I recently had the privilege of visiting an amazing fair trade artisan cooperative in Peru. Little did I know that the day after I returned Peru would close its borders and our country would shut down due to the coronavirus. It’s been a long strange trip since I returned, but I wanted to make sure to go back in time and share this incredible story of hope.
On March 6th I arrived in Chimbote, Peru, with a group of 10 women from the United States and one from India. We were there with Fair Anita, led by Joy Mcbrien, who has been working with a fair trade cooperative there for several years. The artisan group, Taller de Maritza (Maritza’s Workshop), is a group of kickass women who are either disabled or have disabled children. They make beautiful beaded jewelry, although most of them had little or no experience in this craft prior to joining the group. Our intention for the week was to get to know the women, hear their stories, learn about their culture, have them teach us and show us their work, witness a successful fair trade cooperative in action, and have fun.
After a 7 hour bus ride from Lima we arrived in Chimbote planning to drop off our bags and walk the 2 blocks to the workshop. But the women couldn't wait - they surprised us at the Parrish we were staying in with a greeting full of welcome signs, kisses, balloons and an impromptu dance party! It was the warmest welcome I’ve ever experienced and I instantly knew this was going to be a profound experience.
The week was spent getting to know the women and engaging in a combination of social and work activities. We played games, helped paint a house, learned about the workshop, interviewed the women, danced and ate great food. Chimbote is one of the largest, poorest cities in the world. Eighty percent of the citizens live in extreme poverty, and 70% of the women have experienced domestic violence.
The artisan workshop is located in Maritza’s home and the women live nearby so can walk to work. They all have extreme hardships in their lives, such as taking care of a child with Cerebral Palsy, being wheelchair bound, etc. But these were honestly the warmest, most loving people I have ever met. They were incredibly grateful that we had traveled all the way there to meet them, and were gracious and funny - belly laughs were had by all. In the photo below is Joy with Anita, Fair Anita's namesake, and a fire cracker of a woman who pretty much takes care of the whole community!
One of the most moving experiences of the week, and of my life, happened the day we all went on an outing to a park. It was International Women’s Day, and we celebrated by going to a nearby place with swimming pools, a small zoo, and large picnic areas. Most of the women had never been there before, nor had been to anything remotely like it. A young woman named MariCarmen, who is unable to walk and has spent her life in a wheelchair, declared that she was going swimming after lunch. Not only had she never been in a pool, she had never even taken a bath! We all looked at each other, surprised, and said, “ok, we’ll figure this out.” It took several of us to lift her out of the wheelchair and into the pool, and I really expected her to be pretty freaked out by the experience. Nope…..we spent about an hour and a half in the pool with her, holding her up, while she laughed and splashed and had what she described as the best day of her life. I can’t even begin to explain what that experience felt like, but trust me, I will remember it forever.
One day the women wanted to teach us how to make a bracelet, so we had a blast learning how to make a tassel (harder than it looks!), stamping letters onto brass charms (VERY challenging), and finally, wearing our finished products. It was just wonderful to witness their pride in teaching us.
The day we interviewed the women was another highlight of the trip. We wanted to hear their stories, give them a chance to tell them, and learn how being in the fair trade cooperative has changed their lives. I had the privilege of interviewing a woman named Maria, an experience that ended up being full of tears and love.
Maria is 44 years old and is married with two children, a six year old son and a 17 year old daughter. Maria’s daughter, Marjhory, is severely disabled, confined to her bed, and her health problems are very costly. Until Maria started working with Maritza’s workshop she was having great difficulty paying for Marjhory’s medications, diapers, milk and other expenses. When she heard about Fair Anita and Taller de Maritza she thought she wouldn’t be able to work there because she didn’t know anything about making jewelry. Maritza encouraged her to come and learn, and now she is one of the expert jewelry makers in the group, specializing in the wire work which takes a lot of strength and skill.
Being a member of this group has changed Maria’s life in so many ways. She lives right next to the workshop so is able to leave to check on Marjhory whenever she needs to. With the money she has earned she has been able to buy a refrigerator to keep Marjhory's milk cold, put a new roof on her home, build a handicapped accessible bathroom and buy diapers in bulk. She refers to the other women in the group as her angels and is incredibly grateful for the community and family she is now part of. She wants to relay this message to other women: “hope never dies, faith does exist, with time you can do anything, and women have the same rights to work as men.”
The last night we had a big farewell party where we helped the women make a traditional Peruvian dinner, and the evening ended with lots of dancing. Another heartfelt moment was when a couple members of our group started dancing with women in their wheelchairs around the room! The joy on the women's faces was something I'll never forget.
Saying goodbye the next day was tough. There were lots of tears and hugs and "I love you’s." Several of the artisans said it was the best week of their lives and I know that was true for many of us as well. I left there feeling so loved, welcomed and part of a new community. My commitment to fair trade and how it truly, truly changes lives was strengthened. These powerful, strong, amazing women are the real changemakers and I too felt myself change just being in their presence.
Maritza's Workshop is a story of hope and a perfect model of how fair trade changes lives. I wish that was the end of the story, but Covid-19 has changed everything. Peru has been in full lockdown since March 16th, and there are curfews which only allow people to leave their homes to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. No taking walks just to get fresh air, and men and women are only allowed to shop on alternate days. Most of the families in Chimbote only have enough money to survive 3 days without income, so one can imagine the impact the pandemic is having on the community. There is little, if any, government support, so families are without food and medication. This is a dire situation. Money has been raised to help them and is being distributed throughout the community, and Fair Anita continues to pay them up front for future work, but additional funds are desperately needed. My heart is with the women and their families during this challenging time, hence my decision to donate 20% of all Women's Peace Collection sales in honor of World Fair Trade Day. Thank you for your support - your purchases really do change lives!
Over the past few years I’ve watched my mom work tirelessly to offer more ethical and sustainable jewelry, accessories and gifts to people who want to make a difference in the world. I’ve watched her passionately educate countless customers on the merits of Fair Trade and the impact it has on the marginalized women who make the products. As her son, I’ve helped out over the years when she’s needed some extra hands, but I could never quite understand where she finds the inspiration and motivation to pour so much time into Women’s Peace Collection. This past February, I decided it was time to find out for myself; so I made a trip to Guatemala to meet with some of our artisan partners in the villages around Lake Atitlan. It didn’t take long for me to see what all the fuss was about.
One of our partner cooperatives around the lake is Asociación Maya. Tucked away in the back of a small alley in the small town of Sololá I found around 20 indigenous Mayan women preparing yarn to make scarves out of bamboo. Twenty women work full time in the building I visited dyeing and preparing the yarn, and another 150 women work out of their homes weaving the yarn into gorgeous scarves. When I first heard of bamboo scarves, I assumed they’d be really tough and fibrous like the plant itself. On the contrary, these are some of the most luxuriously soft scarves I’ve ever felt! The women buy the yarn in large white rolls, and then use a hand-cranked machine to unravel it.
Natural dyes are then prepared in buckets of hot water and sections of yarn are left to soak in them for a time. Depending on the desired color pattern of the scarf, sections of the same yarn could be died several different colors.
After the dying process is complete, the yarn is hung out to dry on clotheslines in the sun, and the resulting mosaic of sun-lit colors and textures creates a feast for the eyes.
After the yarn is thoroughly dry, a group of women smooth it out into an even untangled thread and organize it in neat bunches for the weavers to use.
The weavers then use the yarn on traditional back-strap looms in their homes to create incredible works of art. When we then buy these wearable works of art, we support the 170 women involved in the cooperative and their aspirations for a brighter future. And supporting these women is very different from supporting an individually-owned business. They are a producer cooperative, which implies that they have collective ownership of the business. As a community of owners, they’re able to ensure they receive fair compensation for their work and pool resources in order to maximize earnings. With these earnings, they’re then able to provide for their families and invest in their communities as a group. It’s a model that everyone can feel good about.
As I was taking photos of the women and their craft, everyone was all smiles and giggles, especially because of my apparent awkwardness as a photographer. I then handed them my phone and they started taking photos of me! We had so much fun laughing about the photos and the humor of the whole situation that I found myself not wanting to leave. The air was saturated with joy. I left feeling a much deeper connection to them than I ever could have anticipated. There’s something very touching about people from different cultures working together towards a brighter future.
After this visit, I began to feel how enriching it is to be able help my mom run a business that directly benefits the women I connected with. I started to see why she’s so dedicated to her work, especially when I considered that she is helping women prosper all over the world! And while the impact of Fair Trade is greatest at the level of the producer, the consumer also gets the gift of a handmade work of art that they can feel good about. In a world of standardized mass production, there’s great fulfillment in owning something that connects us with the individual hands that spent hours or days carefully crafting it. It’s rare to be a part of something that benefits everyone involved.
As for the women of Asociación Maya, we hope to be part of their enriching journey as it unfolds far into the future. And if you feel so inspired, their scarves are available in our online store.
With the holidays approaching here’s a question: how much do we really know about the products that we are purchasing? With every fair-trade product, there is a person, and there is a story. Seeking to understand the deeper meaning behind fair-trade products this holiday season, I, a Women’s Peace Collection intern, had the privilege of chatting with Anne Kelly of Mayan Hands. Mayan Hands is a fair-trade nonprofit organization that is dedicated to providing economic opportunities to over 200 Mayan women in 15 communities in the Guatemalan Highlands. They supply Women’s Peace Collection with unique pine needle baskets, which are emblematic of Mayan culture and economic prosperity for Mayan women. In addition, Mayan Hands provides Women's Peace Collection with wool animals created by women in Guatemala, who are earning fair wages while learning computer and business skills along the way.
The mission of Mayan Hands is to provide economic and educational opportunities for women in poverty. The organization also looks to support women in order to preserve Mayan culture and heritage. There are a half million weavers in Guatemala and the role of Mayan Hands is to help these weavers access the market with the true cost of their products. This exposure to the United States’ economy helps Mayan women feed their families by providing them the opportunity to earn month to month income.
So, who are these women? The artisan are Mayan women living in the Guatemalan Highlands throughout 15 cooperatives. These women have experienced a lot of discrimination and racism on the grounds of language, culture, and sex. Understanding the trauma that they have endured, the goal is to empower these women and lift them out of poverty. The Mayan partners bring a variety of skills to the American marketplace and they are master weavers.
While pine needle basketry is a traditional skill in Guatemala, Mayan Hands was able to send teachers from San Francisco that worked with the women to enhance their practice by teaching them how to stitch. The educational efforts have paid off, as represented by the exquisite and unique baskets Women’s Peace Collection is featuring. While the success of this product has been rewarding, it is the long -term relationships that have made an impact. To celebrate the story behind every artisan, each pine needle basket features a signed hang tag. With every product being signed by the woman who made it, the culture and experiences of the artisan partners is honored.
When talking to Kelly about the baskets, one story came to mind. She spoke of an artisan named Cecilia Chiroy. and to the heart and persistence behind her practice. Chiroy has been a leader amongst artisans in Guatemala. In an effort to speak with someone from Mayan Hands, Chiroy knocked on the door four times before she was able to connect with someone. “We want to make baskets” she said. Since then, Chiroy has played a critical role in the success of this partnership. She checks to make sure artisans are on track with orders, and will even assist those who need some help.
Beyond the baskets, daughters of artisans who are partnered with Mayan Hands are eligible for scholarships. Many of the artisans will point out that their children going to school is the most important thing to them. While the pine needle baskets make for a thoughtful gift, they are so much more. These baskets are the embodiment of economic and educational opportunities for so many women. Each basket tells a story. Each basket makes a difference. Happy holidays and a huge thank you to Anne Kelly from Mayan Hands for sharing the stories of these artisans!
One of my favorite product lines we started carrying in the past year is our repurposed kantha fabric jewelry. Simply put, it’s stunning, fun to wear and sustainable.
So what exactly is kantha? Kantha quilts, handmade in India, consist of layers of recycled cotton saris that are sewn together with a decorative running stitch throughout. There are now a number of organizations and businesses using repurposed kantha fabric to make handbags, scarves, wall hangings, etc. There is no limit to the creative uses of this colorful, vibrant fabric.
We were so excited to find jewelry made out of Kantha, a newer use of the fabric that is rarely seen. And it quickly became one of our most popular lines! Our Kantha jewelry is handmade by Indian artisans using a meticulous, intricate process. First, wooden beads are hand carved out of scraps that are collected from a local furniture company. The women then individually cover each bead with repurposed fabric from vintage saris and quilts. The fabric is attached securely to the bead with an adhesive, trimmed to size and then, voila, a bead is made! The beads are colorful and unique – no two are exactly the same.
The talented women who make the jewelry are consistently designing new pieces. Their creativity is limitless and they beautifully combine the beads with metal and other materials to develop stunning necklaces, bracelets and earrings that we can’t keep in stock! For the fall they have designed a new line called “kantha noir” that features black and gray beads for a dressier look. Stay tuned – there will be some in our new holiday collection!
One of my favorite things about this jewelry is how completely sustainable it is. From the recycled wooded beads to the vintage fabric, every step of the process involves re-using a material that otherwise would have been discarded. The resources on our planet are being rapidly depleted so everything we do to ensure that we live a sustainable, environmentally friendly life style will make difference. Thanks for helping us do our part!
This Saturday, May 12th, is World Fair Trade Day. We realize many people may have never heard of it, but it’s actually a very important event so I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about it.
WFTD is an initiative of the World Fair Trade Organization that takes place every year on the second Saturday in May. This year’s theme is “Live Fair, One Product at a Time.” Every year socially responsible businesses, non-profits and organizations across the globe celebrate with events that promote fair trade and educate the public about ethical purchasing practices. These include fair trade festivals, concerts, fashion shows, symposiums, debates and more.
I just love the concept of living fair one product at a time, and of course that’s what Women’s Peace Collection is really about. I believe we can truly change the world if every time we open our wallet we think about where the product we’re purchasing comes from, who made it and how the producer was paid and treated. Each of us is capable of ensuring sustainability and fair wages, little by little chipping away at the cycle of poverty.
So how do we do this? Women’s Peace Collection focuses on handmade crafts, but there are many additional types of fair trade purchases that can be incorporated into your life. Fair trade coffee and tea, for example, are among the most important ethically produced items we can buy. They’re easily accessible and drinking them is simple, ethical way we can change one daily habit -shifting our morning tea or coffee to a fair trade brand! Or even better, encourage your congregation or workplace to serve only these items. Just look for the fair trade symbol on the package (I can highly recommend Equal Exchange as a wonderful option).
How many of us think about fair trade when we purchase clothing? Fair trade clothes are a little harder to find but there are a growing number of companies producing stunning, sustainable wardrobe items. Some well known companies such as Patagonia, Prana and Eileen Fisher now have fair trade certified items, and less expensive brands like Maggie’s Organics (which we sell), Synergy Organic Clothing, Mata Traders and Fair Anita are creating beautiful, contemporary designs at reasonable prices. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Even committing to adding a few fair trade items to your closet each year is a huge step toward having an ethically produced wardrobe.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface on how we can each live fair, one product at a time. I hope this World Fair Trade Day will inspire you to review each of your purchases more carefully and do your part in making this world a better place. And don’t forget one delicious, easy to find fair trade product to sweeten your life –chocolate!
What a year! For the past couple of months our team has worked 24/7, or so it seems. Between weekend festivals and shipping packages we have become keenly aware of how much Women’s Peace Collection has grown.
In 2017 we focused more and more of our attention on selling products made by survivors of human trafficking and victims of sexual or domestic abuse. You have probably noticed how much our Freedom Collection has grown. As the owner, I feel increasingly drawn to supporting these women. The more I learn about the horrors women around the world experience on a daily basis, the more I feel responsible for doing my small part to help them live a life of freedom. The 3 non-profits we partner with, Her Future Coalition, Starfish Project and International Sanctuary, rescue the women, teach them how to make jewelry, offer healthcare, housing and counseling. I’m so grateful for each of these amazing organizations and the work they are doing to change the lives of these brave women. And of course the jewelry they make is so beautiful and our customers love it.
We also tried out some fair trade clothing for the first time, which was a huge hit. Our Maggie’s Organics organic cotton wraps and ponchos were the best sellers and we couldn’t keep them in stock. Easy to wear, one size fits all, and reasonably priced, it was exciting to find ethical clothing that women love! We will be adding more in 2018 so stay tuned.
Our commitment to fair trade practices continues to grow and one of the most rewarding benefits is being part of a fair trade community. New friendships have forged, and it’s gratifying to have colleagues who are as passionate about fair trade as we are. As each order comes in, I think of the artisans whose lives are benefitting and how ethical shopping really does make a difference. I wish I could personally meet each artisan - that’s a goal for sure.
One of things that touched me most this year was the outpouring of help we received from friends and family. As things got super busy the unsolicited assistance from loved ones was truly moving. To all of you - we couldn’t have done it without you and are forever grateful!
The fairs and festivals are where we get to meet our customers in person, which is a real treat. Each year I hear more and more positive comments from shoppers when they see the words “fair trade” on our sign, and it’s clear that people really do want to help others with their purchases. They want informational cards with the items so that the recipients can know that it’s not only a beautiful, handmade item, but also the story behind it. And I LOVE telling the artisan stories!
Thanks to all of you for continuing to support Women’s Peace Collection and our mission to help improve the lives of women and families across the globe. Without you we couldn’t do any of this. We are ever so grateful!
As Thanksgiving rolls around I always like to reflect on what I am grateful for. This has been a challenging year for our country and it’s so easy to focus on what is going wrong. All the more reason to stop for a moment and focus on gratitude and all the good in our world!
In spite of all the political turmoil, I’m incredibly grateful for the millions of concerned citizens who have stepped up to the plate to march, protest, write letters to their congressional leaders and form community activist groups. People are angry, yes, but also excited and energized and eager to make a difference. (My husband and I at the Climate Change March in DC, below).
I’m forever grateful to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, the Berkshires of Massachusetts. As much as I prefer warm, sunny days, the woods outside my home are stunning even without the leaves, as everything turns brown. I could choose to focus on how I’m dreading winter, how I hate the cold, and admittedly I often do. But today I’m choosing to notice the beauty of it all and appreciate the changing seasons, the cycle of life, and knowing my sunny summer days will return! A cliché? Maybe, but true, right?
And I can’t talk about gratitude without mentioning my amazing family (my sons, Jeremy and Ben, shown above). Women’s Peace Collection, while my initiative, has become a family business. Although I’m the only woman in the gang, my husband and sons are invaluable in making it a success. My older son is truly talented with the web work, my younger son helps out at festivals and with all sorts of tasks, and my dear husband is at every event setting up, organizing products, and making the tent look awesome! But of course I’m mostly grateful for all the love and joy I feel in their presence – and yes, all the great meals (I don’t cook at all!).
I could go on and on about the things that I’m grateful for and one of them is having the privilege of running a fair trade, socially responsible business. Yes, it’s a ton of work and can be overwhelming at times. But whenever I feel overwhelmed I think of the artisans who make all of our products by hand. I imagine myself sending them positive energy and love. I think about how every item I sell helps them improve their lives. (Shown above is one of my favorite artisans, Bernabela from Guatemala). Then I keep going…..and focus on gratitude.