Women in the World: Emerge Global

By Joanna Francis In 2005, Alia Whitney-Johnson arrived in Sri Lanka as a volunteer during the aftermath of the tsunami. While there, she encountered girls and young women who were survivors of rape or incest and who were testifying in court cases, but who as a result had been cast out by their families and were living in shelters, often without access to education. In an attempt to get to know the girls, Alia sat down with them to teach them beading. One simple act of creativity allowed barriers to be broken down and enabled the girls to express themselves and from there the Beads-to-Business program was born and the organisation, Emerge Global came to be.

I’m sure that most of you who visit this website do not need to be convinced of the myriad benefits of being creative. For me, using my hands and producing something beautiful and tangible has helped lift me out of my baby bubble, off the couch and back into the world, and has done wonders for my mental health. This month, in 'Women of the World', I’m featuring a wonderful little organisation that truly understands the healing and transformative power of creativity and is using it to change young women's lives. I said in last month’s post that I wanted to highlight some organizations that have thought critically about how to use creativity to enhance women’s status and life quality, while empowering them and giving them stepping stones for the future. And Emerge is one such organization.

Alia, Emerge's founder and Executive Director, describes the program for us here at the Creative Women’s Circle:

"Most of the girls Emerge works with have not had control in any aspects of their lives - not even over their own bodies. The first stage of Emerge's Beads-to-Business program is to allow the girls to explore their creativity and personal sense of beauty, to learn to express themselves, and to take pride in this process. They learn to make their own choices again and to be proud and comfortable with these choices".

"In the first stage, girls use existing Emerge jewellery designs (some designed by girls who have been in the program before) but select their own beads and colours. This allows them to learn basic jewellery techniques while also learning to make their own decisions and to respect their own creative process. Once the girls learn how to make jewellery, they then design and price their own jewellery products. Woven into this creative process is a business workbook and simulated Emerge store and bank that teaches critical business skills".

"This creative process is empowering in several distinct ways: First, it cultivates creativity, self-expression, and self-confidence as we encourage each girl to celebrate her personal sense of beauty. Second, through this creative process, girls are able to generate financial capital for which they have ownership. Third, the girls are equipped with business and financial management acumen - they participate in a simulated bead store and bank each week as they select their supplies and they work through a business workbook. In this way, they are developing the knowledge needed to leverage their creativity and support themselves outside of the shelter. Fourth, we use the process to develop the girls’ leadership skills. While they initially focus on their own creativity and expression, in stage two of our program, girls become leaders in the program, mentoring other girls, running the Emerge store and bank. They learn to teach and support others and to respect and encourage other girls' voices. Finally, this process allows the girls to develop a marketable skill that they can use later if they choose".

The  program is led by Sri Lankan women, and the girls involved have a say in how the program is run, as well as having the opportunity to be mentored by women in their community who provide support and guidance.

Emerge is a wonderful organization and program and I urge you to look at their website for further information about the program and about how you can support them. There's also a wonderful video that provides a real insight into just how transformative the program has been for so many young women.

I’ll leave you with some final words from an Emerge alumni…

“An unexpected event changed my life one day. My fate was changed in a way that I never thought it would. It left me at my lowest, heart broken and lonely. At that time, when I was without any help, feeling sad, it was the beading workshop that helped ease my pain and loneliness and helped me make up my mind and console myself. The satisfaction I feel in combining beautiful colors, designing and completing a beautiful necklace or bracelet is hard to describe in words. These workshops have helped me succeed in life and face life as a successful human being to this day. I thank the people who helped me and guided me through this difficult time. Now as my career, I have dedicated myself to teach girls that have faced the same challenges as me. I do it with immense happiness. I believe I can empathize with our girls and be a friend to them. I have had many diverse experiences ever since the beginning of this program. From the savings generated from this program, girls have been able to build their own house and care for their child. I am happy to witness these events. Its good to be part of something that is so helpful to another person”.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 18 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com

Women in the World: A bit of theory

By Joanna Francis So today in the Women in the World column, I’m going to get a bit theoretical. Because it’s easy when writing about women in other countries - particularly developing ones - to become a bit clichéd. There’s a romantic notion associated with working overseas in developing countries… a connotation of selfless altruism, beautiful children, women in colourful fabrics and exotic landscapes. I was caught up in it myself, I must admit.

From seeing celebrities on World Vision television advertisements at an early age, I was taken with the romanticism and adventure of it all and wanted to be a part of it.

The reality of course, is very different. And well-meaning foreigners going in to countries with dreams of saving the world can actually have a negative impact if care is not taken. Projects that work with women, particularly on creative enterprise, can be particularly vulnerable.

In the past, gender issues have been addressed by international organisations as a bit of an “add on”. Issues faced by women were stereotyped and simplified and the root causes of inequality were often ignored. All too often, programs for income generation were introduced without taking into consideration the already huge workloads that women undertook within their families and communities. The ‘triple role theory’ describes women in the developing world as doing reproductive work (raising children), productive work (paid and volunteer labour) and community managing work (such as managing water resources, health care and education).

Looking at women’s work within such a framework, helps to avoid seeing women’s issues in isolation and instead focus on gender relations, the way they interact with all aspects of community life and helps to ensure they are included in all stages of developmental processes.

It also helps organisations which aim to introduce creative enterprise to ensure that they are not adding to the existing workload of women, and not complicating their lives and relationships further. There can easily be unintended consequences such as family tensions, neglect of other duties, community upheaval etc  that need considering. And it sounds silly to say it, but women need to be not only included but to lead the planning of any development projects. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.

Now my apologies if that’s all sounding a bit dry. But I think it’s important when talking about these issues and looking at examples of women in the world doing creative things, that we think a little about the politics behind it. And now on to the fun stuff… next month! We’ll look at a few great examples of when such projects are done well and when they are led and run by the women involved. See you then!

Photos by Vincent Puech

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 18 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com

Women in the World: Quilts, Part Two

By Joanna Francis This month, we continue to have a little squiz at some of the various quilts of the world and examine how they have evolved over time. I mentioned in the last post that one of the things that attracted me to quilting was their ability to tell a story and for a quilt to hold a person or a family’s history and pass it on from one generation to the next.

This quality is what has made quilting such a universal and popular art form and one which has become an inherent part of many communities. North America has a great tradition of quilting, some that you may be aware of such as the Amish quilts dating back from the 1870s and the Gee’s Bend quilts which continue to be made today.

Women from Amish communities used simple yet intricate and structured designs, making the most of offcuts of fabrics and meticulous hand stitching to create something useful as well as beautiful, in keeping with their community’s beliefs of hard work, tradition and self sufficiency. These quilts have become more intricate and bold as years have gone on and have become popular in other parts of the country and indeed the world.

In contrast the Gee’s Bend quilts, named after the town in Alabama in which they are made by African American women, use more improvised designs and simple geometrics and make use of old materials such as worn out clothes and cloth sacks.

In both cases, what has become a decorative art began by simple necessity – keeping families warm in places where there was no electricity and few financial resources. In both cases also, the skills necessary to create the quilts were passed from mother to daughter and from one generation to the next and in this way are carried on today.

While the traditional styles of quilting, similar to the Amish quilts, continue alive and well today, the Gee’s Bend style of bold and modern innovation is certainly creating new interest in this old art form and is more inspiring to many, myself included. I love that ancient techniques and skills are being refreshed and brought to a new audience .

Moving back towards the east again, another example of this renewal can be found in the quilts of Yoshiko Jinzenji, a Japanese artist and master quilter who moves between her homes in Japan and Bali. What’s interesting about Yoshiko’s quilts is not only that they are incredibly intricate and beautiful, but that they seem quite organic and ‘pure’ on the surface, utilising her own hand dyed fabrics, but yet they incorporate the very un-traditional usage of synthetics and machine sewing.

She uses those materials around her in order to be reborn in new creations.

I know that quilting can sometimes seem old fashioned and stuffy, but I love that looking at examples of what others are doing around the world can reveal that actually, it's quite possible to turn tradition into something new, to improvise and use materials that are unusual and unexpected and to create original pieces of art that are both functional and beautiful. There are so many examples of people both locally and around the world making refreshing quilts. Have a search, be inspired, and why not try some yourself...

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 18 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com

Women in the World: Quilts, Part One

By Joanna Francis I wouldn’t really call myself a quilter. More of a collector of fabrics, a lover of pattern and colour and an admirer of the art of quilting. There’s something about it that I find fascinating. Perhaps it’s the ability of quilts to hold and tell a story, to be a part of a continuing history. Perhaps it’s the potential for so much individual expression. Perhaps it’s just that they’re so beautiful to look at, and at the same time, so damn cosy to snuggle under!

It probably started as a youngster while watching my mother hand quilting by the light of the evening lamp. And it has grown and developed as I have gotten older and seen the quilting of different cultures, started my own little collection, learnt a little of their history and now, started making my own.

My passion really took off when I was living and working in Afghanistan. I remember visiting a family in a small village in the middle of winter - freezing, absolutely freezing and there was no electricity. To keep warm, the family had a low and wide table under which they put a bucket of hot coals, and over the table was a huge quilt. Everyone, myself included, sat on the floor around the table, with the quilt covering our lap, and keeping in the heat from the coals to warm our bodies. It was just about the most awesome thing I’d ever experienced. From there, I went to Pakistan and in the back of a carpet shop, I discovered the mother load - shelves of antique handmade quilts. I just about had a heart attack. I spent hours looking and feeling, and listening to the stories, and then painstakingly chose the ones I would take home. If you ask me that old chestnut “What would you take with you in a house fire?”, those Pakistani quilts are quite high up on the list.

Since then, I’ve tried to find out more about them, with limited success. But they are similar to the Kantha or Gudari quilts of Bangladesh and India, which are made using old saris and quilted with a striking running stitch. These quilts are made by women who are still using traditional techniques, including wood block printing and hand dyeing of fabrics. They are techniques that have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, and are being cherished and brought to a new audience today thanks to women such as Australian, Sally Campbell. 

Women such as Sally are keeping these ancient crafts alive and supporting the women who make them, while celebrating the art and introducing them to a new and appreciative market.

I love that such ancient methods of creating, initially intended for purely practical purposes had such a beauty to them that is recognized today and carried on into new generations. Just what quilts are good for.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her one year old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com

Women in the World: Tilburg

By Joanna Francis This month in "Women of the World", I wanted to learn more about what it takes to have a business which works collaboratively with women in developing countries to create and sell beautiful and ethically made products.

Recently I bought a gorgeous bag for my mum (that's her modelling it above!) and was fascinated by the story and ethics behind the label. Leanne Mutsaers is the woman behind Tilburg, a boutique fashion accessories purveyor based in Melbourne, and today she shares her story with us.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history and philosophy of Tilburg?

Tilburg’s story is woven with a rich tapestry of family history and years of memorable travel, which has inspired and unraveled this journey of passion to present beautifully designed pieces to consumers with a social and eco conscience.

Bags & accessories in the collection are individually handcrafted using talent and skill from artisans from around the globe and in Australia and feature natural materials such as hand woven hemp and organic cotton.

It’s all about moving away from mass production & appreciating well made products.

I had been an Art & Design teacher for a few years before I quit full time work – I was tired of teaching design and just wanted to do it myself! I knew it would be centered around handbags as I could never find one I liked and hated the ‘bling’ look. When I lived in London for a few years, I used to keep a book of future business ideas. This was one of them. Making the transition though has been endless hard work, sleepless nights and a lot of sacrifice and money. I have a lot of family members running their own business, so inevitably it was in my blood too. I didn’t want to be one of those people in 20 years saying “If only I had….” So I did.

What drew you to wanting to work with women artists in developing countries and how did you come to be working with these particular groups of women?

One particular trip to Thailand enabled me to have a light bulb moment – that’s where I met one of my current business partners. I came across her shop and products and fell in love with the artisan qualities and natural fibres still being used. That got me very excited and I made a decision there and then that I wanted to work as ethically and sustainably as possible – this was the direction I wanted to take with my business. Then I had to figure out how to get her onboard with me. This business relationship did not happen overnight, it took 2 years and many flights back and forth to develop trust, friendship and a business plan together. She utilises rural groups for hand woven fabrics, and employs local women to make the bags and work in her shops. They are all paid fairly and all of the women I have met at the shop just love their jobs!

 How does the collaborative process work?

The collaborative process works in a few ways. My partner in Thailand creates the bags from start to finish. I have a hand in colours and styles that may work in Australia. We talk on skype often if I can’t get there and we are always talking about new designs, colours, fabrics and production issues. One of the biggest issues we face is that a thing like hand weaving is an art form that is being lost. Many of the young hilltribe people do not want to keep up the art and move to the cities. We are already thinking about what other options we have for fabrics and fibres.

I’m also currently working on 2 other collaborations with Australian artists, and we are feeling our way through that process. A meeting of minds, ideas and talent!

How does being involved improve the lives of the women who are working on these projects?

Being involved and taking an active interest allows the livelihoods of women in developing countries to quite simply earn a living. This may be through maintaining artisan skills in small villages that rely on this as their sole livelihood or working in a shop and learning English. Many of these women also get to make the bags in their own homes, which enable them to look after their family.

Tilburg also donates to charities from the communities I work from – helping women and children.

What are some of the challenges you have faced and lessons you've learned?

My biggest challenge is finding consumers with a conscience about what they are buying. I have watched many a customer pick up PVC bags thinking they were leather, buy a cheaper mass produced item over items made by an Australian business that are slightly dearer. I’d love to see consumers a bit more savvy about what they are buying.  If you find something you love, spread the word! The other challenge is internet exposure and advertising. How do you compete with the big guns?!

Another hurdle has been learning how to deal with cultural differences. I work out of Indonesia and Thailand – both very different in the way they conduct business. At times completely frustrating, but the more I learn, the more patient I get. You just have to roll with the way they do things and work your business around that. Developing trust with business partners is a huge investment of travel and time. You just can’t do it over an email. The best relationships are formed in person.

Where can we find out more/ buy products/ assist?

My products are available online at www.tilburg.com.au

I only do small runs so if you see something you like, grab it! I am also stocking in small boutiques. You will not find Tilburg in a shopping centre. As I said earlier – if you find something you love become part of the tribe and spread the word. That’s the only way businesses such as Tilburg, with a different philosophy can make its mark and keep doing great things.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her one year old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. It goes without saying that her house is a mess. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com