Monday, May 23, 2011

Modern Tribal

If you know me, you know I am the farthest thing from a fashionista. I particularly hate shopping malls. I rarely wear jewelry. And the first purse I carried was a diaper bag. So we often laugh about how I ended up in a position to market handbags, purses and accessories. (See how I just did that?)

I've always thought that God uses our natural talents, inborn personality and "spiritual gifts" for His good. And it's true. But I've learned that he also works through our weaknesses, challenges our insecurities and molds us through our mistakes. And I think He has a particular knack for turning our weaknesses into strengths.

So, fashion and me. I think I gave up on it about the time these came out.

But ever since we've been focusing more on product development, I am constantly scanning a crowd and checking out the choices people make. It started out as research, but I've discovered how fun it is to see someone's personality in physical form. I've always loved good design--graphic design, interior design and architecture--but now I'm seeing how good design can be wearable (and responsible to the people who created it). Jessica summed it up best when she described wearing Huang Nan's new necklace a few weeks back. For me, what is so exciting about my re-entry into caring about fashion is that it coincides with learning to care more about the people who create it.

So I was super happy to be in town for the Renegade Craft Fair last weekend. Not only was I surrounded by good design, handcrafted artistry and unique fashion choices (animal tail belts anyone?), but I was in the presence of the wonderful people who made it all. I was like a kid in a candy shop. In the trendspotting department, my job was easy. Practically every other booth featured tribal themes made modern. Check 'em out.
Featured above: Homako, Leah Duncan, Thief and Bandit, Scarlett Garnet, Courtney Fischer and Jamie Spinello.

Good news for our the artisans of Hill Country Hill Tribers--they have this "tribal" trend down flat!

- Caren

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Poetry Videos

I can't tell you how much I enjoy the Refugee Poetry Reading every year. Super excited children meet slightly nervous college students, consume pizza and write poetry, and then travel together to an intimate reading where they have the chance for an hour to lyricize their memories and learn from other people's poems. It's a beautiful evening that few things can dampen, not even a mike I forgot to turn up, a bus stop just behind us, spilled hot chocolate and that sudden rush of nerves no amount of preparation can fix. I was deeply proud of both college students and Village Center kids alike. Here are videos of a few of the kids (I didn't get all of them, sadly).

The first one, Htoo Hti, is the tiniest little sparkler of a kindergartener and the next is her thoughtful, brilliant sister. I get tears in my eyes every time I watch them--I cannot believe we met themwith her mom, Heh Ler Paw, three years ago. Htoo Hti was a baby then, Eh Tan Nah a serious toddler, and they're speaking English better than me by now. It's such a pleasure to watch the children of our artisans grow so proud and strong in their new home.



Say Htoo Paw, Not Do Hen's daughter. Not Do Hen is one of our favorite weavers; we can't speak the same language, but we often laugh ourselves into tears trying. Not Do Hen is funny. Say is bright and sweet.

Nishi gets so nervous every year, but she lives for this day.

(These were taken outside on my iphone, so forgive the quality! I'll try to upload a few more soon.) Thanks to my great English class for making this such a special and memorable event. What were your favorite parts?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hill Tribers and Health Care

There have been a lot of blogs this week taking place in a Rally to Restore Sanity, not the Jon Stewart one, but one focused on how Christians talk to one another. It's no secret that most of us are Christians at HCHT, but we come in peace. We work with anyone and everyone happily.

But I want to talk a minute about being a Christian and some of the things I've heard in Christian circles about health care. I realize health care is a difficult and complex political issue. I have a lot of friends who have children with complicated medical situations and I realize that not one solution suits everyone. But while this debate has been raging amongst people around me, with often very ugly generalizations made about the "poor" who need to get a job, I thought I'd weigh in on what I've seen.

I have spent the last three years working with refugee immigrants in the Austin area. In that time, I know of maybe three families who have had to get serious medical care and did not have a job. All of the other families had at least one person who was working as many hours at as many jobs as they could get to pay for the basic necessities of their lives. Many of them have several children and the women are often not literate in their own language, much less English (which is why we started our non-profit in the first place, to help those women make supplemental income weaving and sewing products to support their families). In those three years, we have spent countless hours on the phone with MAP, Medicaid and Medicare, talking to Volunteer Clinics, dentists, OBGYNs, in the emergency room, at children's hospitals, in labor and delivery--you name it, we've been there.

We are NOT equipped to deal with the medical emergencies. By we, I'm talking about the 5-10 of us who are friends with the refugees. When my husband Jonathan and I started dreaming about a non-profit, we made a list of things we could handle and things we were not doing. Number 1 on the list of things we could not handle were medical issues. We have tried our best not to get too involved, to direct our friends to the right agencies, or to put ourselves or our church in a position of paying for medical coverage. Our philosophy has been the approach of the refugee agency here in town: they want to help refugees figure out the bus route so they can go to the appointments themselves rather than relying on their American friends to do everything for them.

But there are some situations we simply cannot or will not walk away from, some boundaries we run helter-skelter across. Three months ago, we found Ibrahim dying on a mattress in his apartment, vomiting what looked like blood (and turned out to be beetle nuts they all chew). We called 911, knowing we were getting ourselves in way over our heads. A month later, he was out of the hospital after several surgeries and the possibility of dialysis. No one in their family has a job yet; we're not sure how they're going to make it. The medical bills are piling in, including that phone call for the ambulance we made, and yet we would do the same thing over again. They had to have medical coverage or he would die.

I visited a church once in which they spent much of the class time talking about "those people" on Medicare, taking their tax money and having babies (someone's suggestion was that we sterilize a woman after her first baby on Medicare. Yeah.). I'd like to tell you: "those people" deserve health care too. Their children deserve good medical treatment just as much as my babies do. The working husbands who have jobs without health care flat-out CANNOT pay for it. The women are covered when they're pregnant, but that's about it. They all deserve to not make the choice about whether to go to the doctor or feed their families. That's not a hypothetical choice, by the way, but a real one we see all the time. It's rent, groceries or health care. Guess which one they pick? "Those people" are dealing with a system so jacked up that we, the American friends, have spent up to 20 hours on the phone on one day with Medicaid being looped back and forth to the exact same people. I speak English and I don't know what's going on most of the time. I'm getting my doctorate and I can't figure out most of those forms. How people who don't speak English are supposed to navigate this system is absolutely beyond me.

I don't know the answers (I suspect they're not political), but this is more than a debate, these are real life people who really just need medical coverage. So if you'd like to have a rhetorical conversation about health care, great. I suggest, however, that you come spend a day in their shoes first. Meeting their basic human needs is something all of us, Christian or otherwise, should be passionate about.

(If you disagree with me, these are Jessica's opinions, not necessarily those of everyone at Hill Country Hill Tribers, but we're all pretty sad and ticked off at how hard things are for the working poor, so it just might be!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Refugee Poetry Reading

This Saturday night at 7:00 pm at Dominican Joe, my UT English class is hosting one of my favorite all time events, the Writing in the Margins Poetry Workshop. I (Jessica) am an Assistant Instructor at UT and I teach a class called Reading Women Writers to some great students. At the end of the semester, UT my students lead a poetry workshop in which they teach the elements of poetry to elementary through high school students, the kids from the Village Center. I love it when I can combine two things I love: my English students and the Village Center kids together in one room is a lot of fun. This culminating event gives the UT students the opportunity to teach how formal elements come together to create a poem, how literature can excite and energize younger students, and how their academic concepts can be used outside of the classroom. The Village Center kids get the chance to watch college students in action and see how easy and rewarding it can be to learn.

 As part of our course readings this semester, my students read selections from a book by Ann Jones called War is Not Over When it's Over. Jones spends time with refugee women all over the world, including the Congo, Sierra Leone, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, and Burmese refugees in Thailand. The book was difficult for me personally because we work with people from most of the places she visited, but the section about Burmese refugees was especially poignant. The refugees in the pictures look just like our artisans and many of the came from the camp Jones chronicles. The issues they described are ones I've heard over and over again from our friends here in Austin. One of the most important reasons most of the refugees said they remained in camps instead of going back home to Burma was the education of their children. In the camp, there are schools, in Burma, there are not. The reason is devastatingly simple. This is also the reason almost all of our artisans left Thailand and came to the States. The idea of starting over in a new place is daunting and overwhelming, but the draw of educating their children makes it worth it for them. The discomfort they face is nothing compared to the opportunity to give their children a future.

The above picture of Say Htoo Paw, whose mother, Not Do Hen, is one of our weavers, captures my real reason behind this event: The poetry reading gives me the opportunity to help the refugees fulfill their dream of educating their kids. By giving their incredibly sharp children a taste for how fun it can be to learn, we're also blessing our artisans. And that makes it worthwhile on every level. As Michael Scott would say, win-win-win.

And the kids LOVE it. 

Here are a couple of my favorite poems from the Village Center kids from last year's poetry reading:


I like to learn new things because I know
Something I didn’t know before.
In Africa they would teach us a lot
Of math and my dad would have me
Practice when I got home.

My teacher pushed when I didn’t know
It, so that I would get to know it.
Getting the problems right makes me
Feel good.

Max the Tiger
My name is Max the Tiger,
And one day I was hungry.
I hid in the tall, green grass
To frighten my friends.

My friend pig, said, “Go away!”
            And pushed me soft. 
            I had to leave,
            So I went to Cici’s.
I had no money.
I tried to scare
            The people there.
But they didn’t run.

The manager said,
“If you have not money,
You get none,
So get a job instead!”

I went to school.
I learned a lot.
I learned science, running, reading, math.
I got a job cleaning, and earned enough
To go back for some pizza.
But I was five dollars short!
With a little more work, I got a little more money.
And now I live in Cici’s forever
With all the crunchy, cheesy pizza I want!

If you get the chance this weekend, come to Dominican Joe, get great coffee, and listen to some fantastic poems from some of Austin's rising young poetry stars.