2023 J. Blanton Belk Outstanding Alumnus/Alumna

October 5, 2023
UWPIAA Honorees

Maria Amalia Souza – ’83E

Maria Amalia Souza (’83E) touched the heart and soul of each and every castmate during her Up with People travels. Her efforts continue to inspire not only her cast, but all those who know her. Maria’s impact on the world was made apparent earlier this year when, to mark the United Nations’ International Women’s Day, she was one of the sixteen women honored for her dedicated work on the front line of addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis.

For 37 years, Maria has dedicated herself to designing systemic strategies to ensure that philanthropic resources reach the most excluded and vulnerable grassroots communities which protect some of the richest biodiverse places on earth, like the Amazon rainforest. Maria is the Founder and Director of Strategic Development of CASA Socia-Environmental Fund, a non-profit philanthropic organization that seeks to promote environmental conservation and sustainability. At its core, CASA’s mission is to generate positive impact on very diverse territories, investing in the lives of those who care for them, and establishing connections between communities and organizations. CASA programs include support for environmental and biodiversity protection, preservation of oceans, rivers and forests, sustainable cities, renewable energy, and climate change initiatives.

CASA promotes democracy, respect for socio-environmental rights, and social justice through both financial and skills training support of small groups spread throughout South America. Maria has worked with international non-governmental agencies (NGOs), consulted with companies on their social investment assessments and partnered with global grassroots networks. 

From her early experience in Up with People, Maria understood that the CASA Fund would not survive without continued financial support and grants from a host of large philanthropic donors. From UWP, Maria had also learned the value of partnering and working with others.  As she considered the launch of CASA, she built her staff with others as passionate as she, but with skills and talents in areas that needed complementary focus.  Her co-director of CASA is such an example. By mobilizing multiple resources including the influential contacts she made throughout the years and with a tireless amount of “pounding the pavement,” over the years Maria promoted CASA’s success on the international stage to establish and grow broad-based financial support for the Fund.  

The CASA Fund also sees community development as a means of stimulating the financial and environmental sustainability of traditional communities. For instance, tourism is a good illustration of how a community can share its culture and way of life with the rest of the world, thus generating income in a sustainable fashion and reaffirming the community’s sense of pride and belonging. Grants have also been provided for community flour mills that eliminate middlemen, cooperatives of women bakers and confectioners, community savings banks, community currencies, and many more.

As noted, much of Maria’s work is focused not just on the environment, but on those at the grassroots level whose lives are significantly impacted.  She observed, “I quickly realized that to conserve fragile ecosystems, we needed to get resources to the people who belong there; those who are doing the toughest job and are doing it best: the indigenous groups, river communities, and land rights advocates at the frontlines of environmental protection; no one can do it better than them.”

In its first year of operation (2005) CASA funded 34 projects with just over 135 thousand dollars.  But how this has grown: this year, since its inception, CASA will surpass over $25 million in grants to more than 3,100 projects across 10 countries and, in doing so, has inspired similar community-based initiatives all around the globe. Unlike some other initiatives that come and go, CASA is in it for the long haul. It has been supporting native communities throughout the Pan-Amazonian region to organize, improve their livelihoods and come together to secure their constitutional and international legal rights to be consulted and have a voice about any plans that will affect their territory. It seeks to provide the support and training forest-communities need to improve the skills necessary build sustainable solutions for their livelihoods, for example, through local fruit and seed-processing businesses and renewable energy initiatives in remote regions.

In recent years, Maria has been a sought-after speaker at countless international symposiums, providing her the opportunity for her to visit over 50 countries. Despite the challenges of COVID, in 2021 Maria participated as a speaker in 18 webinars and/or strategic meetings in the field of national and global philanthropy. At these events, she represented CASA and contributed with topics such as the importance of local philanthropic funds in the Global South, protecting community-based groups and their role in maintaining biomes that control climate balance, and the impact of these changes on lives.

Maria’s list of honors and awards is compelling.  In addition to being the 2023 Recipient Global Landscapes Forum 16 Women Restoring the Earth, she was one of seven finalists for the 2016 Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize awarded to those who demonstrated remarkable leadership, creativity and results in developing philanthropy for progressive social change in an emerging market country or countries. Maria is the Co-founder – Socio-Environmental Funds of the Global South Alliance a founding member – Brazilian Philanthropy Network for Social Justice, a past board member of AIDA Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, a steering committee member of the Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), and an advisor to The Ocean Foundation.

As Maria touched her castmates in 1983 and as she continues to touch the lives of so many today, she herself is touched by the core of Up with People and what we shared on-the-road:  music.  If philanthropy is at the core of her heart, then music is at the core of her soul. Maria loves all things music – she plays the guitar and the piano, and her voice is as pure as it was in 1983. She supports several local music groups and is often found performing in cafes and other music venues around town.

Maria Amalia Souza is recognized with the 2023 J. Blanton Belk Outstanding Alumnus/Alumna Award for the compassionate person that she is and for her incredible achievements in preserving the future of countless vulnerable communities throughout the world and the world itself in these times of climatic change.

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