How much money did you waste on college textbooks that you never actually read? Well, during her freshman year of college, Malea Otranto happened to actually read a section of her Sociology textbook where a quote stuck out: “27 million people enslaved all around the world.” And from there, her world was flipped upside down.
Malea grew up in a Conservative family in Shirley, NY. Human rights issues were not a common topic at the dinner table. Up until the point that she read that horrific quote in her textbook, she was on a pre-law track to become a corporate attorney.
But, for Malea, 27 million was an unfathomable number, and she instantly felt the weight of 27 million people on her shoulders. She was shaken to her core, and immediately after learning this, she jumped up, pressed her teacher for more information, and ran (literally, she says in her interview, “as a very overeager freshman”) back to her dorm room to do more research. After talking to friends and other students, she realized that no one knew that this issue existed, or believed it, and for Malea, that was all the more reason to get to work.
Today, Malea works for WE Charity, an organization that works to end systemic poverty. Her passion for what she does oozes out of her pores. As I gazed at this fast-talking, fervent 26-year-old, I wanted to know how she got started and how she doesn’t get bogged down in the hardships of the world.
As I mentioned, the moment Malea read that quote, everything changed. She switched majors and started researching what she could to make an impact. She applied to about 80 internships and non-profits, and got politely declined from (almost) all of them. One finally decided to give her a “maybe,” so she jumped on a plane to South Africa and took an internship with CHOSA (Children of South Africa) her junior year, working with children who had undergone various types of exploitation.
When she returned and while her friends were busy partying senior year, she was working overnight shifts for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, taking crisis calls from potential victims of human trafficking. Then, she landed her dream job as a spokesperson for UNICEF. Talk about drive! Not sure about any of you, but my 22-year-old self was wallowing in “I’m soon to graduate, what the hell do I do with my life?,” watching Jersey Shore re-runs, and nursing a hangover.
Although, at one point in my life, I had thought seriously about working for a nonprofit or entering the Peace Corps. “But, what about the pay?” It’s no secret that nonprofits don’t exactly make Wall Street salaries. When I ask Malea about this, she jokes: “You gotta get some wealthy friends that will pay for your dinner.” As she gets serious, she admits that she doesn’t make a fortune, but that the pay does get better, and that ultimately, she’s always wanted to pursue passion over paycheck.
UNICEF was a dream job and provided Malea with incredible, surreal experience, but she still felt that she needed to do something else to really eat away at the root causes that were leading to human trafficking, which is how she found WE Charity. WE Charity focuses on five pillars: education, health, clean water, food, and economic opportunity. Malea was hired as a motivational speaker and… you’ll definitely see why when you listen to her episode.
My Sophomore year of college, I took an Environmental Studies class that inspired me to sell my fossil-fuel-sucking car and buy a car that ran on vegetable oil - but then, the more I learned about the emissions that the U.S. and China were emitting, the more disenfranchised I became. How can my single efforts make a difference?
Because of this, I ask Malea how she stays positive in the midst of all the crisis she sees, to which she replies: “for me, what keeps me going is all the positives that come out of this work, and the little wins that come along the way.” Then she tells the story of an experience she had this summer while visiting the Enosooito community in the Maasai Mara, where she witnessed a mother retrieving water from the same water well where animals were defecating. In that moment, she knew that children would get sick from dirty water - but she also knew that, because WE Charity was now invested there, that in a few years they would have clean water… and that’s what keeps her going.
I admire Malea’s passion - and most of all, I admire her resilience. If you’re reading, or listening, and you’re thinking “well, there’s just no way that I can commit that amount of time, or get to that place now,” Malea would tell you: you don’t have to! If you find something you care about, there are little ways to get involved. She talks about how it’s easy to get complacent and live in the confines of our own daily routine and not really realize what you’re actually passionate about, and makes one final plea to listeners:
“My plea to anyone listening is to find out what that is. What makes you incredibly angry? What do you want fixed by the time you have kids? Figure that out, and then go out and do something about it… the world is all of ours, and it’s all of ours to fix.”
Towards the end of the interview, we also chat about how it can be difficult to know which organizations are legitimate, which ones are actually making a difference, and how best to get involved. To this, Malea shares an exciting idea that she has and is working on investment for.. But all we can say for now is, stay tuned!