September in the U.S. means back to school and it’s easy to take for granted the fact that every child in this country is guaranteed a free, public education. We all know that there are true inequities in the education our children receive, with wealthier communities having more resources and therefore access to better facilities, books, and a variety of educational materials and course offerings. However, the fact remains that every child living in the United States, including undocumented immigrants, is guaranteed a public school education, often including free breakfast and lunch options.
You must know where I’m heading – yes, in countries all over the world there is either no free public schooling, or if there is, families must pay for books, uniforms, school fees, and other expensive supplies. Many families cannot begin to afford to send their children to school and they often need their kids at home working to contribute to the household income.
Education is yet another area where fair trade really shines! In my conversations with suppliers as well as my travels I hear over and over that by creating employment opportunities for parents with fair wages they are able to earn enough to pay school fees as well as keep their kids in school longer. Employ the parents, educate the children! Many of the fair trade organizations, both non-profits and for-profits, are also donating to and even building new schools all over the world. And other groups are focusing exclusively on income for education, such as the mother’s cooperative in Kenya that crafts our beautiful mobiles. The goal of the cooperative is to make enough money to send all of the children to school, as Kenya has no public school system.
One of the many highlights of my trip to Guatemala last winter was a visit to the Chacaya School (photos attached). A fair trade organization, Sharing the Dream, bought the land for the school close to where the families live so that the school is accessible by foot. Sharing the Dream also pays the salary for one teacher as well as school supplies for all children. The kids were incredibly adorable and friendly!
So give your kids a kiss, put them on the bus, and be grateful for their education!
As I think about Mother’s Day and all of the amazing women out there who would do anything for their kids I feel compelled to tell the story of a woman I met in Guatemala this winter.
One afternoon during the fair trade artisan trip I was on we rode way up into the mountains where a small community of women were backstrap weaving. As we did every day during our journey, we listened to their stories! The women told of their experiences during the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980’s. During that 10 year period there were many days when they had nothing but water to drink, and at night when they heard the military coming into their village they would take their children and hide in the mountains, awake all night until they knew they were safe to come down. They told us that the babies weren’t allowed to cry because it would alert the army (I still keep wondering how they stopped the babies from crying!). And then they said that when the adults needed to cry or express themselves they would go into a cave and scream in order to discharge their feelings.
One of these young children was Isabel. Isabel grew up extremely poor. By the time she was 8 years old she was already a very skilled weaver and wanted to quit school to help her mom support the family. But Isabel’s mother insisted she stay in school. At times the children didn’t even have shoes or clothing , so the mother cut her own “corte” (the traditional Mayan skirt) in half to make one for each of her daughters. Every year or two Isabel tried to leave school so she could weave full time, but as much as the family needed the income from her weaving her mother continued to encourage her to stay in school, knowing that it was the only way out of poverty. This was highly unusual in Guatemala where the average indigenous person has a third grade education!
So Isabel stayed in school. Her health was very poor due to lack of good nutrition and health care and her vision was also compromised. But her extraordinary, willful mother continued to encourage her, year after year, to finish her education. And Isabel did. Eventually she was connected with a fair trade organization that employed her to weave for them. Today Isabel is the Artisan Development Coordinator for a well-established, fair trade non-profit that does amazing work in Guatemala. She has a full time salary, health insurance, eye glasses and is in excellent health! Her responsibilities are enormous – she overseas huge artisan projects and is also the treasurer for the organization. And when groups come from the United States she is also the head chef! And she is happily married with a baby of her own.
As she told her story, I kept thinking over and over of her mother and the strength and foresight she had to have faith in her daughter, and sacrifice the needs of the present moment for her future. And I was also yet again profoundly moved by the impact of fair trade on the lives of so many. It gave me hope a newfound hope!
So to Isabel’s mom and all of the extraordinary mothers out there – happy Mother’s Day! It’s the most important job in the world.
An Amazing Fair Trade Women’s Cooperative: Bamboo Scarves
On a recent trip to Guatemala while driving up a winding road through the stunning Lake Atitlan area, our driver stopped in a tiny village to let us off at a fair trade cooperative. Who would ever dream that inside is a thriving business, run by entirely by women with very little formal education? The first thing that struck me was the colors, as is often the case in Guatemala. I love color and Guatemala is the most colorful place I’ve ever been.! The building was covered with hanging bamboo scarves of every color combination imaginable, all woven by hand through an ancient, intricate, labor-intensive process.
This women’s cooperative was founded in 1987 during the genocide that was occurring in Guatemala, leaving thousands of women as widows with no income to support their families. It was founded by a man from Vancouver who was looking for a source of income for 17 widows, all of whom were backstrap weavers. Over the years, the cooperative has grown into a large organization, with a Board of Directors, a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and full time bookkeeper! Of the 180 women, most are able to work from home, although some do weave in the shop so we were able to see the process in action.
And it is quite a process! The bamboo is spun, dyed (using non-toxic dyes), dried in the sun, wound for proper scarf length, and then woven on the backstrap loom. Backstrap weaving is the oldest method of making cloth in the world, and it originated with the Maya people! It is very hard on the body, as the women are generally kneeling, so it is painful to the knees and back. (However, the women we saw were sitting on chairs especially created for them that were donated by NGO’s). The loom is literally strapped around the woman’s back while she weaves. It was fascinating to watch the process, and I was in awe of the incredible beauty and intricacy of the weaving.
Many people are surprised that bamboo can feel so good, but I promise you, it is one of the softest fibers around. It is absolutely as soft as silk, and you cannot help but say, “ooooooh” when you feel it! And the colors are truly, truly gorgeous!
Best of all, the women are earning two to four times what they would make selling their wares in the market! And due to increased earnings the families are eating healthier foods, have access to medicine, the children are able to stay in school longer, and the status of women in the society has improved. And preserving the ancient culture of backstrap weaving is a gift to the world!
Yet again, this is why I am so passionate about fair trade, and seeing it in action firsthand was an experience I will remember my whole life.
Happy International Women’s Day!
I love this holiday! What a great way to honor and acknowledge women all over the world. IWD celebrates women and girls, no matter their religion, nationality, income level or marital status. Many countries have declared it a national holiday (not the United States, although we have designated the whole month of March as Women’s History Month). In some countries it has gained the status of Mother’s Day, where children give small gifts to their mothers and grandmothers and men honor the women in their lives with flowers and gifts of appreciation.
International Women’s Day has a long history. It was originally organized by the Socialist Party of America to commemorate the strike of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in 1908. That year 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, higher wages and voting rights. You go girls! The United Nations has declared it a holiday that promotes women’s rights, global peace and gender equality. Every year on March 8 there are thousands of events worldwide to inspire women, celebrate their achievements, and continue to fight for gender equality.
International Women’s Day fits in perfectly with the mission of the Women’s Peace Collection. As I pondered how to celebrate this day in our own small way I decided to donate a percentage of our sales to one of my all time favorite organizations that helps women across the globe: Dining for Women. In my small town in Western Massachusetts we have a very active chapter of DFW. Here’s how it works: each month DFW features an international program that supports a women’s issue. Chapters all over the country hold potluck gatherings and the idea is that each participant donates roughly what they would spend going out to dinner to the featured program. The featured programs work with educating girls, teaching women skills, helping develop a market for artisan products, fighting gender inequality, providing access to better healthcare, and much, much more!
Dining for Women’s motto is this: “Changing the world, one woman, one girl, one dinner at time.” Please help us change the world - your children, mothers and grandmothers across the globe will be so grateful!
(Read more about Dining for Women at: www.diningforwomen.org).
Happy New Year!
As I reflect on the past year with the Women’s Peace Collection I am in awe of the amazing work that the businesses and non-profits we work with are doing all over the world. The passion, commitment and perseverance of these individuals who have devoted their lives to helping others is what gives me hope for a better world.
I’d like to personally thank all of you for supporting these important initiatives through socially conscious shopping! I thought it would be nice to start the New Year by highlighting some of the work that these organizations and businesses are doing through their fair trade practices, thus shedding some light on the impact the Women’s Peace Collection was part of in 2014!
Our Kenya mobiles were one of the most popular products this year. They are handcrafted by a group of mothers who use the money they earn to send their children to school since Kenya has no public school system. This community is seeing the impact of the sales of the products they make. We all know that educating children is the clearest path out of poverty!
We carry many products from Guatemala not only because they are colorful and beautiful but because it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is estimated that 54% of Guatemalans live in poverty! There are an increasing number of fair trade cooperatives all over Guatemala that are doing amazing work to help alleviate poverty, educate children, and provide much needed healthcare. We are slowly seeing an improvement in the quality of life there – fair trade really is impactful!
The company working with the Colombian artisans who make our tagua and agave jewelry is supporting an organization called CerMujer, a service in Cali that embraces and houses girls ages 9-18 who are pregnant as a result of prostitution or sexual violence.
The non-profit that oversees the production of our popular Freedom Collection, made by survivors of human trafficking in Asia, gives 100% of the profits from the jewelry sales back to supporting the women in their transition to a life of freedom!
Our Gaza evening bags from Palestine are made by talented women at the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Women and Children. The sale of the bags have enabled these women to not only break the barrier of silence but support their families!
The company that works with the artisans in Bolivia who make our alpaca hats and gloves donates a percentage of their profits to Solidarity Bridge, an organization that provides high-complexity surgery and other healthcare for those living in poverty. In fact, one of the artisans recently had a tumor in her uterus that was successfully treated with 100% recovery! The artisan was also proud that she was able to contribute to the cost of the surgery from her income through the fair trade cooperative.
The group that works with the producers of our jewelry from India not only help the artisans find their way out of poverty through fair wages, but they donate a percentage of sales to the Girl’s Education Fund, which provides educational scholarships to girls in the most marginalized families they serve. In India, 64% of young adolescent girls drop out of school to help take care of siblings, run the household or for arranged marriages. Through an increase in sales from the products they handcraft, the organization was able to send three times as many girls to school last year!
And this is just a sampling of many more projects that are going on around the world, benefitting the artisans and their families who make our gorgeous products! All I can say is this: WOW – fair trade rocks!
Last weekend we had the privilege of having a booth at the Saratoga Springs, NY, Fair Trade Marketplace. The excitement in the air was palpable among both vendors and customers, as everyone there was supporting fair trade. Normally at shows I say something like this to customers as they browse: “everything is fair trade and hand made by artisans in villages all over the world,” so people know they are buying something special and meaningful. In Saratoga, however, customer after customer asked ME about the products – “tell me the story behind this,” “where is it made?”, “how are the artisans paid?”, etc. It was truly thrilling to be among knowledgeable people who understand what fair trade is about and who are shopping consciously! I kept saying to myself, “yes, more and more people get it!”
So the holidays are approaching fast and we all have choices as to how we shop. I thought I’d share just a handful of reasons why buying fair trade is so beneficial and meaningful. (I am focusing here on fair trade crafts, not edibles).
These reasons and many more are what fuel my passion for this work. What a great way to shop consciously and purposefully while making a powerful difference in someone’s life – I call that a true win-win!
As Thanksgiving approaches I like to focus on what I am grateful for, as so many Americans do at this time of year. There is what’s right in front of me - my wonderful husband, amazing kids, incredible friends and relatives, and the home in which I live. But as I reflect deeper, I take a look at the things I take for granted every single day: enough food on the table, plenty of clothes to wear, clean water, modern plumbing, heat in the winter, a car, a comfortable bed, a roof over my head, access to quality healthcare…….I could go on and on!
Then I think about the artisans whose beautiful handiwork the Women’s Peace Collection is featuring. They live in the most impoverished conditions, many without the basic living conditions I mention above. We carry so many products from Guatemala not only because they are beautiful, but because Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world and without access to American markets many of the artisans could not survive, and would not have enough food on the table (many still don’t!).
And then there’s Kenya, which has no public school system, so parents have to pay if they want their children to be educated! A group of talented mothers has gotten together to craft beautiful mobiles made out of banana fiber, as well as stunning jewelry. We hope that by contributing in our small way by selling their products more kids in Kenya can receive a basic education.
Even more horrific are the thousands of women and girls who are victims of human trafficking all over the world. So we do our part to support the ones who have escaped or been rescued, selling the stunning Live Free and Freebird jewelry they handcraft as their way of supporting themselves.
I will be spending this Thanksgiving with relatives who live in Plymouth, MA, of all places, home of Plymouth Rock. I am ever so grateful for the feast we will have in a warm, cozy home. But I also have incredible gratitude for having the privilege to help artisans across the globe, many of whom may never have such a feast. And I am grateful for the artisans themselves, who share their incredible talents with us. This is why I do this work – because I know in my heart of hearts that we are all in this life together and that every human being deserves what we in this country take for granted.