PEACE CORPS REJECT
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
— THE DALAI LAMA
As I watched my twelve-year-old son, Dakota, and his best friend, Robert, standing across from me in the back of an open pickup truck, I could hardly believe we were together in Guatemala. Dakota and Robert had accompanied their mothers, me and Mary-Mike, on a product development trip to work with women weavers and jewelry makers in the Lake Atitlán area. Mary-Mike, my longtime neighbor and dear friend, had been my right hand at Global Girlfriend since early on. Formerly a foreign currency trader at US Bank, she started helping me in my then fledgling basement business when she left corporate America to spend more time at home with her sons. After eighteen years in banking, she didn't mind the change of scenery and never complained about having to climb over my dirty laundry to get to the office. We had come a long way together over the last few years, and this latest journey was Mary-Mike's first to work directly with the women we support.
Global Girlfriend started on my dining room table in 2003 based on a big idea to help women in need, but on a very low budget. I convinced my husband, Brad, to let me use our 2002 tax refund of $2,000 to import products made by women living in poverty. I knew nothing at the time about importing and not much more about fair trade (a market-based approach to solving poverty that aims to help producers in developing countries obtain fair trading conditions and achieve sustainable incomes), a concept that would become the cornerstone of my company. What I did know was that women in need deserved other women to advocate for them. As a social worker, I had worked for ten years with women and children in the child welfare and social service system. I had come to learn that even in America, the land of opportunity, women are the hardest hit by poverty. Of the 37 million Americans living below the U.S. poverty line, over half are women. But women in the rest of the world fair far worse. Women make up 70 percent of the world's poor.
This statistic came to life for me in January 2000 when my mother-in-law, Brenda Edgar, traveled to Africa with the United Nations World Food Programme. Brenda returned from her journey with stories of hunger, thirst, illness, and lack. But I was more struck by her stories of tenacious women, women who walked miles each day to set out blankets or small tables of handmade goods and sat all day in the hot sun in hopes that just a few foreign aid workers or travelers might want to buy some souvenirs. The necklaces and scarves she brought me as gifts were more than just trinkets from Brenda's travels. These small treasures were proof of the true talent and entrepreneurship of the women she had met — women who needed a larger market and a broader opportunity than aid workers at the Addis Ababa Hilton could offer.
I didn't start Global Girlfriend immediately after Brenda came home. The idea for a business helping women rise out of poverty brewed slowly for a few years, and was always stifled by my own doubts about how to connect with women so far away. In early 2003 I decided to forget about what I didn't know and just jump in, starting a fair-trade business focused specifically on helping women, with all that my good intentions and $2,000 could buy. The investment went much further than I could have dreamed.
In the beginning, Global Girlfriend customers were my girlfriends, my neighbors, and the moms at my kids' schools. As my company grew from home parties to an e-commerce Web site, then added a mail-order catalog and a wholesale business, our customer base expanded to twenty thousand women around the country who eagerly used their purchasing power to help their girlfriends around the world gain economic security. In five years, our initial work with seven women's groups had grown into a bona fide women's fair-trade company supporting over fifty women's economic development projects globally.
I had wanted Dakota to come with me to Guatemala to see for himself why I am so passionate about working with women in poverty. He had watched me start and grow my business from our home in Colorado, and I wanted him to observe firsthand the impact we were making on people. I also needed his seven years of Spanish classes to help me communicate. Mary-Mike had the same goals for Robert, but when our transportation pulled up we started having second thoughts. She and I exchanged fretful glances when our guides directed us to hop up into the back of the truck. We never let our boys ride bicycles without helmets, and yet here we were letting them ride in the back of an open pickup, brimming with people, traversing a steep gravel road. As this was the only transportation to the government housing resettlement for victims of Hurricane Stan, we climbed in. Celestina was waiting for us.
We turned off the main road onto the drive of the resettlement housing. The resettlement was simple and sufficient, but it felt cold and impersonal when compared to the colorful people and places we'd seen in other parts of Guatemala. The cement-block rectangles of government-issued houses were evenly aligned into tidy rows resembling a military barracks. The gray houses stood in bold contrast to the natural setting that surrounded the development. Lush green expanses of palms and pines were dotted with fields cleared for subsistence farming. On the horizon were beautiful hills and valleys that seemed to stretch on forever. Million-dollar views and a survival instinct were the community's greatest assets.
I knew that each inhabitant had moved here because of the devastating mud slides brought on by Hurricane Stan in 2005. In the weeks preceding the hurricane, torrential rainstorms had soaked the area with over twenty inches of precipitation. When Stan blew in from the coast, the already saturated ground couldn't absorb the new rains, and flash flooding and mud slides resulted. Whole mountainsides collapsed and engulfed the villages below. An estimated two thousand people lost their lives. Others lost their homes, which three years later were still buried under immovable mounds of earth. Many survivors now lived in this community of cookie-cutter shelters, missing their gardens, their animals, their personal things, and the homes many had built with their own two hands. It made me sad thinking of all they had lost. I couldn't help considering how I would feel if my home was washed away and I was given a lesser space in a new, unfamiliar place. Ducking under a line of hanging laundry, Celestina greeted us warmly just outside the door to her home. She stood less than five feet tall, and was dressed in brilliantly colorful traditional Mayan wear, a huipil blouse and skirt she had woven herself. Her wide smile revealed a lifetime without dental work, and she looked much older than her thirty-six years. Celestina's home had been destroyed in the mud slides that followed Hurricane Stan, and she was trying to rebuild her family's life. Her village of Panabaj had been one of the hardest hit. There, she and her husband had proudly built the only two-story home on their street with their own hands. Their home had been brightly decorated with Celestina's weavings, and the backyard was a large garden, where she grew food for her family and at times had extra produce to sell for a profit in the local market. Her new government-issued house was a twelve-by-twenty-foot cement-block rectangle with a tin roof, a metal door, and no yard.
Celestina invited us in, and as we entered, I peered around, carefully trying to make room for our group of five adults and two preteenagers in the confined space. The stark home was separated into two rooms, a small living room and an even smaller bedroom with one tiny bed. There were no carpets, paint, or wall hangings and seemingly few possessions other than some mats under the bed, which were rolled out for the children to sleep on at night, and a few cement blocks stacked in one corner, which were offered to us as seats. But Celestina's prize possessions were clearly visible, taking up much of the minuscule living space: a long wooden thread separator that looked like a bench with spikes; a thread winder; long thin shuttles wrapped with weft strings; and a backstrap loom attached to the top of the doorjamb. These are the essential tools of a master Mayan weaver. The backstrap loom weaver literally becomes part of her loom. One end of the loom's warp strings are attached to a door frame or somewhere with a higher elevation. The weaver then sits on the floor and straps the loom around her back, causing the warp to become taught and firm, able to accept the crisscross of the weft strings that are woven in and out to make a pattern.
We each took a seat on our low cement blocks, forming a semicircle around the loom. Celestina settled in the center of the cement floor on a small woven mat she had made herself. Her hands began to weave together the once loose and meaningless threads that found structure woven into harmony on her loom. Stripes of sky blue and purple made up the warp that would become the base for the fabric, and Celestina combined a rainbow of blue, green, yellow, and purple in the weft, skillfully forming shapes that looked like small flowers. Each shuttle held a different color weft string that she passed through the warp with speed and accuracy until a pattern took shape before our eyes. Each thread was suddenly part of something much larger and lovelier than what it had been alone. Celestina's hands never stopped moving as she wove and at the same time recounted the events of the mud slides, which our interpreter, Maria, translated from their native Kathiquel language. The mud slides that had overwhelmed parts of the peaceful Lake Atitlán area had taken her home, her neighbors' homes, and many of her neighbors' lives. She and her children had escaped death only because her house had two levels and they were all upstairs when the thundering rush of earth and water overtook the homes all around her.
Watching the movement of Celestina's skillful hands on the loom, I thought about the threads of experience that make up the tapestry of each of our lives, and about the path in life that had led me to her home. I thought of how blessed I was to be here now, with my son, showing him why this work was so important to me. Working with women internationally is what I had always longed to do, but it had taken years to get here.
I went to college at Western Illinois University as a journalism major. I hoped to be a reporter who covered meaningful stories — stories about injustices or, better yet, good being accomplished in the world. I dreamed that maybe someday I would report internationally. The problem was that I didn't love the many required English classes. We were reading novels that didn't move me when I wanted real-life stories. (I also was, and still am, a horrid speller, which seemed the kiss of death in an English class before the age of computers and spell-check.) But everything changed second semester sophomore year when I took an introduction to social work class as an elective.
My instructor, Mike Finmen, was a short man with a goatee who almost always wore jeans to class. Mike was open, comfortable, and casual and treated us like smart colleagues he was mentoring rather than like students he was grading. Mike had a long history in the field of social work, doing direct practice even after he earned his PhD. He had worked in rural poverty in Arkansas and had strong opinions on building opportunities and social safety nets, but also on fostering personal responsibility. His favorite career advice was "Where you stand depends on where you sit," and he suggested we take the time to learn where each person in a situation sits before we judge from our personal throne. His other favorite pearl of wisdom was "CYA," or Cover Your Ass. He advised us to do so by keeping thorough and copious practice notes about our social work clients. I loved his candidness. I loved that he believed in doing; not just teaching or researching, but getting his hands dirty in human affairs. It was what I wanted to do — not just observe and report, but get messy in people's lives in order to help them. I switched majors immediately.
By my junior year in college, I had decided I would commit my short-term future to the Peace Corps. Something inside me drew me to the larger world. I wanted to understand what life was like in other lands. I wanted to learn about other cultures and traditions. Part of that curiosity came from hearing about both my grandfather's and my father's time at war. My paternal grandfather, G. Clark Nehring, had served in the army along the northern border of India during World War II. He spent over two years guarding bridges and roads in India and fixing tires at an army facility located in a tropical area north of Calcutta where rubber was plentiful. On the rare occasions when he talked about his time in India, I marveled as the details of the land and the people poured out from my mostly stoic grandfather. He had lived in a tent camp surrounded by tea fields, small villages, and wild animals. Once, he and some friends helped the local villagers kill a twenty-foot python that was pursuing the locals' goats. The villagers thanked the soldiers with traditional food and tea, and with friendship that reached past their language barrier. I could just picture how foreign Indian food and culture, and India itself, must have been to him as a young soldier.
My dad had followed my grandpa in service to our country as a naval officer in the Vietnam War. My father wasn't drafted like many young men from his generation but instead enlisted as a Seabee — a member of the navy construction unit that built the air force runways and other infrastructure the United States needed inside Vietnam. Like my grandfather, my father didn't talk much about his time in the military. Sometimes, out of the blue, he'd mention something random about the temperature in Vietnam or the bugs, or in the 1980s when the TV show China Beach aired, he'd say something like, "I helped build the real airstrip at China Beach." These casual comments over the years made me curious about other places. When my grandfather and father talked about India and Vietnam, they always talked about their love of the people. Even during war, people were friendly and eager to learn about them, to learn about America, and to share their own culture. I daydreamed about places I might go and friends I might meet. When I was a kid, it was hard to believe that Grandpa and Dad had both been halfway around the world and the farthest I had been from my small Illinois farm town was Florida — twice.
My family traveled rarely when I was a child. As part of our family business, Hinckley Concrete Products, we did go to the annual Midwestern Pre-Cast Concrete Convention in gripping locations like Peoria and Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. My paternal grandparents, Clark and Irene, were much more worldly, traveling to Wisconsin and Florida every year and even journeying to Portugal when I was about six. It was my grandparents who took me on my first airline flight, when I was in the third grade. We went to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and I remember how anxious I was about flying. (I still perspire, pray, and find myself unable to talk to my fellow passengers until I hear the ding of the bell that represents our arrival at ten thousand feet.) My mom cried as I left the gate to board the plane, which didn't help. But my first pair of airline wings and a thick blueberry compote on delicious pancakes quelled my nervousness.
Growing up in Hinckley, Illinois, a small town with a population of twelve hundred people, the only other person I knew who had traveled to other places in the world (besides my family war veterans) was my town's retired history teacher Charlie Hillman. He taught history to decades of Hinckley–Big Rock High school students, including both my grandma in the 1930s and my dad in the 1960s. One night when I was nine or ten, dozens of us poured into the community center's basement to watch Mr. Hillman's slides from his trip to China. The most vivid memory I have from his show is of two slides of toddlers with the back cut out of their pants. One child had just a slip of plastic covering his otherwise bare behind, and Mr. Hillman had captured the other child squatting to poop right in front of him on the sidewalk. We all gasped and giggled. We examined each slide as if it were a new moon rock or a specimen of bacteria from Mars. Mr. Hillman had gone far away; the people were different there, and he had come back to tell us just how wonderfully interesting and kind they were. Mr. Hillman might as well have been an astronaut.
Excerpted from "Global Girlfriends"
Copyright © 2011 Stacey Edgar.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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