Back when Maria Bello was majoring in peace and justice studies at Villanova, she may have dreamed that she'd one day be a successful actress, but it's hard to believe she ever imagined she'd one day help bring together an unprecedented summit of Africa's first ladies.
That's exactly what will occur Monday and Tuesday, when more than 20 of Africa's first ladies will be in town to discuss a range of health and women's rights issues that continue to obstruct development in their countries.
Bello -- along with a number of other leading actresses -- will help get the event off to a star-laden start as she joins California First Lady Maria Shriver at a welcoming luncheon at the Westside's Skirball Cultural Center. Bello's role in the summit is part of her long-standing interest in African issues, especially those that touch on the welfare of women.
In a phone interview Thursday from Boston, where Bello is shooting "The Company Men" with Ben Affleck, the actress ("A History of Violence") said she is thrilled to be able to work on social justice issues between filming. She's hoping to make a trip to war-torn Darfur this summer.
"When I was in college, my dearest friend was a priest who started the peace and justice program at Villanova," Bello said. "When I decided to be an actor instead of a human rights lawyer, I was so afraid to tell him.
"When I did tell him, he just smiled and said, 'You serve best by doing the thing you love the most.' As I've gotten older, I've had such a passion for both things -- acting and social justice. As a mother, I want to do my little bit, my little effort to leave the world a better place."
The two-day summit is hosted by US Doctors for Africa in partnership with Vital Voices, a women's rights group; the RAND Corp.; and the World Health Organization, among others.
Among the African dignitaries attending will be the first ladies of Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia.
The first Los Angeles announcement about the event, which will kick off a five-year dialogue on global women's rights, health and well-being, came Thursday at a news conference at the Beverly Hilton hotel hosted by Sharon Stone and Danny Glover.
Some of the celebrities and dignitaries attending the summit include:
Joely Fisher, Amy Brenneman, Diane Lane, Camryn Manheim, Robin Wright Penn, Lawrence Bender, Pras Michel, Kristin Davis, Anita McBride (the former chief of staff to Laura Bush), Melanne Verveer (ambassador-at-large for global women's issues), Jessica Alba, Natalie Cole, Wolfgang Puck, Steven Seagal, Selita Ebanks, Vince Young, Robert Horry and Emeka Okafor.
The upcoming summit will cap a busy month for Bello, who has made African women and their causes the focal point of her personal activism.
Bello has long been involved with Save Darfur, and several weeks ago, she was in Washington to take part in a panel at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that brought together women from that troubled region to discuss one of Africa's most urgent topics: "Spotlighting Rape as a Weapon of War." The actress is working with Sen. Barbara Boxer's staff to organize special congressional hearings on the rape crisis.
Bello was also recently on Capitol Hill to help Sally Field co-host a global leadership awards ceremony for Vital Voices, which invests in and supports female leaders around the world. This year's gala extended special honors to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among the ceremony's other participants were Hollywood's Candice Bergen, Affleck and fashion's Diane von Furstenberg.
'Yentl,' and help for Congo women
It's hard to believe it's been more than a quarter century since director and star Barbra Streisand turned Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story about a girl who risked all to study her community's sacred texts alongside men into an iconic feminist film, "Yentl."
On Saturday, another group of Hollywood power women will gather for tea (or as Yentl would have said, "a glass of chai") at the Sunset-Gower Studios' Stanley Kramer Theater, where they'll see the extended director's cut of the film.
They'll also hear from Streisand pal Marilyn Bergman, a longtime political activist and Academy Award-winning songwriter.
The "Yentl" showing kicks off a continuing series called "films that changed the world." (Now there's a high bar.) And because this isn't the sort of group to live in the past or discuss its causes, the women will also hear from Bonnie Abaunza, vice president of social action for Participant Media, who will discuss "Raise Hope for Congo," a campaign to "protect and empower" women in that Central African nation who have been the targets of sexual and political violence.