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?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hill Tribers and Health Care

There have been a lot of blogs this week taking place in a Rally to Restore Sanity, not the Jon Stewart one, but one focused on how Christians talk to one another. It's no secret that most of us are Christians at HCHT, but we come in peace. We work with anyone and everyone happily.

But I want to talk a minute about being a Christian and some of the things I've heard in Christian circles about health care. I realize health care is a difficult and complex political issue. I have a lot of friends who have children with complicated medical situations and I realize that not one solution suits everyone. But while this debate has been raging amongst people around me, with often very ugly generalizations made about the "poor" who need to get a job, I thought I'd weigh in on what I've seen.

I have spent the last three years working with refugee immigrants in the Austin area. In that time, I know of maybe three families who have had to get serious medical care and did not have a job. All of the other families had at least one person who was working as many hours at as many jobs as they could get to pay for the basic necessities of their lives. Many of them have several children and the women are often not literate in their own language, much less English (which is why we started our non-profit in the first place, to help those women make supplemental income weaving and sewing products to support their families). In those three years, we have spent countless hours on the phone with MAP, Medicaid and Medicare, talking to Volunteer Clinics, dentists, OBGYNs, in the emergency room, at children's hospitals, in labor and delivery--you name it, we've been there.

We are NOT equipped to deal with the medical emergencies. By we, I'm talking about the 5-10 of us who are friends with the refugees. When my husband Jonathan and I started dreaming about a non-profit, we made a list of things we could handle and things we were not doing. Number 1 on the list of things we could not handle were medical issues. We have tried our best not to get too involved, to direct our friends to the right agencies, or to put ourselves or our church in a position of paying for medical coverage. Our philosophy has been the approach of the refugee agency here in town: they want to help refugees figure out the bus route so they can go to the appointments themselves rather than relying on their American friends to do everything for them.

But there are some situations we simply cannot or will not walk away from, some boundaries we run helter-skelter across. Three months ago, we found Ibrahim dying on a mattress in his apartment, vomiting what looked like blood (and turned out to be beetle nuts they all chew). We called 911, knowing we were getting ourselves in way over our heads. A month later, he was out of the hospital after several surgeries and the possibility of dialysis. No one in their family has a job yet; we're not sure how they're going to make it. The medical bills are piling in, including that phone call for the ambulance we made, and yet we would do the same thing over again. They had to have medical coverage or he would die.

I visited a church once in which they spent much of the class time talking about "those people" on Medicare, taking their tax money and having babies (someone's suggestion was that we sterilize a woman after her first baby on Medicare. Yeah.). I'd like to tell you: "those people" deserve health care too. Their children deserve good medical treatment just as much as my babies do. The working husbands who have jobs without health care flat-out CANNOT pay for it. The women are covered when they're pregnant, but that's about it. They all deserve to not make the choice about whether to go to the doctor or feed their families. That's not a hypothetical choice, by the way, but a real one we see all the time. It's rent, groceries or health care. Guess which one they pick? "Those people" are dealing with a system so jacked up that we, the American friends, have spent up to 20 hours on the phone on one day with Medicaid being looped back and forth to the exact same people. I speak English and I don't know what's going on most of the time. I'm getting my doctorate and I can't figure out most of those forms. How people who don't speak English are supposed to navigate this system is absolutely beyond me.

I don't know the answers (I suspect they're not political), but this is more than a debate, these are real life people who really just need medical coverage. So if you'd like to have a rhetorical conversation about health care, great. I suggest, however, that you come spend a day in their shoes first. Meeting their basic human needs is something all of us, Christian or otherwise, should be passionate about.

(If you disagree with me, these are Jessica's opinions, not necessarily those of everyone at Hill Country Hill Tribers, but we're all pretty sad and ticked off at how hard things are for the working poor, so it just might be!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Refugee Poetry Reading

This Saturday night at 7:00 pm at Dominican Joe, my UT English class is hosting one of my favorite all time events, the Writing in the Margins Poetry Workshop. I (Jessica) am an Assistant Instructor at UT and I teach a class called Reading Women Writers to some great students. At the end of the semester, UT my students lead a poetry workshop in which they teach the elements of poetry to elementary through high school students, the kids from the Village Center. I love it when I can combine two things I love: my English students and the Village Center kids together in one room is a lot of fun. This culminating event gives the UT students the opportunity to teach how formal elements come together to create a poem, how literature can excite and energize younger students, and how their academic concepts can be used outside of the classroom. The Village Center kids get the chance to watch college students in action and see how easy and rewarding it can be to learn.

 As part of our course readings this semester, my students read selections from a book by Ann Jones called War is Not Over When it's Over. Jones spends time with refugee women all over the world, including the Congo, Sierra Leone, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, and Burmese refugees in Thailand. The book was difficult for me personally because we work with people from most of the places she visited, but the section about Burmese refugees was especially poignant. The refugees in the pictures look just like our artisans and many of the came from the camp Jones chronicles. The issues they described are ones I've heard over and over again from our friends here in Austin. One of the most important reasons most of the refugees said they remained in camps instead of going back home to Burma was the education of their children. In the camp, there are schools, in Burma, there are not. The reason is devastatingly simple. This is also the reason almost all of our artisans left Thailand and came to the States. The idea of starting over in a new place is daunting and overwhelming, but the draw of educating their children makes it worth it for them. The discomfort they face is nothing compared to the opportunity to give their children a future.

The above picture of Say Htoo Paw, whose mother, Not Do Hen, is one of our weavers, captures my real reason behind this event: The poetry reading gives me the opportunity to help the refugees fulfill their dream of educating their kids. By giving their incredibly sharp children a taste for how fun it can be to learn, we're also blessing our artisans. And that makes it worthwhile on every level. As Michael Scott would say, win-win-win.

And the kids LOVE it. 

Here are a couple of my favorite poems from the Village Center kids from last year's poetry reading:


I like to learn new things because I know
Something I didn’t know before.
In Africa they would teach us a lot
Of math and my dad would have me
Practice when I got home.

My teacher pushed when I didn’t know
It, so that I would get to know it.
Getting the problems right makes me
Feel good.

Max the Tiger
My name is Max the Tiger,
And one day I was hungry.
I hid in the tall, green grass
To frighten my friends.

My friend pig, said, “Go away!”
            And pushed me soft. 
            I had to leave,
            So I went to Cici’s.
I had no money.
I tried to scare
            The people there.
But they didn’t run.

The manager said,
“If you have not money,
You get none,
So get a job instead!”

I went to school.
I learned a lot.
I learned science, running, reading, math.
I got a job cleaning, and earned enough
To go back for some pizza.
But I was five dollars short!
With a little more work, I got a little more money.
And now I live in Cici’s forever
With all the crunchy, cheesy pizza I want!

If you get the chance this weekend, come to Dominican Joe, get great coffee, and listen to some fantastic poems from some of Austin's rising young poetry stars.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Meet Meh Bu

A few months ago, Jessica received an interesting voicemail: "Jessica, this is Meh Bu! You know me! Call me back. This is Meh Bu!" 
Only one problem, Jessica doesn't know a Meh Bu. Neither do I. For weeks, we asked every Burmese person we knew in Austin if they knew Meh Bu. No go. Since then, Meh Bu has become the official HCHT scapegoat, errand girl and customer service department. If you need someone to blame, have we got a Meh Bu for you!

So, it stands to reason that when we were looking for a model for our new line of Spring Scarves and Rice-cycled bibs, we needed a Meh Bu.

I began my search at a second-hand retail fixture store near my house. Their dimly-lit second floor was full of body parts--arms, legs, and crawling baby mannequins, oh my! Single creepiest moment of my life. I closed my eyes, pointed to a bust and ran as fast as I could down the stairs. If I'm ever in charge of setting up a haunted house, I know where to go.

Once home safe and sound from Creepsville, Meh Bu got strait to work getting our new Etsy shop up and running. As the quietest member of the HCHT team, she knows her place (in my closet) and doesn't talk back. She is versatile, with the ability to model handwoven scarves for grown women or bibs for babies. Meh Bu and I have already had a talk about the kind of body image she is portraying. Kate Moss is so 1996, so let's get some meat on that 24-inch waist!

We're working on getting more photographs of our products on real-live, human women, but until then, Meh Bu is doing just fine. To honor all her hard work, we are running our first ever promotion, just in time for Mother's Day!

Pick up one of our new products in our Etsy store between now and Mother's Day, May 8, and you can save 25%. Just use the promo code: MOMSDAY25. The selection is extremely limited (what you see is all that's left after a run on the store yesterday), so act now to honor the moms in your life.

And if you have any problems using the code, please let us know. We'll get Meh Bu right on it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Retail Therapy

You know that feeling when you buy something you REALLY love and it makes your whole day? When you walk around and everyone notices your new dress and how great you look in it? One of the things I love about fair trade products is that it expands that feeling. Not only do I feel great about how I look, I feel great about empowering the artist who made my new accessory. I just bought these sandals from Noonday Collection and they've been my staple: they're super comfortable and adorable, but I love that Sseko Designs allows me to participate in a narrative that really matters to me. I am passionate about educating women; it's why I'm getting my doctorate in English. To have the chance to buy shoes that helps send young women in Uganda to college? Yes, please! (I just bought straps in two new colors. Love.these.sandals.)

But I have never experienced the feeling I had this morning. One of my favorite perks about our non-profit is trying out the prototypes. We have to make sure we work all the bugs out before we sell them. Wearing our great new products is just part of my job! This morning I wore the new necklace that Huang Nan made (featured in this post or on facebook), just to try it out, of course.

This is a picture I took of myself this morning with the necklace on at Starbucks. The cashier at Starbucks just asked me about the necklace, where I got it and where she could get one. At my girls' preschool this morning, no less than ten people complimented my necklace between the time I got out of my car and got back to it. Several of them were my friends who knew the story behind the necklace, but many of them did not.

It's nice when you have on something you know other people think is special, but this morning, I felt like sitting down on the floor and crying. This necklace is so much more than just something pretty--this is Huang Nan coming into her own as an artist. We met Huang Nan this time last year; she was pregnant with her third baby, she and her husband were chasing two toddlers in a tiny apartment, struggling to make it and desperate to earn a living. Her husband, Steven, gave his resume to everyone he met. He was willing to do any kind of work to help his family. By the time Huang Nan had her baby, our church, Westover Hills, had offered him a job to replace a custodian who had left. He is a hard worker who comes in even when he is suffering with the malaria that plagues him almost monthly--the church was able to get him health insurance this year (his wife and children were already covered) and it is a huge achievement for him. They are becoming leaders in the community; they are carving out a new life for themselves and doing it with pride and grace.

I thought Huang Nan was a quiet woman when I met her; she let Steven talk most of the time, nodding and smiling but not much else. Something has happened to her this year. She began by knitting some scarves and hats for us; the first few were decent, the last ones were great. (We'll have those on our website in the fall.) As she began to feel more comfortable with us and with her new school, she began to talk and laugh more than we've ever seen. Now, thinking back on when we met Huang Nan, I can tell that she was overwhelmed by her life. A year later, with her husband in a good job and the opportunity to help support her family, Huang Nan exudes a joy that is tangible.

Huang Nan told us not long ago that she can tat and her artistry is amazing. She is accomplished and confident when she speaks of her craft. Through our translator, Dr. Salai, we've been talking to her about her designs and how to make things we think will sell. When she brought in the design for this necklace, she was quietly proud. We were blown away.

I feel almost reverent about my necklace today. This necklace represent my opportunity to see an artist like Huang Nan be empowered, to see her confidence grow, to see her pride as she supports her family and her community. At a time when so many people are cynical about non-profits (fueled by stories about Three Cups of Tea, making headlines this week), we will be as transparent as we can with you. I do this work because of the choking sense of joy I have in the growth I've seen in my beautiful friend. I wear this necklace to honor Huang Nan.

I promise you, we'll get her the supplies quickly to make more necklaces. They'll be for sale in a few weeks on our website. We'll hurry so that you, too, can look lovely while you empower our beautiful friend.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Prototype Party

A few weeks ago, the board and staff at HCHT invited some of our friends to get together and evaluate  new product ideas for our artisans. It was a wonderful evening with amazing food (I'm still thinking about Meagan's artichoke dip) while our stylish friends told us what they liked and what they didn't. This is Jenny, the vice-president of our board, enjoying the dip, which was really, really good.

We have two goals for our new products: We want to honor the artistic and cultural heritage of our artisans. We also want to use environmentally responsible and up-cycled materials. Many of the new pieces were made by the women, several by Caren and me, plus a few ideas we've been gathering. It was wonderful to hear the honest reaction of people whose opinions we value. We loved that Ruchi Agrawal and Patricia Haber from Handmade Expressions came; they met with Caren a few weeks ago and brought designs to the party that reworked our artisans' original products in amazing and simple new ways.

We laid out the new prototypes in categories. Above you can see the yarn the women use to weave each bag, our woven bags, and several rice bag products.

We had several different types of jewelry.

Looking at all of the jewelry the women had been making, it was amazing to think how much work has gone into the new product development. We have pushed these women to change their designs and to try new things; some of these products will never work and some are so good we're going to be ready to produce them immediately. We feel a debt to these hard-working artisans to figure out what is popular and what will sell so that their time is spent in making items that are marketable.

We numbered each prototype, put a small bag beside it, and asked our friends to answer three questions: Would you buy this? If so, how much would you pay? If not, what would you change or what suggestions do you have?

We got feedback on each product and then asked everyone to cast a vote on their five favorite prototypes by putting a neon sticker on the bag they liked the most. That helped us see which ideas were immediately the most popular.

After everyone had given us specific feedback, we gathered in the living room and brainstormed for over an hour about what new products we could develop.

One of my favorite ideas was Reagan's--she suggested we turn a hill tribe woven bag into a sophisticated clutch. I already made a prototype (from an old woven bag, a Cheerios box and some duct tape, not my most professional work!) and that one's in the pipeline. Dearing suggested a simple one, making an up-cycled lunch box like a mini version of our Rice-Cycled tote bags. There were also several great baby product ideas that we're working on now.

Honestly, we didn't take many pictures while we were brainstorming  because were all writing down ideas. My mind was so full by the time I left, it's taken me about a month to process everything. We've been thinking through and pairing down based on what's marketable, what's easy to make, and what the women want to work on. They have vetoed a couple of projects and come up with some amazing new ones. We are committed to this being a collaborative process and it is crucial to us that we work with the women to make items that they are as excited to make as we are to sell.

Mostly I was reminded of how amazing it is to work with such a great team. This is Meagan, me, and Caren, the core group who meet with the artisans and have ESL class during the week.

Erika, Jenny and Terra (our beloved president of the board who was so busy hosting that she's not in our pictures) are an integral part of what we do. There were friends like Fran who have sat with many of our artisans and taught them to sew; Mary, the intern from last summer, and Kelsi, the intern this summer, whose excitement and passion inspire us; Constance, our new friend with a thousand ideas who just got back from Thailand and who is already moving us in new directions; Megan, who comes every Tuesday for homework help; Jen, our one-woman network and brainstorming machine; and too many more to name. Thank you so much to everyone who came; your creativity and feedback have blessed us more than you know. And to the many of you who weren't able to make it, thank you as well for your constant support.

And now for the results from our prototype party: we have at least three new products ready to go as soon as the artisans can make them. We're launching lovely gray and yellow spring scarves on our website early next week. Caren's getting them tagged and ready for the website, so pictures are coming soon. Trust me, they're gorgeous, and just in time for Mother's Day. Watch our website--we're releasing our new products in limited edition launches, so if you like something, you better grab it fast before it's gone!

Here is Huang Nan's Sunbreak necklace, a hand-crocheted turquoise bib necklace from up-cycled aluminum washers. You can't have this one--I call dibs--but we'll put them up on our website as soon as she makes a few more. I'm absolutely in love.


And Ma Kay Htoo's Basmati Bag, the perfect little grab-and-go purse. It's made from up-cycled Basmati rice bags; we're excited to work with smaller purses and I love this one.

Ma Kay Htoo is new to our group and we don't have her picture yet, but she came to her first class last week with her gorgeous little girl and they had matching pigtails. We're so excited to have such a skilled seamstress (and cute mom!) as a new HCHT artisan.

In the next few months, we'll launch two new product lines: Threads of Hope (bracelets, necklaces and earrings incorporating traditional art with up-cycled materials) and Eco-Baby (bibs, diaper changing pads, and toddler art kits--all sewn from up-cycled rice bags). Soon after that we're going to launch Eco-To-Go, including lunch boxes, picnic bags, and many other items. If you're not our friend on Facebook yet, go there to get the latest updates on our artisans and their products. We'll announce our new product launches there, so you don't want to miss any news! Thank you for all your support as we work with this amazing group of women!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lifestyle of Interruptability

A month is a long time to go without a blog post. And a lot has happened at HCHT in the past month. Some things were great: We had our prototype party (that I'll write about this weekend with pictures) and found out that a talented, thoughtful and amazing young woman we've asked to move to Austin and be our intern is going to come. You'll hear lots more about Kelsi; we can't wait for her to get here! We had some new artisans at our last meeting and saw some that we hadn't seen since November. One of the new artisans is the aunt of Ku Lo, whose new baby Anna was on our babies post. Ku Lo's aunt picked up a prototype project to help Ku Lo out and made two of the cutest purses out of basmati rice bags. They are adorable--hopefully we'll be ready to roll with those soon. I love the super sewers!

This has also been a hard month for our little community: Ma Lay's husband, Ibrahim, was dying on a mattress when Caren and I went to see them one Tuesday night; he had not had any food or water for four days. They didn't want to call a hospital because they have no jobs, no insurance and no Medicaid (they were denied coverage--don't get me started). We called 911 and the chaos of the next several minutes was gut-wrenching. After a month in the hospital, Ibrahim is out, but still in very poor health. He had some kind of surgery and experienced renal failure. His wife was in the hospital with diabetes. Their four children are being cared for by the community and their aging grandparents. We can't always understand the specifics (nor do the refugees, most of the time). Their bewilderment and anguish has kept me awake at night. I have no idea when they will be able get a job; the supplemental income we offer is like sticking a finger in a leaky dam. We can't fix this situation.

Some of our weavers, the Mehs (Meh Mo, Koe Meh, Oo Meh and Bo Meh) are sisters. They lost their dad to cancer last week and Caren went to the funeral. I'll let her tell the story, but I'll just set it up by saying she was the only non-Burmese face out of more than 60 people and there was a eulogy played on beer bottles. We grieve this week with our beloved Mehs--after losing their homes, languages, some husbands and children, two brothers and their families (left behind in Thailand), losing their father is sadder than I can think about.

We've had other things come up that have kept us from moving forward on our prototypes or our plans for the next stage these last few weeks. Sometimes, we're almost paralyzed by all the great things we could be doing and haven't started yet. And yet, as I was reflecting on this last month, I realized that we've been doing exactly what we should be doing. Our goal has never been just to make money for these women; we're involved in their lives and we're their friends. Because they need money for their families, we're doing what we can to help out. Our relationships are at the heart of what we do.

Some of our best friends live in Brazil in a fairly unusual situation; they opened up their home to all these people who needed a place. Now they have an amazing ministry for homeless people out of their home, six friends who live in their home (probably more by now!), all kinds of teenagers who find a home with them. It's not all always convenient or comfortable, but my friend Ali talks about how they've cultivated a lifestyle of interruptability.

That's our goal at HCHT.  This whole thing started at an "inconvenient" time for us--Caren and I had small babies and careers, enough on our plates for years to come. This ministry has not always been easy or convenient. People ask me sometimes how we can be busy with so many things and the answer is, sometimes we're busy, sometimes we're not, but we're always available. Whether their families are in crisis or in the slow process of learning about life in this bewildering country, how can we not help? We didn't set out to be available, nor to be interrupted. I have struggled with this from the beginning because I'm a planner. NONE of this fits into my plans. How grateful I am that God has carved out this space in my life anyway. We don't have more time than other people to teach ESL class, make jewelry prototypes, work on the website, make marketing plans, start grantwriting to take the organization to the next level, sit and visit with our friends, help them with crazy hospital bureaucracy, set up appointments with case managers, and be involved in their lives. Fortunately, our time is not our own--we don't "have" any time at all. In God's time, these relationships came together. They bless me and, on occasion, I'm able to bless them. God interrupted my plans and I have been transformed because of it.

So if we don't always talk about the products, know that our hearts and our hands are full with the women we love. Join us in prayer for them--the stress they walk in would flatten me. Help us spread the word about their beautiful things--they are fierce workers for their family. And if you want to come be involved in the godly messiness of this ministry, let us know. We love working with people who are available to having their lives interrupted.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Slow and Steady

Huang Nan (with two of her three children)
 in foreground, Ma Lay and Ko Meh in back.
Our last Hilltriber artisan meeting time was during a school vacation day. We never know what to expect when kids are out of school. We could either have 20 in attendance or 2. On this particular day, six women showed up, but three of the six (half the class!) were first-timers. So the plans for the day were set aside and we (once again) went over the basics of HCHT--what we're all about.

I went on for about 20 minutes about how this is really about friendship and community. And how hopefully the side effect was a little bit of extra income from the products we are able to sell. I explained how the organization pays for supplies through donations and by holding back 10% of sales. Each artisan receives the remaining 90% of the purchase price. And I explained for the ten zillionth time that we have no control over what will sell and what won't. It is truly up to the market. At the end of the discussion, the new artisans seemed so excited to start.

And that's when my heart drooped a little bit. Here they were (one woman had been in the country for 5 days), brand new and eager. And here I was, excited about the prospects of this coming year, but feeling in a state of constant catch-up. So I just put it out there.

"So, all of us that work with this organization, we're all parents of small children. We're slow. Sometimes so slow you'll be frustrated. Things on our end will take longer than we would like. And I want to say sorry ahead of time. And I want to say we love you, and we will be trying our hardest to help you earn some extra income, but our families come first."

I felt odd laying it out like this, but as the translation came through, I saw the largest smile spread widely across the face of Huang Nan, an emerging leader in the group. She locked eyes with me and said simply, "Us too."

What a gift she gave me! She snapped me out of my self-centeredness and reminded me that we're all in this together. We're all mothers struggling to find time to balance our many roles. They just happen to do it all without a complete understanding of the English language, personal transportation or internet access. Can you imagine what your week would look like if you were responsible for 21 meals for a family of 5 (on a budget!) and could only get to the grocery store by bus? Or how you would handle medical bills, insurance claims and government forms written in a foreign language?

Just another reason I'm so thankful to know the beautiful women of Hill Country Hill Tribers and feel blessed to be able to share their hard work with all of you. However slow I may be at doing it.


Thursday, February 10, 2011


We meet with the artisans every other Monday morning. It's a chance for us to catch up and talk about the products. We have English class and learn some things in their languages. My favorite part, though, is seeing the babies.

This is Ku Lo's newest daughter, born just a few weeks ago. Couldn't you just eat her up?

Meh Mo is never without a baby in her arms. We spend most of our time passing the babies around, but she always gets first dibs.

Dr. Salai is a baby whisperer and a translator. These were the oldest and youngest people at our HCHT meeting that day:

Huang Nan and her daughter. She won't give me the time of day; I love the sassy ones. 

This is me with Huang Nan's baby boy. He is such a lovebug. Look at those chubby cheeks!

We try to make it a policy to invite new volunteers with cute babies to cuddle: 

My own baby (almost two now!) reading books with two of the of the sweet girls from the Village Center. She's growing up thinking these girls are about the coolest people ever; she's convinced she's one of the "big girls." They got a chance to practice their reading for school and she soaked up the story.

I love raising our children together. At the Village Center, we're firm believers that it really does take a village!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Double Contest (Contest for the Artisans, Giveaway for You)

WE HAVE A WINNER: Congratulations to Shea (Comment #3). She was chosen thanks to the help of www.random.org! Thank you all for all of your helpful comments and suggestions. Stay tuned for more!

We have a contest (really a giveaway) for you to enter as well! We need your feedback on our new products. Read this post about the results from our Jewelry Contest and then enter the giveaway to win a $20 voucher toward any products on our website!

Our goal is to join traditional art forms and up-cycled materials (old t-shirts, leftover yearn, sticks from my backyard) into beautiful new products. Last class, we gave the women some sample supplies, some ideas and some simple directions. To be honest, we weren't sure what to expect. The jewelry they created shows us how artistic they are. And their smiles and laughter showed us how much fun they had. OK, more than once they were laughing at us trying to say "thank you" in Burmese, Karen, Karenni, Chin and a few other dialects.

But their joy is evident in their work. Here are the contest winners:

The winner in the earring category is Loon, who has only come to HCHT twice. But she proved herself to be one of our most creative and resourceful artisans. She wrapped the traditional yarn from their woven bags around two metal circles and added some beads for these beautiful earrings. I think they're ready to be worn right now! These are probably my favorites.

Ma Lay and Huang Nan tied in the necklace contest. Ma Lay figured out how to combine regular beads with cloth-covered beads. We didn't teach them the process for making these; instead, through trial and error, she figured out a beautiful pattern that's really creative.
I love Huang Nan's double strand brown necklace. Can you see the rings she put in there? And look at the closer picture--her workmanship is pretty amazing! I didn't even know Huang Nan could sew--she's the knitter in our group (we'll put up some hats and gloves from her on the website soon.)

Last was Meh Mo, one of the Karenni weavers, who used traditional weaving methods to twist and tie the yarn with beads.

Meh Mo won the bracelet category with this simple but interesting design. By twisting the yarn in an intricate pattern (the picture doesn't do it justice), Meh Mo made this double string of beads into a bracelet. I like this design, but I think I'd like it even more if we could use acorns or some other natural product the women could find in their neighborhoods. If you have any ideas of how to turn something natural from the Austin area into this kind of bracelet, let us know! 
The last bracelet is one we're working on with the women. The word for "peace" in Burmese (Nyein Chan Yeh) has been burnt into this hand-whittled bracelet; the yarn from their traditional bags has been braided to around the word. Peace in Burma is the constant prayer of our artisans. We want these bracelets to be a reminder to pray for peaceful regime change in one of the most violent and war-torn countries in the world.

Your turn! We want your feedback--what do you like about the jewelry? What would you change? Anything, big or small, will help us move forward with our product development. To reward you for your help, we're going to enter you in a contest as well.

You can win a $20 voucher toward any product you purchase at www.hilltribers.org. Here's what you need to do to enter to win:
  1. Share this giveaway on facebook, twitter, through e-mail, or by word of mouth. Tell your friends about our artisans and the work that they're doing here in Austin in as many ways as you can.
  2. Write a comment on our website telling us how you shared about HCHT. Then give us feedback on your favorite product or how you would change any of the prototypes. We'd love to have as many people as we can helping to make these products more beautiful and marketable.
  3. If you tweet and post on facebook, write two comments! Each comment will enter you to win the contest.
The giveaway will end at midnight on Tuesday,  January 31. We'd still love your feedback after that, but make sure you get your comments in by then to enter to win $20 off our products! We can't wait to see what you think!