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.