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! 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 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!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Planning to be Present

Special thanks to Tara (a incredibly inspiring missionary in Haiti) for posting this quote yesterday:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.” ~ Henri Nouwen

Nouwen speaks right to the heart of the what we've struggled to keep in mind as Hill Country Hill Tribers has (slowly) grown over the past 4 years. We're not called to "have plans and organize people around an urgent cause." We're are called to know these women by name, to listen to where they come from and share our own struggles with them.

This past year, more than ever, we've had time just to be with the women. To truly hear about what is important to them. To understand more of where they come from and what they dream for the future. And they've been able to see us make mistakes and laugh with (and at) us. It hasn't been the most organized year. We haven't sold thousands of products. The artisans are not rolling up to Monday classes in gold Rolls Royces. But we are slowly learning more about who they are and building priceless friendships.

We have goals for Hill Country Hill Tribers this year. We're excited about helping develop new products, expanding English classes and creating more income for these struggling families. But we're heading in the wrong direction if we let these goals stand in the way of our "ministry of presence" alongside some of the strongest, funniest, most brilliant women we have ever met.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Village Center

The Village Center is an apartment in the Villages at Lamar apartment complex that three churches rent together. It is not a big space (it's only a 1-bedroom apartment) and it is not glamorous. There are often Cheetos smashed into the carpet. The bookshelves need to be reorganized. The lamps tilt at wonky angles. But it is one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever entered.

Almost two years ago, those of us at Westover Hills who work with refugees began meeting people from two different churches, Austin Stone and Hope in the City. The refugees we were friends with were all living in another apartment complex at the time. We kept running into the same people, these American faces in the living rooms of our Burmese, Burundian and Iraqi friends. When a crisis hit, we exchanged phone numbers and e-mails and banded together to help our friends. We found that these Christians were the kind of people whose hospitality ran deep, who were adaptable and flexible and creative. We had no ideas about their doctrinal stances on minor issues, whether we agreed on worship styles or what their buildings looked like. Instead, we knew them because of how they loved.

When many of our refugee friends moved to a new apartment complex, Villages at Lamar, these three churches set up a meeting place in the neighborhood. The apartment came together within a few weeks (which in church administration time is like a nanosecond). We share the space. On Monday nights, Hope in the City helps the area kids with homework. On Tuesday nights, it's Westover Hills. Austin Stone has all kinds of groups in and out during the week. Our fourth of July and Halloween parties were unbelievable. We've handed out Christmas gifts the last two years--there's been a line out the door of the 1-bedroom apartment that has made people in the community stop and stare.

Hill Country Hill Tribers meets every other Monday morning at the Village Center. The front room is our classroom and meeting space; the back bedroom is the kids' play area, where our children love on and play with their Burmese friends. Simone and Maizie are fascinated by Htoo Hti's missing front teeth. Two of the Karen babies are a month younger than Gabriella and we've loved watching them take their first steps together. We prayed in tears for the country of Burma when the election was tearing apart the country. The prayer was in Burmese, but we shared their pain in that tiny living room.

So often you hear stories about how churches do not get along, how they're fighting over tiny divisions. The Village Center is an example of what happens when churches forget what separates them and work together for the sake of love. The space may be small, but the impact is limitless.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Story Behind HCHT

When we began this blog, we were in the middle of preparing for Artreach, our flagship event in November. We have run told some of the stories of our artisans and hinted at who we are and what we do, but we want to take time in the next few weeks to fill in some of those gaps. To begin with, let me introduce who I mean when I say "we"--Caren George and I (Jessica Goudeau) are co-founders of HCHT along with our families and our dear friends. We're the ones who blog on this site and run the daily operations at HCHT. I'm the Educational Development Director and Caren is the Marketing Director, but we both just do what needs to be done. I tweet most of the time ( and Caren teaches a great ESL class many Mondays. So far, we are volunteering our time and not getting paid. In her real life, Caren is an amazing graphic designer and copyeditor (as you can tell from our website and all of our media stuff). I'm a PhD candidate in Inter-American Poetry at the University of Texas, working on my dissertation and teaching an English literature class. We've slowly folded HCHT into our lives, learning when to have boundaries and when to rush into crisis (that's another post). We have husbands that are co-parents with us of our small children--Caren has Maizie and Anderson, I have Simone and Gabriella. Our oldests are both four, our youngests two. Our kids are growing up alongside their Burmese friends (also another post).

Jenny Rich and Erika Pierson have founded HCHT with us, are on our board of directors, and share with us in all of these relationships. The four of us have put on Artreach for the last three years to have a place to sell the bags. Caren's husband Jason's official title is Man behind the Curtain. My husband Jonathan is our Jonny-on-the-Spot. They do everything from watching kids to running events. Jonathan's mad spreadsheet skills have kept us afloat since Caren and I are good at many things, but not math. Meagan Brown comes every Monday and is a friend to us and the refugees. Her many years of refugee experience have given us valuable insight and blessed all of us immensely. There are others whose involvement with this has been critical (the Brimberrys and Fran Patterson chief among them). And of course, I'm not mentioning the many Burmese artisans and friends whose relationships are the key part of this work. Their stories we're going to tell in the next few weeks and months to come.

HCHT is not a traditional non-profit. The bags are kept in the closet in my spare bedroom/playroom. We don't have an office and we certainly don't oversee volunteers. We have asked a few people to come and share with us in the relationships we have with our artisan friends, like our intern over the summer, Mary Poole. We are committed to growing sustainably and slowly, always watching our artisans to make sure that they are central to what we're doing. The people who work with us enter into the chaos and flexibility of the refugee experience. People who feel uncomfortable being in their homes or want to be more structured than adaptable probably would not fit well with us. Our artisans' lives, desires, needs and wants are the basis of HCHT. If they left tomorrow or lost interest in selling their products, we would fold HCHT gently away. This is for them, not us.

I want to be very clear--this is not really a story about Caren and I and our team and the work we are doing. This is a story about what we have learned from these beautiful women. We have made some mistakes over the last three years. We have been humbled by their resiliency, blessed by their perseverance, amazed by their humor, touched by their desire to give back to us, taught that sometimes we need to receive from them in order to maintain the equal friendships that we all value. In the next few weeks, we'll write about how this work began, how things have changed in the three years that we've been an official organization, and many of the things we've learned from our friends. We'll also give some clear idea of the structure of our time with the women: what the Village Center is, what we do in ESL class, how we pay them and keep the bags straight (which is quite a feat, let me tell you!). Mostly we want to share with you the beautiful story that is being acted out in all of our lives. It is amazing how people who share a common love can overcome language and cultural barriers to live their lives together in a unique community. To me, that is the greatest story of HCHT.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jewelry Contest

We started the year off with a bang at Hill Country Hill Tribers. After a break for Christmas and New Year's, it was great to see the artisans again. We were amazed that they braved the 30 degree weather to come meet and, as always, it was great to play with all the cute babies again. 
 We love these women and it's so fun to laugh and be together again, even if we're often laughing at our lack of communication! As always, our beloved Dr. Salai translated for us. At 83, he is still one of the sharpest and wittiest people we've ever met.

One of our goals for 2011 is to introduce some new products. We have been concentrating on bags in the past, but we'd like to explore jewelry as a new product line. We want to continue to connect to the women's cultures and traditional art while making things that are current and marketable. To do that, we're committed to using the up-cycled materials that help our products be responsible and sustainable.

So we're holding our first ever jewelry-making contest! If there's anything that we've learned working with our artisans, it's that they are amazing and creative women. Rather than showing them what to make, we brought in several examples jewelry and asked the women to be creative.

We're focusing on fabric-covered beads that will combine up-cyled cloth with elements of their weaving and the way they twist the thread in the traditional hill tribe bags. 
 We gave the women supplies and asked them to come up with some prototypes. They took a long time looking at the examples and pictures. They divided up the beads, fabric and other supplies.

 Stay tuned for results here on the blog. We'll hold the contest on January 24 and later this month, we'll have a chance for you to give us feedback here and on our facebook page. We can't wait to see what they come up with!