I have had the privilege of participating in fair trade for almost my entire career – at both ends of the fair trade supply chain – and I’m grateful I still can do it.
As a landed immigrant, I went through the process of having several different jobs, going back to school, and volunteering until I got the opportunity to work as a manager at a Ten Thousand Villages store in Toronto.
I thank my parents and artisan friends from back home who always kept me focused, told me not to give up, and encouraged me to keep looking for a job I was passionate about. My work at Ten Thousand Villages provides me with the opportunity to put the all the pieces of the fair trade puzzle together.
It all started in Lima, Peru. I was about to start my last year of university when I found a posting on the bulletin board in the Faculty of Art. An organization called Allpa was hiring a design student to work with small artisan producers to develop new functional products in different materials, and to promote them to the export market.
I followed up on the ad and began my journey as a designer. I visited many artisans’ workshops and learned their techniques. I listened to incredible stories about their lives and the challenges they faced. I learned about fair trade, and about the importance of doing business fairly.
The design process is a collaboration between the artisans and the designer. Materials are chosen locally, colours and global trends are reviewed, and products are blended with cultural traditions. One project could be finishing a new pottery collection while another would be about finding a new finish for wooden pieces.
After spending a few days – or even up to a few weeks sometimes – with artisans, I would leave the workshop both with new samples to bring back to the company and big expectations in the minds of the artisans. (There were times when I had to run with a backpack full of samples to reach the last bus to get back to the city. Thank goodness there was always a truck with goods ready to pick up late passengers!)
I treasure the laughs we shared. I always remember the message they sent me with: They wanted to keep working on what they do best, with dignity, and to be able to provide for their families.
Working closely with artisans gave me:
- The opportunity to learn about their traditions and lifestyle, and their desire for continuity in their traditions through the next generation.
- Hope that artisans can plan a future for their families.
- The opportunity to build strong relationships that go beyond developing and buying products.
- The strength to continue life with dignity, no matter how difficult times are. (Artisans living in developing countries have often been displaced from their hometowns due to violence or political reasons, physical challenges, or are denied job opportunities because they are women.)
- A wake up call to pay attention to the world, not just my immediate surroundings. The survival of the planet depends on sustainable development.
- The excitement to celebrate every community, and enjoy their crafts and their people.
After all these years, there is gratitude to each of the artisans I have met and continue meeting. The people I’ve worked with and organizations I’ve worked for have taught me that we can make a better world when we support sustainable solutions for artisans and promote their work.
Today, I work in the Ten Thousand Villages head office. My job allows me to be in contact with artisan groups on a daily basis, as I’m part of a team that selects and orders the products. When the items arrive at our doors, we are so excited to see and touch them. They come from about 30 developing countries, and we distribute them to our stores across Canada and promote their stories to the customers.
I witness how the circle of Fair Trade is completed – in this case, on a large scale!
One day I will be working with artisans from Haiti to figure out how they will package their metalwork to arrive safely. Another day could see me ensuring that our beautiful kisii stone products are created with the new dye colours we requested. This job is a collaboration of parties to ensure Ten Thousand Villages has the best products available for customers.
My job has given me the opportunity to connect with the global community at a level that I never imagined. Fair trade practices have changed my life, the lives of producers, and the lives of all the people who are involved with and work in this field.
In honour of my father, who taught me to serve and treat every human being equally and with dignity, and to love and respect our environment.
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