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