Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Fair Trading of My Life

I'm just coming off the board of the Fair Trade Federation and realizing how entrenched in Fair Trade my life is. I guess I take it for granted that my life is mainstream, but upon closer inspection, it's not.

I started this campaign to make the Poughkeepsie Plaza a Fair Trade Mall because I believe that there's a calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, responsible spending here in the Hudson Valley. With six colleges, Woodstock and New Paltz, just an hour from Albany, this area is teaming with intellectuals, hippies, politicos and young idealist college students.
And that's who shops my store and who would support a destination mall that promoted fair and just payment for labor, the use of sustainable resources, the protection of the environment in the process, while preserving culture.

As I was being interviewed by a grad student doing her dissertation on Fair Trade, I heard myself talking about what the making of a Fair Trade mall meant to me. That there would be at least 50, but I'm hoping 75% of the businesses would carry at least 2 items that are Fair Trade. But as I elaborated, I realized I didn't just want to create a clever marketing ploy, but really support my efforts in a much more substantive way.

By spreading the Fair Trade "status" to other retailers, I knew that would be good for Fair Trade but it also could create competition for me. I was willing to risk that because I really want to see Fair Trade's ideals succeed. What I came to realize is that by making the entire mall, then one day Poughkeepsie, and at some point the Hudson Valley Fair Trade, I was setting myself and my family up to live a fair and just life, to have a fair and just lifestyle.

It's all well and good to talk the talk (god I hate phrases like that, but in this case, it's very true), I wanted to walk the walk. I started buying clothing to stock in the store because I need to wear clothing that doesn't use slave labor in its making. I carry coffee and chocolate, two things our family NEEDS on a daily basis, so that we consumed products that didn't contribute to the unfair wages and in some cases child labor practices in farming coffee and cocoa.

For the women I work with in Botswana, there is no slavery involved. They make jewelry to earn extra income, to live a better life. What I've learned from being involved with Fair Trade is that there are women who are forced into sex slavery by their families so that they can earn money for food, to keep from starving to death. There are greedy candy makers who want a larger profit with no regard for how they get the cocoa, even at the expense of young children. I've learned that women in many countries are beaten, kept from learning to read, enslaved by their families and then their husbands with no way to express themselves or get out of the situation.

Yesterday, a beautiful, well dressed, vivacious woman (one of many), came into the store. She coyly asked if I had any products from the West Coast of Africa. I scanned the store - I had dolls from Sierra Leone, some brass figures from Benin, a mask from Ivory Coast...but I didn't see any of them. I said, no, but I do get some things here and there...Are you from there? I asked. Yes, I'm from several countries (mother from one, father from another, husband yet another) but I live here now, she said with pride...and her story began with her rebellion as a child questioning the way things were. She would be beaten, told she was ugly and stupid, experienced genital mutilation but not without argument and so the beatings continued. She was married off to a man who worked for the UN, but would beat her on a daily basis, walked out of the hospital when she gave birth to a girl (subsequently, she had three girls with this man and she was beaten each time for her unwillingness to give him a son), and one day, she went on holiday in the United States, just her and her daughters and she boldly filed for divorce and then for asylum. She was granted both and five years later, her daughters only know the semblance of the life she led. She told me "I know that I am not stupid, that I am not ugly, and that my life is worth more than what other people's thoughts of me." "The only thing that stops you from doing, from being, is you." "My mother told me that if you wake up and say 'What a beautiful day!' that means you are alive and you are living, living your life."

The sexual inequalities I felt growing up a Filipina-American did not compare to these women. This made me feel that much more certain that my decision that very morning to accept an invitation to join a buyers delegation to Pakistan to work with and potentially buy from women artisans there, was the right decision.

A friend from Mali asked me why I was helping women in Botswana. They are rich. No, the women I work with are not rich - perhaps by comparison since they are not starving to death. They are providing a better life for themselves, their children, their family and their community, sure, but they are not rich. And I think that is why I became involved with them. They were just like me.

At the time, my involvement with them was due to a trip I took without Peter and the kids to experience buying day in the Kalahari. This trip to Pakistan will be my next step in my work supporting Fair Trade, the next step in my journey for self discovery. This time, I'll be reaching outside of my comfort zone and seeing a way of life I'd only heard about. This will be the only other time I will travel without Peter and the kids and I'm looking forward to finding out who I will be afterward and acknowledging who I've become.

1 comment:

Megy Karydes said...

What a beautiful and well-written piece, Cecilia. Keep up the good work!