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.