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.


  1. Love this post! So happy for Huang Nan to have the opportunity to share her beautiful talents with the world.

  2. Amazing. All of it. I'm so happy to hear your joy dear friend and to hear of Huang Nan's empowerment. And I can't wait to buy one of those necklaces! Love you!