February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
April 4, 2005
AKRON, Pa. – In Cochas, Peru, Eulogio Medina and his wife, Guillermina Salome, work with quiet dignity, creating exquisite carved gourds that reflect their country’s rich tradition. Across an ocean, men and women with that same quiet dignity volunteer their time to showcase Eulogio and Guillermina’s work, selling their crafts to help supplement their family’s income.
Eulogio and Guillermina work with Allpa, a fair trade organization started in 1985. The men and women who work to sell their crafts are the staff and volunteers of Ten Thousand Villages in cities across the country—from Philadelphia, Pa., to Evanston, Ill., to Seattle, Wash.
Ten Thousand Villages, the oldest and largest fair trade organization in North America, works within the framework of traditional business to provide vital, fair income to artisans in Africa, Asia, and Latin America by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories. The 59-year-old nonprofit organization, with headquarters in Akron, Pa., in the U.S., and New Hamburg, Ontario in Canada, relies on a network of retail stores across the country, manned primarily by volunteers, to keep operating costs low and to share its story with consumers.
Samuel Macharia is one artisan that benefits from a relationship with Ten Thousand Villages. Macharia and his friend James Gichaga make wire push toys in Nairobi, Kenya. Their involvement with Ten Thousand Villages means viability for their small business and ultimately that they can send their children to school and provide for their families. Macharia said, “Without Ten Thousand Villages we can’t meet our basic needs. Orders help us very much, and we know every year we can depend on an order from Ten Thousand Villages.”
The vision for Ten Thousand Villages began when Edna Ruth Byler and her husband traveled to Puerto Rico in 1947. With World War II having just ended, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief, service, and peace agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, was addressing the needs in Puerto Rico. Several MCC volunteers were working with disadvantaged women in Puerto Rico, teaching them to sew and embroider as a way to provide income to their families. The women sold limited amounts of their embroidery locally, but did not have access to the U.S. market. Byler responded and filled her suitcase with embroidered table linens. She sold the linens to women in her home community and eventually to women across the country through home shows and sales.
As Byler continued to travel, she met women in Jordan, China, Korea, and other countries who also made beautiful linens and other crafts but did not have access to a market to sell them. Affectionately called “Mrs. B’s project,” Byler’s Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project grew quickly with her dedication and volunteer time. Byler placed orders directly with the artisans, facing the challenges of customs, taxes, and slow mail service. In 1958, she opened a store in the basement of her home where she sold linens and other gifts to local women.
In the fall of 1961, Joyce Shutt and Ruth Musselman of Fairfield, Pa., visited Byler’s shop. Shutt and Musselman discovered a basement full of exquisite handicrafts including needlework, lacquered jewelry boxes, and inlaid cards. Shutt and Musselman became Byler’s first official volunteers when they persuaded her to fill their car with her overstocked items. With the help of the Fairfield Mennonite Church Ladies’ Service Guild, Shutt and Musselman held Byler’s first church sale. They provided Byler with more than $500 U.S., which she used to purchase more handicrafts from artisans.
Byler managed The Overseas Needlepoint and Craft Project until her husband passed away in 1962. At that time MCC adopted the project and hired her as a part-time manager. Byler’s sales continued to grow through church-based sales across the country. When she retired in 1970, her inventory had grown from needlework to include woodcarvings, bamboo trays, sweaters, and more. When Byler retired, MCC continued the project and moved her store to a new location in Ephrata, Pa. With new leadership, MCC began a program to open stores across the U.S. The first store opened in Bluffton, Ohio in 1972. The store, still open today and operated primarily by volunteers, sells thrift clothing and gifts from artisans around the world.
Through a strategic plan to open stores across the United States and Canada, Ten Thousand Villages now has a network of 105 Ten Thousand Villages stores. Combined sales for the U.S. and Canadian organizations totaled nearly $20.9 million dollars.
Ten Thousand Villages buyers select products with an eye to the market and to commitments with artisans. Ten Thousand Villages buyers choose items that will appeal to the North American consumer, but which also reflect and reinforce native cultural traditions and environmental sensitivity. Artisan groups receive fair prices, advance and prompt final payments, and the promise of a long-term buying relationship. Ten Thousand Villages purchases as directly from the artisans as possible, and expects good quality control and sound business practices from all artisan partners.
Ten Thousand Villages products range from hand woven raffia and banana leaf baskets from Uganda to embroidered textiles from India, beaded jewelry from Guatemala, and hand-painted wooden toys from Sri Lanka. Each product represents an artisan, a family, a community, and a traditional handicraft.
A founding member of IFAT: The International Fair Trade Association, based in Culemborg, the Netherlands, and the Fair Trade Federation, based in Washington, D.C., Ten Thousand Villages’ commitment to fair trade includes advance payments and fair wages to artisans for handicrafts, consistent buying relationships with artisans, and the education of North American consumers.
In practice, this means a direct relationship with actual craftspeople. Ten Thousand Villages usually buy from groups with little formal experience in international trade. When visiting artisan groups, Ten Thousand Villages buyers ask many questions concerning working conditions, pay rates, and other benefits. Visits to artisans’ workplaces and homes are also important. Ten Thousand Villages buys from people who need work, not necessarily the people who can do the work the most efficiently and at the least cost.
In addition, rather than relying on a letter-of-credit for advance payments, which forces artisans to borrow money to finance handicraft production, Ten Thousand Villages offers up to 50 percent of the payment when an order is placed. The remaining, final payment is sent when the order is complete and waiting to be shipped. This means the orders are paid in full long before the products arrive in the United States or make it to the stores, shifting the burden of selling the product to Ten Thousand Villages rather than the artisan who made the product.
Most importantly, Ten Thousand Villages maintains long-term relationships with artisans. Continuous, consistent orders from Ten Thousand Villages enable artisans to move beyond planning for tomorrow to planning for next year and hoping for a better future.
For Eulogio Medina and Guillermina Salome in Cochas, Peru, fair trade with Ten Thousand Villages means their small business, Medina Handicrafts, can continue to employ their 20 neighbors and friends. It also means that as a community, they can continue their engraved gourd work, an art form their ancestors have been perfecting for nearly 4000 years. Most importantly, however, fair trade with Ten Thousand Villages means that artisans working at Medina Handicrafts have a source of stable income and are able to send their children to school, and that farmers in the northern coastal town of Chiclayo who plant and harvest gourds for Medina Handicrafts can remain in their home communities instead of looking for work in big cities.
Additional artisan stories:
At Ten Thousand Villages, fair trade means hope, education, dignity, and sustainability for artisans around the world. The following stories share how hope, education, dignity, and sustainability can transform lives.
Skilled basket weavers in Uganda transform simple raffia and banana leaf into beautiful, functional art for your home. Their exquisite baskets, which are traditionally used for gift-giving to friends and family, offer the women an opportunity to earn a livelihood with dignity and share their heritage with you.
The women receive prompt and fair payment for their baskets through Ten Thousand Villages’ artisan partner Uganda Crafts, located in Kampala.
Betty Kinene, Uganda Crafts director, said, “Ten Thousand Villages is doing a lot to improve the lives of many women in Uganda. When I look back over the years, many women came to Uganda Crafts with no hope for the future.”
Today these women earn a fair income, allowing them to improve their housing, send their children to school, and dream of a brighter future.
At the age of ten, Carmen Simaj Pablo began her life as a craftsperson making embroidered items and crocheting hacky sacks, which she makes for Ten Thousand Villages. Today, as an accomplished jewelry artisan, Carmen threads tiny beads with great care and patience to create colorful, unique designs… each piece a rare find.
Ten Thousand Villages artisan partner Creaciones Chonita recognizes Carmen’s skill and pays her fairly and promptly for the intricate jewelry she makes in her home.
Carmen is thankful for the opportunity she has to contribute to her family’s income. She shares the dream of many mothers in Guatemala. Her consistent work and steady income mean that her son Diego has the opportunity to stay in school and obtain an education.
With a careful eye to detail Renuka Nishanthi hand paints the finishing touches on wooden toys for Ten Thousand Villages artisan partner Gospel House Handicrafts, based in Madampe, Sri Lanka. Renuka enjoys the work, which allows her to live in her village and walk to a workshop where she can fellowship with other young women.
Living and working close to home has new meaning for Renuka since she’s returned from working in a sardine factory in the Maldives. Long hours, impossible goals, and poor working conditions left her feeling discouraged and vulnerable.
Today she finds new dignity as she works in her community and enjoys renewed relationships with her family and neighbors.
Santosh Lauji’s nimble hands embroider intricate details into elaborate bedcovers and table linens. For 35 years she has done embroidery work for St. Mary’s Mahila Shikshan Kendra in Ahmedabad, India, earning supplemental income for her family.
Santosh completes her embroidery between household chores of cleaning, washing, and cooking. The income she earns is especially important since her husband has been laid off from his job at the local textile mill.
Her embroidery also represents threads of sustainability for the past 35 years. As a result of her work, her three children were able to attend school and her son currently studies computer engineering at the university, representing new opportunities for the next generation.
Ten Thousand Villages
Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit organization that "provides vital, fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America."