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Ruth Ann Harnisch: Women's issues are #NotJustAStat

Ruth Ann Harnisch wants to put a human face on the issues women face, and let people know they're #NotJustAStat.
(L-R) Cristina Ibarra, Elisabeth Holm, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Sydney Freeland, Tracy Droz Tragos, Kat Candler and Su Kim attend the Woman at Sundance Brunch on Jan. 26, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty for Sundance)
(L-R) Cristina Ibarra, Elisabeth Holm, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Sydney Freeland, Tracy Droz Tragos, Kat Candler and Su Kim attend the Woman at Sundance Brunch during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26, 2015 in Park City, Utah.

March is Women’s History Month, and women have come a long way since the days of fighting for the vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, is highlighting women leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015. 

International Women's Day is approaching on March 8, and it's an important chance to recognize ongoing, serious challenges for women around the world — from human trafficking and child marriage to equality in education and work opportunities. But Ruth Ann Harnisch, an activist, philanthropist, and founder of The Harnisch Foundation, wants people to know that women's issues are not just statistics. Instead, behind every number, there are real women whose lives are affected.

The Harnisch Foundation launched the #NotJustAStat campaign in advance of International Women's Day to raise awareness of several key issues facing women globally, including violence against women, LGBT rights, reproductive health, campus sexual assault, and more. The campaign invites women to share their stories of gender inequality -- and to start, they've partnered with a team of prominent women leaders. Each day in the lead up to International Women's Day, one of the Harnisch Foundation's friends will share their story and a cause they care about on Twitter using #NotJustAStat, and the Harnisch Foundation will donate $1,000 to the organization they choose. Actresses Lena Dunham and Alysia Reiner, among others, have shared their stories. 

Ruth Ann Harnisch talked to msnbc about the #NotJustAStat campaign, and how the Harnisch Foundation is working to help women and girls. 

What is the #NotJustAStat campaign all about, and what are your goals for the campaign?

International Women’s Day is an occasion for the trotting out of statistics. Our goal is to find the personal stories behind the numbers. We know that every statistic is someone’s real life story. Personal stories help create conditions for genuine social change to take place.

Who are some of the influencers participating in #NotJustAStat, and what issues are you highlighting?

Already featured: Alysia Reiner partnered with us to highlight gender inequality in the film industry, Liz Plank on violence against women, Lena Dunham on reproductive health, and Gloria Feldt to discuss the urgency of bringing women into leadership positions. Later in the week, we’ll address campus sexual assault, LGBT women’s issues, racial diversity, and women in journalism. We reveal the influencers each day on the HF

You're asking women to share some of their gender inequity stories with the Harnisch Foundation as part of the campaign. Can you share some of the stories you've heard so far? 

We had our biggest responses to Lena Dunham’s Instagram. She chose to spotlight reproductive health, and hundreds of people had something to say, some of it very personal indeed.

The Harnisch Foundation recently refocused its mission on helping women and girls. What made you decide to focus on girls and women, and what is the HF's strategy?

We believe improving conditions for women and girls offers the greatest opportunities for changing the way the world works. It’s proven: if you educate and empower women, their health and the health of their families improves markedly. If women are on boards, companies have demonstrably better results. Women and girls have traditionally been absent from the places where decisions are made that affect their lives, and it’s time for that to change. We’re investing strategically in communities and individuals who are making a visible difference and creating upstream change.

For example, in order to make more women visible in media, we invest in programs that train women writers, filmmakers, directors, and others who can tell women’s stories and hire women in front of and behind the camera.

The HF focuses on work in the fields of journalism, professional coaching, media, and convenings. Why those fields? What are some successes you've seen in these areas?

We invest in journalism because people make decisions based on information, so we support diverse voices presenting high quality reliably sourced information to equip people to make decisions about their government, their health, their work. As sponsors of BinderCon, we bring hundreds of women writers together for skill-building and strategizing. The hoped-for outcome? More women thriving in their writing careers, more women’s voices telling stories, women’s perspective on issues and events.

We invest in professional coaching because it is an effective tool for developing and supporting leaders. Most people struggle with insecurities and doubts, especially if they’re doing important world-changing work. Professional coaching helps women overcome obstacles, create action plans, and live happier and more effective lives. We underwrite professional coaching programs to support women in their leadership. The Sundance Women Filmmakers Initiative Fellows receive personal coaching and mentoring to support them in strategizing their careers and their lives.

We invest in media to tell stories that need to be told, such as The Hunting Ground, in theaters now. It’s a highly acclaimed documentary examining the institutional failures that allow sexual assaults on campus to continue unpunished and unabated. We’re working with the filmmakers of Hot Girls Wanted, a documentary exposing the shocking “amateur” porn industry that uses and discards barely-legal-age girls.

We invest in convenings because there’s no substitute for people meeting in real life, and opportunities for collaboration and action are maximized. We’ve brought together gatherings of women in media and leadership to discuss issues and seek solutions. We are hosting a workshop next week with to strategize advancing women in public life. We’ve had great success with the Collaboratorium model which brings together specially selected participants to spend several days in intensive work on their projects.

How can someone who wants to get involved in the fight for gender equality get involved? Where do they start -- what action can they take, even if it's something small?

Every nonprofit welcomes every gift of any size, so never hesitate to make a “small” donation to an organization doing work you admire. Truly, there are no small gifts.

And I don’t believe there are small actions, either. Every time someone speaks up when they hear sexist talk, every time someone thinks about being more gender-fair and inclusive, even taking the time to read more about the issues, these are not small in my estimation. Every action moves us forward. I encourage everyone to start simply, and simply START.

And lastly, what's your hope for the next generation of women?

I hope the next generation will see every person as worthy of dignity and respectful treatment. My hope is for a world in which everyone’s contributions are valued, in which  individuals are free to fulfill their potential and are supported in their choices. I hope fairness is built into systems as solidly as inequity is now. I hope the next generation of women lives in a world in which they are welcome and equal.

Learn more about The Harnisch Foundation and the #NotJustAStat campaign here. You can also follow Ruth Ann Harnisch on Twitter @ruthannharnisch.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women's History Month series here