Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We're Moving!

Hello Blog Readers,

We're moving on over to join the rest of our website at www.hilltribers.org.

You can find the blog portion of our website here.

If you are following us, please update your reader or subscribe here.

Thank you for your loyalty to this organization and for wanting to know more about Austin's refugee community. We hope you'll continue following our story at our new, updated site.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

As Forrest Gump Once Said

I've come to realize that Hilltriber class is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

Some days, it is a room full of new mothers, with a baby on every knee. Other days you are sitting with a crowd of new arrivals who are eager to learn more about being a part of this community. We start with introductions all around. Some days we talk more "business"--working together to go through new products and talk about how to improve them moving forward. Most classtimes, Meagan or Jessica will take us through an ESL lesson, tailored to the crowd that day.

This week was another wonderful treat. During ESL class this week, Dr. Salai and I pulled the women aside individually to go over their products and what they would like to do in the future. What a blessing to get some precious one-on-one time.

We had two new artisans visit for the first time, Mary and Nan. Turns out Nan (who currently works in housekeeping at a local hotel) worked as a professional seamstress while a refugee in Malaysia. And Mary already owns and knows how to use a sewing machine. Another new artisan, Ruby, is a master seamstress as well. I'm once again overwhelmed at the untapped talent all around us. I was thinking about how many refugee women across the country are working (or looking for work) at minimum wage jobs as hotel housekeepers or dishwashers who are really trained and creatively skilled weavers, sewers and jewelry makers. It was just one of those days that reinforced why we do what we do.

NoMia, Ruby and Huang. Two new artisans and a new tatting instructor!
(amazing) Portraits by Kelsi Williamson.
Huang came with another bag full of tatted jewelry. She has shared her craft with her good friend, Nomia, whose work is already perfection! The new jewelry line, Threads of Hope, is beautiful and represents countless hours of hard work. I can't wait to see these two women reap the rewards of their creative efforts when we do a full launch in August.

(On a side note, Meagan works with this same group on our "off" Wednesdays doing "mommy and me" activities. She showed me a picture of Huang participating in class, carrying her son on her back and managing her two other young ones, all while tatting away, creating wonderful new pieces for you all to enjoy. If that's not multi-tasking, I'm not sure what is!)

So, at the end of the day today, we had a handful of new rice bag bibs, some rice bag diaper totes, some beautiful, handwoven scarves and some fun, artisan-designed miniature bags. We had also learned that one of the artisans, a single mother of 5, is without health insurance. Her eyes bother her so much that she has had to stop weaving, something she truly enjoys and was a source of added income. Dr. Salai is on the case and will work with her this week to make sure her family receives care, but honestly, I find this heart-breaking and overwhelming.

Class seems to magnify the contradictions of this work--where we see wonderful progress and hope for the future mixed in with disturbing situations and unthinkable challenges. Today was just another reminder of why we're here. To carefully unwrap the gifts offered, to delight in the hidden surprises and to grimace together as we work through the unexpected nutty truffle.

- Caren

Monday, June 27, 2011

All is Not Quiet on the Hilltriber Front

From the outside, things may seem a bit quiet with us. But if you're reading this blog, that means you're on the inside. And we want you to know that there has been a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity going on this summer as we prepare for our busy fall season of blessing for the artisans.

So, here's what's happening:
Kelsi Williamson
1. We're welcoming our intern Kelsi into the fold. And by "welcoming" we mean overloading her with all of the pent-up ideas and projects for the organization that we've been holding onto for years. We really can't emphasize enough how blessed we are to have her on our team. As a college graduate, I was nowhere near this mission-minded, thoughtful, caring, inquisitive, creative and smart. You're going to see some amazing things come out of this girl this year. I can't wait for her to be able to share them with you.

2. The artisans are weaving and sewing and jewelry-making like crazy! After a spring of product design, prototype-creating and testing, we've honed in on products that we hope will be the most successful and make the most of the artisans' time. I'm always amazed by how the artisans can take a few skeins of thread at one class meeting and come back two weeks later with sacks full of handmade goodness. Magic.

Sneak peak at Fall 2011! Scarves and jewelry and totes, oh my!
Photos by Kelsi Williamson.
3. The leadership team (Jonathan, Jessica, Meagan, Kelsi and I) have been meeting to discuss long-term goals and visions for the organization. We've always been a unique organization that doesn't fit neatly into a single category. We borrow concepts from the international economic development and fair trade worlds, but tailor them to work for refugee women operating in the Austin economy. Putting to paper all the things we have intrinsically been doing as a part of our relationships with the women has been both refining and defining for us.

4. Preparing for launch. As we look ahead, we are gathering steam for the fall and are preparing to launch a new website and fill the etsy store with new products in August. We're also planning on running some special promotions specifically for our loyal fans (again, if you're reading this, this means you!). So until August, we will be doing inventory, tagging products, taking pretty pictures and preparing them for their grand debut.

How can you help?
1. Pray. We're an organization that believes in the power of prayer. As we're all balancing other jobs and responsibilities, please pray that the time we spend toward this effort will go far in increasing the artisans success this fall.

2. When it becomes "time to launch" please join us in spreading the word. If you aren't already, it would help to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Pass our name (and our mission) on to your friends and be ready to be our cheerleader.

3. Lend us your ear (and your opinions). We may come to you between now and August and ask for your opinion. Knowing what will work in the marketplace is key to helping the artisans succeed this fall. If you have an opinion, please don't be shy!

Thank you for your support as this organization has grown over the past 3.5 years. We're looking forward to being able to share more of the inner workings of HCHT with you, our faithful fans, in the coming months.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Daily Tangibles

“I like to think of myself as a visual learner,” is usually the phrase I use as an excuse when I’m asked to imagine/visualize something before I’ve actually seen it. Although this has often become my scapegoat statement, I do believe it accurately describes my need for tangibles in order for my creativity and imagination to begin to work. This reliance on my real eyes over my mind’s eye has hindered me in the past, but in the first few days of my internship with Hill Country Hill Tribers, I think I might have also found visual learning’s benefits (and perhaps another reason to keep it as my excuse).

My name is Kelsi Williamson, and I graduated with a journalism degree in December from Abilene Christian University. I met Jessica this past fall at an ACU event, and we connected over our shared mission internship experiences in Chiang Mai, Thailand. As I learned more about Hill Country Hill Tribers, the women who run the organization (Caren and Jessica) and the women who are involved in the organization (Koh Meh, Ku Lo, Meh Mo and others), I was absolutely blown away by the lasting and powerful effects such a simple idea can have. Every time I saw with my own eyes what HCHT was up to, I felt more and more reassured that I wanted to be involved.

Yet in the months leading up to the beginning of this internship, I have often wished I could picture more accurately what exactly was going on. I heard and read stories about the Village Center and ArtReach, and I saw the results of these talented women in dozens of meticulously woven handbags and scarves and artfully stitched rice paper products, but HCHT still seemed so distant from my own reality. I didn’t know any Burmese refugees, nor was I a talented weaver, sewer or jewelry maker. Excited as I was to arrive in Austin and begin working with the non-profit, my visualization skills were yet again failing me.

Yesterday morning, however, reality finally caught up with perception. As I sat in the Village Center apartment among several of the artisans, Dr. Salai, Caren, Jessica and Constance, I was so overjoyed to be exactly there. The meeting was simple: there were no slick camera-caught life changes, no dramatic rearranging of economic classes or language break-throughs, but as an outsider not always knowing what exactly to expect, I suddenly realized that anticipating expectations often causes you to miss the beauty and significance in the every day relationships and choices that make an organization like HCHT happen.  The principles and basics of HCHT are not some foreign concept: they are based on a daily decision to love and fellowship with neighbors and friends.

So whether you are great at visualizing the way HCHT functions or not, remember it’s often not visualizations of grandeur but rather daily tangibles that establish and sustain. I’m so excited to be involved with just such an organization.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Freedom's Not Just Another Word

During the holiday season, I wrote about how Dr. Salai and the women of Hill Country Hill Tribers had given me a deeper appreciation of hope. Following this Memorial Day weekend, I'm thinking about how our relationships with them have given me a deeper reverence for the blessings of freedom. 

On the way to class one morning last October, there was a lull in the conversation. This was rare, considering my two-year-old and four-year-old usually have lots of things to tell "Doctor Sly". He turned to me and asked, "What do I need to do in order to protest?"

How do you answer that question? Basically, I told him, you don't need to do much. One of the freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution is the right to peaceably assemble. In Burma, it's a punishable offense. In fact, Dr. Salai himself was imprisoned in 2001 for conducting a one-man peaceful protest in his academic gown.

I asked Dr. Salai what he wanted to protest here in Austin, and he explained that he wanted a peaceful regime change to come to his homeland and that he didn't want people in America to forget Burma. We continued the conversation in class that day, which coincided with a sham of an election orchestrated by the regime, and the sadness was palpable. All of the artisans have lost their homes and communities. Many have lost loved ones. All have had to make gut-wrenching sacrifices to ensure that their children would enjoy the taste of freedom. Many have scores of relatives and friends still deeply entrenched in the fight back home.

That conversation with Dr. Salai and the rest of the artisans marked a turning point in this organization. In addition to helping the artisans with income-generating projects and educational development, we knew that a part of our mission needs to be sharing the story of Burma and engaging our friends and supporters in positive action and prayer. We're dedicated to finding practical ways to help bring about peaceful change in our artisans' homeland.

As Dr. Salai's first American "protest", he came to Artreach and engaged in conversation with shoppers. He shared his story and the plight of the people still living under the oppressive regime today in Burma. His powerful words were intertwined with tables full of Karen and Karenni weaving. For me, watching Ku Lo's entrepreneurial spirit blossom while Dr. Salai was sharing all she has lost, made the day solemn in a way I can't explain.

Freedom isn't just another word. It's something worth fighting for and all too often taken for granted. This Memorial Day, I thought about all the sacrifices given for freedom all over the world. Thanks to people with unfathomable courage like Dr. Salai, I can write this blog post, worship without fear, and even protest. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Burma today.

In the coming months, we will continue to tell the artisans' stories. But we will also be filling you in on what's going on in Burma and what you can do to help. And, in case you were looking for a little bit of homework, here are a few resources that have been eye-opening to us as we dive deeper into the lives of the new Americans we've come to love.

Free Burma Rangers
Thailand Burma Border Consortium
BBC News Burma Series

Burma VJ

George Orwell in Burma 
War Isn't Over When It's Over

Please share any resources you've discovered with us in the comments. We definitely want to keep learning and growing.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Modern Tribal

If you know me, you know I am the farthest thing from a fashionista. I particularly hate shopping malls. I rarely wear jewelry. And the first purse I carried was a diaper bag. So we often laugh about how I ended up in a position to market handbags, purses and accessories. (See how I just did that?)

I've always thought that God uses our natural talents, inborn personality and "spiritual gifts" for His good. And it's true. But I've learned that he also works through our weaknesses, challenges our insecurities and molds us through our mistakes. And I think He has a particular knack for turning our weaknesses into strengths.

So, fashion and me. I think I gave up on it about the time these came out.

But ever since we've been focusing more on product development, I am constantly scanning a crowd and checking out the choices people make. It started out as research, but I've discovered how fun it is to see someone's personality in physical form. I've always loved good design--graphic design, interior design and architecture--but now I'm seeing how good design can be wearable (and responsible to the people who created it). Jessica summed it up best when she described wearing Huang Nan's new necklace a few weeks back. For me, what is so exciting about my re-entry into caring about fashion is that it coincides with learning to care more about the people who create it.

So I was super happy to be in town for the Renegade Craft Fair last weekend. Not only was I surrounded by good design, handcrafted artistry and unique fashion choices (animal tail belts anyone?), but I was in the presence of the wonderful people who made it all. I was like a kid in a candy shop. In the trendspotting department, my job was easy. Practically every other booth featured tribal themes made modern. Check 'em out.
Featured above: Homako, Leah Duncan, Thief and Bandit, Scarlett Garnet, Courtney Fischer and Jamie Spinello.

Good news for our the artisans of Hill Country Hill Tribers--they have this "tribal" trend down flat!

- Caren

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Poetry Videos

I can't tell you how much I enjoy the Refugee Poetry Reading every year. Super excited children meet slightly nervous college students, consume pizza and write poetry, and then travel together to an intimate reading where they have the chance for an hour to lyricize their memories and learn from other people's poems. It's a beautiful evening that few things can dampen, not even a mike I forgot to turn up, a bus stop just behind us, spilled hot chocolate and that sudden rush of nerves no amount of preparation can fix. I was deeply proud of both college students and Village Center kids alike. Here are videos of a few of the kids (I didn't get all of them, sadly).

The first one, Htoo Hti, is the tiniest little sparkler of a kindergartener and the next is her thoughtful, brilliant sister. I get tears in my eyes every time I watch them--I cannot believe we met themwith her mom, Heh Ler Paw, three years ago. Htoo Hti was a baby then, Eh Tan Nah a serious toddler, and they're speaking English better than me by now. It's such a pleasure to watch the children of our artisans grow so proud and strong in their new home.



Say Htoo Paw, Not Do Hen's daughter. Not Do Hen is one of our favorite weavers; we can't speak the same language, but we often laugh ourselves into tears trying. Not Do Hen is funny. Say is bright and sweet.

Nishi gets so nervous every year, but she lives for this day.

(These were taken outside on my iphone, so forgive the quality! I'll try to upload a few more soon.) Thanks to my great English class for making this such a special and memorable event. What were your favorite parts?