Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Car Tires and Chicken Wire

As a guest of the United Students for Fair Trade, I spoke at their annual convergence in blustery Boston, representing Catholic Relief Services. Here is an excerpt of my mini-history. For the full speech, send me an email. Thanks to those of you who posted entries on my blog that helped shape this talk!

Car Tires and Chicken Wire: Or How Feisty Fair Traders Started a Movement
USFT Convergence, February 17, 2007

There is a famous saying, which I don’t really like, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. " I don’t like that quote for a couple of reasons. First off I don’t like being scolded and that quote makes me feel like somebody is wagging a finger at me saying, “Jackie if you don’t do your homework you are going to be a loser.” I don’t find that kind of tone very inspirational. I also don’t like the focus on the negative “doomed to repeat it” as if history is all bad events. A USFT value is celebration. I like to celebrate and maybe replicate some of the beauty and accomplishments of our past. History is filled with really neat experiences. What are some we’d like to see more of? (Audience response). Heck, even things that make our lives easier such as the invention of Velcro. Don’t we hope those kind of innovative, “who would have thought it was possible” kinds of things happen to happen over and over?

No, instead of warning us about history, I think it is important to know our history simply because it is if full of wonderful inspiring stories and events and personalities. What I’d like to do today is tell some stories of outstanding folks and events who helped create this Fair Trade movement that we are each a part of as we sit in this high school on a cold winter morning. I’d like to begin with some of our own stories ... I invite you tell those stories and post them on the timeline I have painted up here...One young friend helped us see that the Boston Tea party back in revolutionary times was an act of trade justice. I put her index card in front of my timeline, which only starts in 1946. I picked 1946 because you gotta start somewhere and because I love the story of Edna Ruth Byler.

Edna Ruth and her husband, J.N., worked with the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief, peace, and development organization much like CRS or Lutheran World Relief—doing disaster response and helping folks move out of poverty. Mennonites are pacifists, in the tradition of Quakers, and Church of the Brethren; they are often rural folks. Edna Ruth and J.N. lived in Pennsylvania. As part of their regular duties, the couple took a trip in 1946 to Puerto Rico, where Byler was introduced to impoverished seamstresses trying to improve their skills in sewing classes. The poverty the women were living in and the quality of their work inspired Byler to find a way to transfer the talent into income. Returning to her hometown, Byler began to sell the products to women in local sewing circles and told them about these incredibly talented women in the PR who needed income.

Not necessarily a business-woman, Byler volunteered her time and gave her money on behalf of her producer partners. Borrowing from friends and drawing from her own savings, Edna Ruth contributed more than $500 for her project. Over the course of several years, the popularity of the products grew and Byler became known as the “Needlework Lady,” who sold products out of the trunk of her car. Between 1954 and 1958, a mere four years, Byler took orders from more than 2,440 individuals. She used some of the USFT core values: Making Connections, Understanding Context, Promoting Fair Trade. Soon Byler opened a gift shop in the basement of the home she and J.N. shared. That gift shop was the first Fair Trade store in the US. It is now known throughout the United States and Canada as Ten Thousand Villages.

Edna Ruth’s story reminds me of Ani Difranco. Any of you guys listen to Ani? Ani calls herself a Righteous Babe…an independent folk singer who as a young artist stead-fastedly refused to sign record contracts with the major recording studios because she wanted to protect her artistic independence. One of her songs—Swan Dive—notes that "I’ve built my own empire out of car tires and chicken wire. I’m queen of my own compost heap and I’m getting used to the smell. ” I interpret that lyric as a reference to the fact that Ani toured from venue to venue selling records out of her car trunk.

A “Needlework Lady” and a Righteous Babe may seem worlds apart but they tell the same type of story: creating and implementing business models that promote independence and opportunity. Trying to make the world a better and different placed based on core values like those of Fair Trade: dialogue, transparency and respect. And Edna Ruth and Ani Difranco succeeded: Ani now has 10 artists recording with her label and Ten Thousand Villages is now a multi-million dollar Fair Trade organization, having sold more than $20 million in fiscal year 2006 working with more than 100 artisan groups in thirty-two countries.

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