan says. “I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity.”

Vaughan will put her $5,000 into Alexandria House and the new Step Up Sisterhood LA program.

Alice Saisha: Revolutionizing Girls’ Education

Alice Saisha nearly dropped out of school and almost became a child bride in Zambia when CAMFED stepped in and helped support her education. Thanks to the pan-African organization’s support, she was able to complete her education and become an activist, philanthropist, advocate of women’s rights, and CAMFED ambassador. “We speak out for the voiceless, create leaders along the way, and amplify the importance of children’s welfare in school and at home,” she says.

Saisha donated her $5,000 to CAMFED to help revolutionize and support girls’ education.

Davina Agudelo: Supporting BIPOC and Latinx Writers

Davina Agudelo founded Alegría Magazine and refurbished a van into a mobile bookstore to celebrate Latin American and LatinX indie authors and poets. She also mentors indie writers and encourages children’s reading and writing in low-income communities across Southern California. “The amount of talent in our community pushes me to keep growing our company so the world can read their work and remember their names,” she says.

Agudelo donated her $5,000 to the Sims Library of Poetry, the first Black-owned poetry library in California.

Molly Reeser: Healing with Horses

In college, Molly Reeser worked mucking horses and was inspired by how much the horses helped a young girl named Casey with her cancer journey. Reeser founded Camp Casey, a day camp for kids with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other life-threatening illnesses, which now serves 1500 children each year in Michigan. “It brings me tremendous joy to see people, animals, or things coming together to create goodness in a world that can often be filled with hardships,” she says.

Reeser is using her $5,000 to bolster Camp Casey’s programs and help make them year-round.

Shanda Lynn Poitra: Empowering Women with Self-Defense

Shanda Lynn Poitra spent years in an abusive relationship, and it wasn’t until she took an IMPACT self-defense class that she gained the courage and self-confidence to leave her abuser. She wanted to share the wisdom and boundary-setting skills she’d gained with other Native women, so she started an IMPACT chapter in her community. “During the closing circles in our workshops, we all get to see the strength and transformation these women worked so hard for,” she says. “We get to see them take their power back from those who hurt them.”

Poitra is using her $5,000 to bring IMPACT to more indigenous survivors of domestic violence.

Sue Hoppin: Supporting Military Spouses

After realizing how moving around as a military spouse created a barrier to her own career, Sue Hoppin created the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), the first organization dedicated to advocating for the professional military spouse community. “We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment,” she says. “We see it as a national security issue.”

Hoppin’s $5,000 is going to The Madeira School, which fosters empowerment and confidence in women.

Amita Swadhin: Combating Rape Culture through Storytelling

As a rape survivor, Amita Swadhin founded Mirror Memoirs, a storytelling and organizing project dedicated to people of color who are survivors of child sexual abuse as well as survivors who have been historically ignored. “Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people’s brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs,” Amita says.

Swadhin is dedicating their $5,000 to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for a new theater project.

Farwisa Farhan: Protecting Ecosystems

The Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the last places on earth where endangered species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild. Farwisa Farhan created the HAkA Foundation to try to protect it after the government agency charged with that mission was dismantled. “We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets,” she says, “but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services.”

Farhan is donating her $5,000 to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation, to help keep a ranger who protects endangered leatherback turtles employed.

Deidra Mayberry: Empowering Others Through Literacy

When Deidra Mayberry was in school, she struggled with reading. As an adult, she learned about functional literacy, where a person may have some basic reading skills, but not enough to thrive. Having struggled herself, she wanted to help others, so she founded the Reading to New Heights literacy program for adults. “It’s kind of ironic, the very thing I was ashamed of and thought I had to hide for years was the one thing that, once I shared it, not only freed me but gave me hope and provided a way to help others,” she says.

Mayberry is putting her $5,000 into her new and growing non-profit organization.

Though 2021 has been a tough year for many, these impressive women and their organizations are giving back to their community in incredible ways. Empowered women inspire others, and if we want to see greater progress in our world, we need to empower more women.

Thankfully, that’s something we can all help with. Tory Burch and Upworthy are looking for more extraordinary women to honor, so if you know an empowered woman, nominate her here. Learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy’s Empowered Women program here.

Let’s all celebrate the amazing women in our lives and give them the gift of recognition they deserve.