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Doing Good: Global, Women-Run Cooperatives Help Families & Communities

Published on: December 30, 2013

Sefrou Women's Button Cooperative of Morocco

Last week, my family and I went to a market at the Burke Museum in Seattle where women artisans from around the world exhibited their handiwork. The market (a one-time event) was part of the museum’s “Empowering Women Artisan Exhibit,” which runs through October 27.

The exhibit focuses on 10 international women-run cooperatives that provide an economic livelihood to the women and their communities.

Amazing handiwork, including rugs and handbags, felt toys, jewelry, scarves, and baby blankets, are featured. Countries represented include Rwanda, Nepal, Morocco, Laos, India and Bolivia.

Each co-op has a different motivation: preserving a weaving tradition, sustaining the environment, providing a safe haven from violence. Each object represents the power of women working together to transform lives. (from Burke's site)

Snow Leopard Trust

My 10-year-old daughter was excited when she learned the Snow Leopard Trust was one of the local organizations represented in the market. An animal lover, she has frequently donated to the Trust. I encouraged her to interview Olga Alexander, the staff person at the booth.

Ccarves from Corazon Scarves
Scarves from Corazon Scarves

We learned the Trust operates in countries with active snow leopard populations, including Central Asia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. Snow leopards are killed for their fur and also because they prey on livestock, which poses an economic hardship to herders.

The Trust sets up contracts with local communities in exchange for a no-poaching agreement. This community-based conservation approach includes vaccinating sheep, educating communities about snow leopards, and providing economic alternatives to poaching such as  reimbursing herders whose livestock have been killed and paying women for their handmade goods (toys, slippers, handbags), which increases their income by 40% each year.

For these families, who typically live on less than $2 a day, livestock losses by snow leopards used to create great financial hardship and fear – and, sadly, this often led to retaliation against the cats. (from Burke site)

“How can families get involved with the Trust, other than by donating money?” my daughter asked.

“We get large shipments to the office (located in the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford) and families can help sort these items and get them ready for our store,” explained Alexander.

Haiti Babi

I had a chance to visit with Katlin Jackson, the founder of Haiti Babi, which employs Haitian moms to crochet blankets and other baby goods that are then sold back in the U.S.  The money from these sales goes back into maintaining the program and to help employ more Haitian moms.

All too often, Haitian families put their children in orphanages because they cannot afford to keep them at home. In this way, employment by Haiti Babi helps mothers afford to provide for their families.

I wrote about Haiti Babi in this Seattle Globalist article and I asked Jackson what has changed since we last talked. She was pleased to report that she now has several Seattle stores and online retailers selling her goods.  There are now 11 women employed by Haiti Babi, up from seven in April.

Rugs from Women's Work Cooperative

Kennedy Leavens was just 24 when she started Awamaki, a women’s weaving cooperative in Ollantayambo, near Cusco, Peru, in 2008.  Leavens wanted to help this isolated community connect with the outside world, so she started working to help introduce weaving products to global markets.

Feeling inspired by these young women (Jackson is 28 and Leavens 29), I couldn’t help but marvel at their energy and dedication to helping women find economic opportunities to support themselves and their families.

Sefrou Women’s Button Cooperative

Inside the museum, I met Amina Yabis, who runs the Sefrou Women’s Button Cooperative in Morocco, her husband, Simohammed El Yaghiri Ezzaher, and their translator, Gregg Johnson.

Gregg Johnson, Amina Yabis, and Simohammed El Yaghiri Ezzaher
Gregg Johnson, Amina Yabis, and Simohammed El Yaghiri Ezzaher

Johnson had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco when he met Yabis and her husband; they became fast friends. The two of them have travelled to United States several times and this time they are doing a road trip with Johnson as their translator, to show their buttons at various crafts markets all across the states.

Yabis’ husband’s presence reminded me of something Adam Grant, a social science researcher, said in his recent article in The New York Times, about how females help promote generosity in males: “It is often said that behind every great man stands a great woman.” Yabis, who once ran for political office in her community, is a powerful presence in her community, Johnson told me.

These beautiful buttons were very popular. As I was talking with Johnson and Yabis, several enthusiastic customers, including a fourth grader, Ella Bender, interrupted our conversation to buy some buttons.

“I’m going to sew them on a scarf and on some clothes for my doll,” Ella explained.

Yabis demonstrated for my daughter how the buttons were made, an intricate process that took about five minutes for her expert hands to complete.

I asked Yabis what she liked about doing this work and she said, “It gives me great pleasure to help the button makers in my community. Now that the cooperative is running smoothly, the women can use the money they make to help family members who are sick and help children finish their education.”

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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