Behind the Scenes of a Fair Trade Artisan Order

profileJenn Miller is Natik’s Guatemala Project Coordination fellow, living and working in Santiago Atitlan since July 2014. Jenn has worked in the non-profit world for ten years, and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work with a specialization in immigration and migration, and a Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. Jenn has worked extensively in the areas of program development and administration, community organizing and advocacy, and international social work. Most recently, Jenn held the position of Immigrant Family Resource Program Manager at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago.

I am talking with Juan about his work in Guatemala City when Dolores walks in carrying three bags of brightly colored hilo (thread). She’s been at the market searching for the precise colors needed for the past half hour or so; the thread vendor’s stock was not organized by color, so Dolores had to patiently wait for him to find each individual spool she’d requested for the Just Apparel custom order we were working on. With the thread now purchased, Dolores and I gather up the sixty pieces of carefully cut fabric that have been stenciled with the client’s design and head to the roof of her house for the moment the Just Apparel team has been working toward for the past few months – the 25 indigenous women can begin their work in our Fair Trade artisan’s collective.

Our latest custom order began when a client from the Netherlands contacted Just Apparel to inquire about fair trade embroidery. This inquiry began the process of determining the specifics of the design – it’s dimensions, proportions, level of detail, thread colors, fabric type – all of which must then be communicated to our coordinator in Guatemala, Dolores, who then relays information back to the customer service team in the U.S. based on local availability in Santiago Atitlan. That information is then passed along to the client, until the client is satisfied and all of the details have been confirmed.

working on JAOnce the basic design is settled, the artisan women who complete this work were asked to create three samples (one of each design requested) to send to the client to further ensure her satisfaction, allowing her to see the work in person and request any adjustments needed before proceeding with the order. On the ground, this means Dolores must visit the women of the collective individually to present the assignment and provide the materials. Dolores visits the women in their homes in the outlying communities of SantiaJASmallgo Atitlan; Just Apparel respects cultural work patterns and nurturing families, so the women complete their work from home, where they are able to care for their children and attend to their households as needed. When the assigned piece is completed, the women travel to Dolores’ house in the city to hand it in, at which time it is carefully checked for quality and accuracy, and then each woman receives her wages. After the samples were completed, they were mailed directly to the client for review. Some minor proportional adjustments were made and communicated along the Just Apparel information highway, and we were ready for the next phase of the process.

With the modified design finalized and transmitted to our field team in Guatemala, pcutting the piecereparations for the embroidery could begin. Working over the course of two days, we purchased the required materials, carefully cut the fabric, stenciled the design onto each fabric piece, and sorted the thread colors into their proper order for each design. Then Dolores called each of the women asking them to meet at her house the next day to receive their assignment – the remaining work for this order is now left in the capable hands of the women of the collective, after the coordination efforts of Dolores, myself, our U.S.-based volunteer team, and several local Guatemalan volunteers.

Back on the roof, the women arrive in groups of 2 or 3, many of them have traveled a long distance, some with their children in tow, and Dolores begins our meeting, speaking to the women in their native language of Tzu’tujil. Dolores explains the assignment in precise detail, answers the women’s many questions, and passes around samples of the embroidered design. The women help one another understand the design, prepare their thread, memorize the order of the colors, and gather their materials. They return to their homes to complete the work with a deadline of two days for completion and submission – which all of them meet.

On the due date of the order, women are stopping by Dolores’ house throughout the day, embroidery in hand. As with the samples, Dolores completes a careful quality check of each piece at the time it is submitted to ensure it meets our high standards, and each woman is paid her fair trade wages for each completed piece. When all sixty embroidered flowers have been turned in, we do a final quality check and cut away the extra fabric (to reduce shipping weight and costs), and at last, take the boat across beautiful Lago Atitlan to the international shipping center in Panajachel. Months of communication, coordination, and dedication boxed up and sent off to Rotterdam, and another custom order is complete!

The End is The Beginning!

yo'onik carnival!

As the flurry of behind-the-scenes text, technology, and strategy consultations of our social media information blitz draws to a close, we prepare to shift gears and return our attention to the reason we exist: our partners.

Coordination by consensus has its own rhythm and nuance, and like all genuine communication, it takes time. The energy, effort, and willingness of everyone to stick with the process no matter what it takes to get the job done is also reflected in our partner relationships. Thanks to everyone who made this campaign possible.

With renewed energy and lots of new friends on Facebook, we are preparing to immerse ourselves in doing whatever it takes to contribute to program growth of our partners in Guatemala and Chiapas.

We are moving in the direction of cultivating foundation-funding sources, but individual donors will always be an essential part of our sustenance as a grassroots organization.

There are certain things that big funders don’t fund, and that’s why we need YOU. Natik has existed since 2003 on small individual donations, which has given us the flexibility to walk the thin line between the real and the ideal.

Natik envisions universal education and economic empowerment for those in conditions of extreme poverty, and we create programs that maximize everything that comes our way to accomplish that: professional expertise, manual labor, in-kind donations, and money.

Right now, we are asking for money.

Click any of the project links below, click the GIVE button on the right, and contribute what you can.

Or write a check and mail it to:

PO Box 55071
Boston, MA 02205-5071

Thanks for your generosity, and please know that whatever you are able to give makes a difference!

Technology, Good. People, Better!


On the second to last day of the fundraiser, volunteer blog editor, Kyle Farrell, gives his take on how Natik communicates as tech-users and people-advocates.

I have never met any member of Natik in person. How strange this digital age is.

All international development works by leveraging resources outside a community to advance the community, and technology has expanded what those resources can be and how they are attained. As discussed in previous blogs, Natik can recruit worldwide volunteers and build new projects with international collaborators. Email and IM have been effective, but nowadays they can plan social media campaigns with “Google Docs meetings” (which are convenient for minute-keeping), video chat college classes with Skype, monkey a newsletter with MailChimp, as well as run an Etsy account for Just Apparel, a Google Analytics tracker for the website, and a crowd-fundraiser with Razoo.

Natik is pretty hip.

And they have to be. Without embracing the improved methods of communication, Natik would lose the ear of international affiliates (like you and me) to other organizations who have kept up. Many of you reading this got involved with Natik, at least initially, through the website or one of the aforementioned methods; you might just have easily paired with another organization.


Technology is just how things are done today, but what makes Natik impressive, I think, is that in this dance of international communication and resource leveraging, they remain true to their mission: face-to-face, back-and-forth communication with the communities whom they assist. It is telling that within the course of this fundraiser key collaborators have bounced between Mexico and Guatemala for meetings with different projects and different communities. They knew they could potentially lose internet connection, and they knew the challenges that could result in maintaining an international fundraising campaign without it. Nevertheless, the focus remained on the communities and the people in Santiago Atitlan and Chiapas. Communication with international collaborators is necessary, but it does not compare to the need to maintain communication with the communities themselves.

As a drummer, it’s difficult for me not to see an analogy here to the rise of drum machines. Electronic drum sets and sampling technology have improved tremendously, with new methods for capturing and producing sound. A whole industry has emerged, and while its tools keep music fresh, they are still just tools; sometimes congas just sound best. It’s a good thing that Natik can mix, but it’s better that they can still play.Roisin MSV

Don’t be afraid to stay in touch with Natik! You can donate or sign up for our newsletter on the homepage.  You can even like us on Facebook!

Being There!

anita smart Day 8 of the fundraiser, Anita Smart reminds us that service learning trips are fun and honestly appreciated by all parties involved. You, oh-potential-future-service-trip-participant, can make an appreciable difference in our programs!

Did you ever try telling a story about a situation that was off-the-charts powerful, poignant, or certifiably CRAZY, and you were unable to convey the intensity of the experience to your listeners? Did you ever end one of those frustrating moments with a resigned smile and say “I guess you had to be there…”

VIKI R GUATThat is how many of us who work in grassroots development feel much of the time. The intensity of what we live as we accompany the process of figuring out how to survive at the bottom of the financial and power pyramid is nearly impossible to convey in words and images. You just have to be there. So we organize trips that give a taste of of service, learning and fun. Natik’s goal for our trips is to attract people who desire to learn something valuable about the world and to do something useful with their vacation dollars.

We hope that after a carefully orchestrated week of getting to know the context and circumstances of our partners, we will have new allies in the challenge of finding fresh ways of making a difference in the lives of people who don’t have enough money, education or privilege to do it by themselves.

making tortsThere are voices in development circles that convincingly argue that spending money on service-learning and mission trips is nothing more than “feel good” tourism and a shameful a waste of money. The logic is that it would be much more effective to stay home and donate the money. The problem with that argument is the assumption that the only important element of those types of trips is the ratio of how much money is spent on the trip versus how much is spent on donations. It also assumes that the only possible result is a superficial easing of guilt for comparative privilege.

Even though (of course) donations are an element of our survival as a non-profit, for Natik, the trips really aren’t about the money. Our aim is to transform hearts and minds. We make every possible effort to establish circumstances that give visitors the opportunity to do things that can honestly make a difference.

For those who benefit from the generosity of foreign volunteer labor, there is usually a sense of surprised gratitude that there are people from so far away who care enough to participate in the challenges of creating something for the community, even when they don’t share language or culture.

For the Natik family, our greatest pleasure is being present when those moments happen, and knowing there are a few more people out there trying to explain the inexplicable, who end with a smile and “I guess you had to be there…”

For information on organized trips:

Experiments in Service-Learning: Learning for Students, Academics and Natik

Rebecca-6-199x300Day 7 brings insights from Board member Rebecca Galemba on Natik’s utility for students, academia and international development in general!

I first become acquainted with the IHF, which would evolve into Natik, as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. Initially it worked through university chapters connecting students with international development organizations. Though partnerships flourished for a few years, IHF soon suffered some of the problems inherent to such organizations such as limited funding and a revolving door of students.

There are many valid criticisms of short-term service-learning trips. Some argue that they only serve to enhance the barriers between “us” and “them” since they provide a shallow understanding of social difference, politics, and inequality and at worst, may perpetuate “poverty tourism.” However, there is also a lot of potential for fruitful synergy between NGOs, students, and community members. Indeed, my experience with IHF taught me the powerful impact that energetic, bright, and adventurous students can have on a grassroots organization.

In 2012, a few years after IHF transitioned to Natik, we attempted a new approach to service learning. Bridging my own position as a Natik board member and a faculty member at DU, I began to integrate case studies of issues facing Natik into my graduate course on international development. We communicated and worked with Natik’s Chiapas-based staff via email, Skype, and Google chat. This relationship gave Natik exposure to academic research, and gave the students some practical experience of the realities of development work.

Our experiment had its issues. Some students were more engaged than others, and we also soon grasped the power dynamics that made it seem like the privileged university students were giving advice to the grassroots NGO. Moreover, due to language and technology barriers, Mexican and Guatemalan program staff and participants were often left out of the exchange between the students, Anita, the Chiapas-based American interns, and myself. Yet so many development programs never admit the failures.  As Edelman and Haugerud argue, the inability to learn from mistakes due to the hiding of failures is one of the main problems plaguing international development.

Using it as a learning experience, we decided to write about this collaboration — its successes and failures — so its example could be accessible to the academy, the NGO world, and the public.

I believe that Natik is at the forefront of learning from its mistakes, and exposes issues so that they can be removed or mitigated. Currently, I am developing a topics-based course that will build on our previous experiment. The course will allow students to work solely with Natik for an entire academic quarter. Our goal will be to learn about development issues in Mexico and Guatemala and to co-develop a project or assessment with Natik, its communities, and a local university, UNICH. To better engage with the community, the students will also pursue a hands-on 10-12 day service-learning trip to implement a project or assessment with UNICH students and Natik staff and community participants. We hope that this model can foster a long-term relationship between DU and Natik while providing a more engaged and informed experience for students, Natik, and its partner communities.

In August, new collaborations with other university and volunteer groups will be discussed and more improvements will be made.  Natik’s flexible structure enables them to test new models which can not only profit students and be utilized in academic research, but can help Natik more effectively benefit the groups with whom they work. We look forward to what new challenges come.

There is plenty to learn about Natik’s service-learning trips and other volunteer opportunities. Explore our volunteer page and service-learning pages for more ideas. For more information about these programs, write:

Meet the Class

For Day 7, let’s meet the students! The Secondary School Scholarship Program is run by Natik and aids high-achieving students who cannot otherwise afford it continue their education after sixth grade. 

Maria is in her second year of general education studies. Because her parents did not have the opportunity, so completing her education is very important to her. Maria plans to become a secretary.
Jose Byron is completing his general education studies in school. He enjoys attending school, has many friends there, and plays soccer at school as well. His favorite subjects are communications and language.
Juana is currently in her third and final level of general high school studies. Her favorite subject is social sciences because she loves cultures and their history. Juana plans to study psychology to assist those with mental illnesses.
Oswaldo loves maths and sciences. which he feels is very applicable to every day life. In the future, Oswaldo dreams of being a reputable doctor. Luckily, he is not afraid of seeing blood!
Maria is completing her general education studies. In Home Economics, Maria gets to cook, a great passion! She often cooks for her two older brothers, and will teach her future family the importance of education.
Salvador is studying business administration in school. He has big dreams for the future – he plans to go on to study law at a university and become a lawyer, and also open own his own business, perhaps a factory.
Sandra’s favorite subject in school is accounting, loves long division and wants to be a business accountant or administrator. Sandra believes that education is important because it teaches young people to respect one another.
Veronica is in general education studies. She is creative and loves drawing people and animals. Her parents did not receive an education, so it is up to her to create a better future, and to set an example for her sister.
Candeleria is studying her third year of general education. When she finishes, she plans to go on to secretarial school, which will allow her to begin working and support her family, though she also dreams of the university.
Mathematics is Eliza’s favorite subject in school because “there is a solution to every problem.” Always full of energy and smiling, she says that education broadens our knowledge. She is studying business administration.
Floridalma has a great passion for children. While she is an only child herself, she helps her aunt care for her young cousin, and she hopes to teach children good habits. She believes that education is the key to her dreams.
Maria cannot contain her passion for teaching! Since January, Maria has been completing a Special Education practicum where she teaches first-grade. Most important is that her students apply education to their lives.


Because their families lack the resources, students in the Secondary School Scholarship Program would not be able to continue their education without support. Of course, more students require assistance than the program can afford. Giving helps more students join the rosters and take on an education. Click the button below to donate!

The New Just Apparel!

Brittany and Dolores

On Day 6, officially past the halfway point of the fundraiser.  Just Apparel, one of the most successful programs that works with Natik, has over the last year expanded their offerings and sales regions internationally. Brittany Burton (left, in blue) goes into how she helped form the new JA!

I first heard about Natik during a class at the University of Denver entitled International Development: Cross-Cultural Perspectives taught by Natik board member Rebecca Galemba. Throughout the course, we learned a lot about the challenges that come with working on an international development project with people from different cultures, languages, and backgrounds. I didn’t know it at the beginning of the course, but I’d soon be experiencing many of those challenges myself.

IMG_3010I came into my graduate school career with a particular interest in Latin American culture, women’s empowerment projects, and intercultural communication. Natik’s work focuses in all three of those areas, so when I heard from Rebecca that Natik was hiring an intern for the summer I knew that I had to become involved. I was hired on to work as a Project Development Intern for Natik’s Just Apparel project in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, and began my official work that spring.

Just Apparel is a cooperative of Mayan women artisans who live in the beautiful lakeside town of Santiago Atitlán. When the Just Apparel project first started, the idea was that the cooperative would produce customized, hand-embroidered sweatshirts, t-shirts, and tote bags for teams and college groups in the United States. However, when I came on board, we decided to try a new experiment: we would work with the women to design products that may appeal to consumers in the U.S, and the women would embellish the items with traditional Mayan embroidery. My job would be to work with the women to help design the products, and sell the items on our e-commerce portal and Etsy store.

We juggled with lots of ideas, but our first round of products ending up being small handbags and placemat sets. It took several back-and-forth meetings at the women’s houses, bringing over examples of what we liked and what we didn’t like, and many delicate conversations to get the products the way that we wanted them. Why was this such a challenge? First of all, the women mainly speak their native Mayan language, so conversations were translated from Spanish (my second language), through Dolores (Spanish is her second language), and into Tz’utujil for the women to understand.

IMG_3115Additionally, most of the women didn’t grasp necessarily what a placemat was used for, since this wasn’t a typical item in their households. For our second round of products, we made headbands out of the extra fabric that was left over from the first round, and describing the concept of a headband was a huge communication challenge as well. We had several laughs when the women were trying the pieces of fabric on their heads— to them a little piece of fabric on your head seemed utterly absurd!

Despite these struggles, we’ve seen great success with this new product experiment. Since the project debuted last summer, we’ve almost sold out of our second round of products; from Santiago to San Diego to Syracruse, we’ve sold products all across North America through our Etsy and WordPress eccomerce portals. I continue to volunteer for the project with brainstorming, project development and product shipping. One of the best things about working with Natik is that you really do become a part of an international, cross-cultural, collaborative Natik community—Natik’s newest fellow Jenn has just moved down to Santiago and her work will continue where I left off. I can’t wait to see what kind of products the women will come up with this summer!

IMG_3111 IMG_3080

If you are interested in learning more about how Just Apparel helps ensure these female artisans earn a fair living wage in Guatemala, or want to purchase some of their beautiful work, check out their website:

Mujeres Sembrando la Vida…and Growing Success!

UntitledDay five brings Kyla, and her stories about the women in Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (translated “women sowing life”) is a multi-faceted artisan cooperative that focuses on economic empowerment and ecological sustainability of Tsotsil women and their families in Chiapas, Mexico. Mujeres Sembrando la Vida is one of the programs helped by Natik’s partner Veredas.

This summer, I have had the privilege of being invited into the home of Yolanda, Juana, Cristina, their mother Magdelena, and her mother Maria. They live in the outskirts of San Cristobal in Zinacantan, a Mayan town of 4,000 people.

Magdelena is well respected in the community, and she joined her first artisan collective 16 years ago. Her daughters too play key roles in the Mujeres Sembrando la Vida collective by hosting meetings, translating between Spanish and Tsotsil, and finding new projects to generate income and promote health for the women in the collective.

When I sat down with Magdelena to talk about her early days working in a collective, she told me about the difficult situation she faced when her husband died in 1998. The oldest of her four daughters was 15, and at the time, they were living in her husband’s hometown, away from Magdelena’s support networks and extended family. When the opportunity arose to form a group with other women and take on a leadership role, Magdelena hesitated. She was nervous about only knowing only a few words of Spanish and unsettled about how her daughters would manage if she spent more time away from the home. She asked her oldest daughter, Juana if she could take on more responsibilities around the house. Juana agreed, and the family’s work with collectives began.

Claudia, the designer talks about filling up the space of a tortilleroSince then, the family has been part of several collectives of women who support one another, improve their community, and advance their well-being. Magdelena’s two oldest daughters have graduated college, and people from the community of Zinacantan look to Magdelena’s family for guidance and educational support. The family’s most recent work, with Mujeres Sembrando la Vida, has included training for new and different artisan designs, opening a small collectively run shop in downtown San Cristobal for the sale of the women’s products. They have also found and administered government funding for the construction of low-smoke stoves and ecological toilets in homes, growing mushrooms and vegetables, and reforestation efforts. The clients of their artisan goods include individuals and organizations throughout the world.

Click here to check out their products on Etsy. 

I can’t imagine all the ways in which this incredibly talented group of women will continue to support one another and better their community. I feel blessed to be able to accompany them this summer and am looking forward to hearing about their future endeavors.

To learn more about the Veredas program and how you can support artisans like Magdelena and her family!

The Model of La Puerta Abierta

Amanda Flayer

Day three of our fundraiser comes with some wisdom from Puerta Abierta founder Amanda Flayer on curriculum development and her hope of replicating her program’s success in new communities!

2014 marks the seventh anniversary of La Puerta Abierta Learning Center, and the development we have seen in that amount of time is remarkable! What began as a small room with many books and a part-time librarian has now grown into a full-time learning center offering Pre-school, Kindergarten, and First Grade education, Early Stimulation (Mommy and me) classes, a teen reading circle, a study/educational center for scholarship students, and a traveling library program that visits eight schools in the community.

La Puerta Abierta grew with my daughter. When we began, I was pregnant and realized there were no Early Stimulation classes for mothers and young children available, so with La Puerta Abierta we began to offer them. When my daughter reached pre-school age, we recognized that early childhood education classes were severely lacking in our community. So La Puerta Abierta started a pre-school class, followed by a kindergarten class, and then a first grade.

Now, our programs are established and well attended by community members of diverse backgrounds who recognize the benefits of our early education curriculum. La Puerta Abierta’s curriculum is unique in that we focus on providing early childhood education that is rich in critical thinking and creativity – areas of childhood development that are often overlooked in the standardized or systematized educational delivery models common to Guatemalan schools. In a typical year, La Puerta Abierta’s programs serve more than 600 children and teens in Santiago Atitlan, instilling in them a love of literature and providing them a progressive educational environment.

As our programmatic offerings have grown over the years, so has our staff, both in terms of number and professional development. We began with only one teacher, and now have a team of eight dedicated staff members, many of whom have supported La Puerta Abierta since the early years. In fact, two of our staff were previous scholarship recipients who completed their studies and came to work for us! As they invest their time and efforts in our projects, so too do we invest in their professional development, with an emphasis on providing continuous education for our teachers.

Looking forward, our goal for 2014 is to formalize our work in La Puerta Abierta so we can share our processes. Our early stimulation classes have been serving the Santiago Atitlan community for five years now, and in that time, we have created a curriculum and a model that is not only successful, but replicable. Thus, we are in the process of documenting our work in the form of an Early Stimulation Manual that could be used, in combination with training, to implement our programs at learning centers in other parts of the world. The formalization of this project will allow us to assist other centers in creating similar programming to serve their communities.

For (S)he’s a Jolly Good Fellow!

yo'onik meeting san cristobal

Anita Smart

For Day 4, Anita Smart, Natik’s director, tells what exactly our fellows, interns, and volunteers do for Natik (hint: a lot), and some of their unique challenges.

In addition to the marginalized Mayan communities committed to taking responsibility for changing the circumstances that contribute to their poverty, Natik interfaces with a steadily growing flow of U.S. fellows, interns and volunteers looking for professional international development experience. From an administrative point of view, working with and depending on a staff that is paid minimal stipends (or not at all) contributes to a low overhead, which means more donations can directly benefit our partner programs. From a personnel management point of view, it means that everyone who is participating is doing it with 100% conviction that they are contributing to something that matters.

Natik’s commitment to cultivating long-term relationships with our fellows, interns, volunteers, and our partners can be complicated and time consuming, but it is what allows us to remain responsible and effective. Shared loyalty, trust, and honesty allow for meaningful conversations and creative collaborations that are natural to being in a relationship.

Natik is a nexus point for the cultures and languages of the United States, Mexico, and the Tzotzil and Tz’utujil Maya Cultures . Even looking at the motivations for community development we can see some drastic differences. The dominant U.S. cultural norm of individualism has historically been balanced by a team spirit that encourages volunteerism. In Mexico and Guatemala, selfless effort of individuals on behalf of others tends to operate at the family level, but is not usually integrated into the dominant culture. Contrasting both, indigenous Mayan communities tend to have a sense of service for the good of all that is quite strong and not individualistic, as long as the dominant culture has not destroyed the indigenous culture.

Working together is complex, yet transformating. And with a volunteer staff who take deliberate, often exhausting, care to be understanding, we know transformation will be beneficial for all participants, individually and collectively.

BrookeElliotJuanDoloresHeidiRyan_IMG_3550In the end, the best part for me is seeing the sparkle and shine when there is work to be done! The other day, after an intense, two-hour text and design meeting for this campaign, one of the participants said “That was fun! We haven’t had a two-hour meeting in a long time!” Those who enjoy the real difficult work that goes into making a real difference for those people who really need it get tagged as “Natikers for Life!”.

The Natik Fellowship Fund allows us to pay small stipends to talented, committed professionals to live in Chiapas and Guatemala for six months to a year.  The work of fellows is crucial to being able to interface the privilege of advanced education offered in the U.S. with the intense desire of our partners to change the circumstances of poverty in their communities through educational opportunities and economic empowerment.

To donate online, click here, click the Give button on the right and indicate you are donating to the fellowship fund.

Or write a check to:
Natik #42972 PO Box 55071 Boston, MA 02205-5071