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This article was originally published on April 17, 2015.

Baldoni asks audience to envision the many abused and scared girls who need help to escape forced marriage and other forms of gender-based violence

WASHINGTON, DC — Inside the vast hall of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, 400 people closed their eyes to the colorful lights, their friends in business and cocktail attire, and the plates of gourmet food sitting in front of them.

They did so at the request of actor, director, and social entrepreneur Justin Baldoni.

Baldoni has achieved recent fame through his leading role as “Rafael” on the CW Golden Globe winning hit “Jane the Virgin,” but he’s also a well-established storyteller who has long dedicated his talents and time in service of humanity.

His humanitarian efforts range from helping the nation’s poor to those afflicted with grave illness. He has led campaigns for Sony, Emblem Health, Temple Health, Missouri Lottery, and Bank of America. His current documentary series, “Stories From the Street” profiles the Los Angeles homeless, giving a voice to those who would have otherwise been silenced and overlooked.

As a special guest at Tahirih Justice Center’s 18th Annual Gala on April 14 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Baldoni turned his talents to raising awareness of the plight of courageous immigrant women and girls fleeing extreme violence in the United States, including rape, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, human trafficking, honor crimes, and forced marriage.

“We use a lot of our brain for trying to put ourselves into situations that we’re not really in, in the acting world, so I want you to just go on this journey with me for a second,” Baldoni told gala guests.

Baldoni asked everyone to imagine that the person sitting next to them in the auditorium had suddenly disappeared. In his or her place sat a young girl, 12 at most. Perhaps, he said, she has a black eye, or other signs of abuse. Perhaps she doesn’t have a mark on her, but she is scared.

As the actor continued this thought exercise, he asked the audience—still with eyes shut tight—to picture the auditorium filled with girls who are scared, possibly abused, all crying. Then, he suggested, there’s a beating on the door. It’s someone who has come to take that girl away, to force her into a marriage, into a life of rape, violence, and isolation.

“Now, open your eyes. What do you do?,” he said.

A collective chill swept through the room.

When the audience opened their eyes, they were once again seated comfortably at their gala tables, but their purpose for attending the celebration of courageous women and girls had gained a new clarity.

“I hope that, for at least a moment, some of you had the experience of them being in the room with you. Because it’s for them that we’re actually here tonight. It’s to take action,” Baldoni said.

Baldoni candidly discussed his discovery of the gender-based human rights issues that Tahirih Justice Center fights by providing free legal and social services, training and education, and public policy advocacy.

“To hear about the things that are happening … I was hurting. I was in shock,” he said.

As a soon-to-be-father, Baldoni thinks often about the type of world he and his wife will bring their child into, and he called on the audience to champion rights for women.

Tahirih clients are “not just statistics,” he reminded the audience.

“As a man standing here today, and as a soon to be father … it’s my responsibility … to champion and stand up … for the women who cannot protect themselves,” the actor said.

Emily and Justin Baldoni are expecting their first child.

Emily and Justin Baldoni are expecting their first child.