As my friends head off for their Alternative Fall Break in New Windsor, Maryland to volunteer at SERRV, I wanted to reflect on a woman who has empowered other women through Fair Trade in India.
Meet Annie Joseph. She is a beautiful and inspiring soul. I first met Annie when she visited our Social Work Department to tell us about her organization Ankur Kala in Calcutta. Ankur Kala was founded by Annie 30 years ago for the intent of women empowerment. Ankur Kala's motto is "Sowing Seeds of Hope." Calcutta contains some of the worst slums in India. AK helps 600+ women who have been affected by poverty and violence. Alcoholism is a huge social problem in India and many women have husbands who waste their meager expenses on alcohol. AK helps women to become self-sufficient. Meanwhile, they work with trafficked or prostituted victims, aiding in prevention strategies and helping them get out of their economic crises. AK sends the children of trafficked women to school, helping to break the cycles of poverty.
They teach impoverished women how to cook (for catering purposes) and tailoring. They work with women artisans to earn a fair trade for their goods and collaborate with organizations like Ten Thousand Villages. Maybe you’ve seen their cute owl change purses? I bought one for my sister last year. Yep, they are from the women of Ankur Kala in Calcutta, India. And their scarves are beautiful! Check them out!
Annie is a visionary. I saw Annie again at the Millenium Development Conference, where she served on a panel discussion. As a young girl, Annie volunteered with Mother Teresa on her days off from school. (Seriously, how awesome is her life!?) Annie shared stories about how she has worked against corruption since she was a young 20 something starting Ankur Kala.
One such story involved Annie going to the Post Office to export a package. The men at the post office gave her trouble and told her to wait for some time. She waited into the afternoon. Then they told her to come back in the morning. She came the next day and waited. They told her to come in the afternoon. She came and waited. Things carried on like this for a few days. Most people would give up, but Annie was persistent. Finally, the men were curious about this young woman and mailed her package. Now, anyone can go to that local Post Office in Calcutta and mention the words “Ankur Kala” as if they were magic words. She closed with, “Don’t underestimate yourself. Believe in yourself. Do what you have to do.”
Annie is a patient and stubborn soul. Another story involved Annie attempting to get NGO status for Ankur Kala. She visited the proper offices and they asked for a bribe to “help” the paper work go faster. She refused, unwilling to give into corruption or justify that practice. Again, she was given the “Wait, Come back. Wait, Come back.” It took her 2 and ½ years to achieve NGO status for Ankur Kala because she was unwilling to give into corruption. She finished with, “Voice your protest. Don’t hold back. Don’t give up. Don’t compromise. Be persistent. Be stubborn.”
It does take personal sacrifice; Annie made no doubt about that. She could have paid the bribe and had a smooth sailing with Ankur Kala’s registration, but what kind of person and organization would she be building if she paid a bribe justifying corruption? Instead, she stood firm on the seeds that had been sewn around her and was unwilling to compromise her personal values. I think Annie practices Jesus’ Third Way beautifully.
I will never be able to look at the products that come in from SERRV or Ten Thousand Villages again. I already felt an inside connection to the products at SERRV, because I had volunteered there the past 3 years for Fall Break seeing the products arrive in their foreign packaging, only to unpack them and repack them for sale in America. But now...I've met a lovely woman who helped to start a beautiful fair trade organization for women's empowerment and I won't be able to separate her face and her mission from the fair trade products I buy. I think that's the beauty of fair trade - behind every item is a story of a community, or a person, or personal growth and empowerment.
Happy Fair Trade Awareness Month!
PS – Here are some helpful links if you want to find out more about any of the organizations that I’ve mentioned above.