Jan

30

The Possible Begins Here : learning to overcome our fears

Smog. Smells. Chaos. Kolkata we meet again.
I began the week sitting down with Justin, an intern from Freeset who has been working with customer service and database management for the past year. I said I want to learn from all the processes that Freeset employs to get bags made and out to customers. Justin said “You want to learn from our processes?” He wasn’t sure they were worth emulating.

Now don’t mistake that response and think Freeset is a chaotic mess. Far from it. But it’s not easy managing almost 200 women in a four-story dilapidated complex full of small-bedroom sized production areas. They’ve been making it work for almost 13 years. Cutting is on the bottom floor. Printing is on a covered section of the roof. Sewing is in three small rooms on the second floor. And the bags are finished on a terrace on the third floor. It’s not necessarily a well oiled machine. It’s more like a creaky sewing machine with a ton of different mis-matched attachments. But it definitely gets the job done.

As a bit of a perfectionist, my goal was to come in and learn about the production process and go and develop a streamlined, gloriously efficient version of our own. I wanted to learn from the black-belts, my administrative sensei’s. But as I sat down with Ahgni the customer service manager, walked the floor with John the general manager and poured over QA files with Deb the production manager, they all shared about the same thing. They’re doing a few things right and there are a ton of things they want to fix.
There was more than a bit of frustration in all of them. But they love their work and they’re passionate about using their talents to enable more women to experience freedom from the sex-trade. When Kerry started Freeset, he didn’t wait until he had all the details, or until he formulated an air tight plan. He found a way to make it work because freedom is just too urgent of a need to wait until he got it all figured out. 

A lot of us have dreams. Sarah and I do too. And what keeps so many of us from diving headlong into these dreams is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of making a mistake and maybe plain-old-regular-strength, fear of failure. I don’t want to be the one who drops the ball or misses a crucial detail. I don’t want to be the reason why it didn’t all work! And yet freedom is indeed too urgent of call. Our lives have far too much purpose than to just sit, holed up in our little electronic cave and wait for all the uncertainties to melt away before we venture out. 

All the people we met with gave us tons of wisdom and advice. But in the end they all said about the same thing… learn what you can and then go and do it, and you’ll figure it out as you go. And so we shall.
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Jan

17

POSSIBILITIES PROJECT // DAY 10 // Beginnings

Today was a culmination of a lot of experiences for me. This day seemed to mark the beginning of something. I met our first five potential women that could be sewing our baby blankets. We prepared an initial intake interview to get a sense of their current situation and I had a simple sewing sample for them to complete to assess their skill levels.

I greeted each and every individual women by shaking their hands and learned their names…Rani, Rachel, Latika, Beena, and Philomina. Most of these women were my age or younger, but looked 10 times their years. They have never been employed in their lives and their husbands are either day laborers or do menial side jobs. Many of them survive on 500 rupees a week = $10. One of them is HIV+. They struggle with making ends meet and very few of them have savings. But despite their condition I was met with beams of joy.

I came in with low expectations of their skills and was surprised by what they already knew. Freeset faces issues of literacy and even fine motor skills. These women could count, measure and follow instructions that I gave them even with my own limited communication, they understood what they needed to do. After completing their sewing task, I asked them to do their own self-evaluation and compare their sewing sample with mine. Part of my own teaching of empowerment is not to just tell somewhat what to do, but to help them see for themselves what needs to happen. This becomes much more internally realized and acts as a better motivator than someone telling them what to do. Most of the women were able to point out their own areas of improvement and I also had the other women give them critique of their work. One woman even helped Nate fix his torn eyeglass case.
In the end, I desire to foster an environment of community, not just a place of work. I desire a place where these women can come and be sisters and encourage each other to be champions of excellence in their work. I also desire for them to know that they are all truly valued and precious and not just a “worker”. I pray that as we continue this project that people will see the cause behind our product. Yes, it’s a beautiful blanket, but it has a much deeper story to tell, it’s a story of hope and promise.
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Nov

30

POSSIBILITIES PROJECT // DAY 8 // Trivandrum : Fresh Air

Trivandrum is like a breath of fresh air. The swaying palm trees and the sprawling beaches reminded me a bit of my own childhood in Hawaii. Keren and Promoth, our partners with Women in Rural Development picked us up at the airport. Their bubbly two year old daughter gave us a big hug!

Our journey continues here as we begin dialoging with Keren and her father Moses Swamidas about developing the sewing center. Their stories are unique. They are Dalits. Dalit means broken or suppressed. The Hindu caste system is made up of four main castes or classes. Dalits are considered so low that they are not even in the caste system. They’re social and spiritual outcasts (and thus “untouchable”). And because of this they’ve suffered alarming discrimination and have not been given equal access to gainful employment and a proper education.

Moses and his family lead an organization that seeks holistic renewal among the Dalits: social, physical and spiritual. They are revolutionaries fighting an uphill battle, advocating for the rights of their own people. Many choose not to hear their pleas, but they continue to fight and have done so for almost 30 years.

Keren has shared with us her own personal journey as a Dalit woman. Dalits are the lowest; but to be a Dalit woman is the lowest of the low. In school she would often avoid telling her classmates that she was a Dalit fearing they wouldn’t befriend her. Many Dalits are also darker skinned and the Indian culture tends to prefer fair skinned people. When it comes to the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, many families shy away from darker skinned people, labeling them undesirable and even calling them ugly.

My hope is that through our work, we would begin changing these perceptions. Providing dignified work and a fair wage will stabilize families writhing in poverty and provide resources for their children to get a proper education. Education then opens doors for the next generation to compete for better jobs and a better living.

 

Education and relief from poverty also closes the door to opportunities for labor and sex trafficking. Families will no longer need to sell their daughters to feed their families. And boys and girls will be able to explore their inborn gifts and talents and understand their inherent value as beautiful children of God. Our hope is that they will NO longer be called undesirable, ugly or untouchable. We’ve seen courageous people in Kolkata redeeming the lives of those who’ve been in the sex-trade. Our plan is to work at the source and stop it from the beginning.

 

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