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.

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