Roisin Duffy-Gideon worked as a Natik Fellow in Chiapas, Mexico from August 2012 to May 2013. A few weeks ago, she officially joined the Natik Board of Directors. Below, she reflects on one of her projects for Natik and the some of the lessons she learned over the past year.
It was sometime in September, after four or five hectic weeks of touring Natik’s partner programs in Guatemala and Mexico, that Brooke and I arrived at a product design workshop in Zinacantan, an indigenous municipality in Chiapas. The women participating were members of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (Women Sowing Life), a cooperative that had recently started receiving small loans from Natik’s partner organization, Veredas. They were meeting to try out new purse designs presented by a fashion and design student from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico.
Brooke and I weren’t quite sure what the workshop would be like, but we watched as the women quickly put together prototypes of the student’s designs with recycled materials, easily implemented her advice on how to insert zippers, and made plans to circulate the patterns over the following week. We admired their skill, their creativity, and their astounding resourcefulness. And then we asked them how we could support them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they told us essentially the same thing every artisan working with Natik had told us over the past month: “Help us sell our work.”
We mulled over the possibilities for a while, made notes of the times different women and cooperatives asked us for the same thing, and tried to sell their products when we could. In November, I emailed my family some photos of scarves and placemats made by the women, and I received an unexpected response from several people. “These are beautiful,” was the general sentiment. “Isn’t there some way for us to sell them here?”
Helping set up some sort of sales mechanism certainly was not on the list of priorities for the year, but it seemed like an uncommon opportunity: an undeniable local petition and a simple desire and ability on the part of others. Because of Natik’s flexibility and responsiveness to local conversations, I was able to spend the spring organizing the efforts of several people to establish an Etsy shop, and we are currently exploring other ways to expand through internet-based selling. Progress is slow, but it’s steady.
Spearheading an effort like this is something I probably would not have had the opportunity to do working with a larger organization directly out of college. The opportunity was not only affirming, however, but also humbling. I do not have the skill to design or construct these products, to take beautiful pictures of them, or to create a sophisticated accounting and inventory system to track them. The project could never survive if it were “mine.” And yet I hope it will last as my contribution, something that would have happened differently, or later, had I not been present to do it. The experience has given me the confidence to take on challenging projects, the ability to discern when the skills of others could improve my work, and the humility to ask for help and input.
And you know what the best part is? I get to continue to work on this project! Over the past year, I found not only was Natik committed to building long-lasting relationships with its partner organizations, but it was eager to help me to have a long-lasting relationship, too—even after I left. As a board member, I will continue to coordinate at least a portion of the e-commerce project, and I will be able to offer the perspective I gained by working for a year in direct contact with Natik’s partner organizations.