Teen Sexual Violence: What Our Media and Culture Is Missing

The year 2013 has definitely brought about a shift in cultural consciousness. For the last year, our culture and media have finally started to critically examine rape culture and the prevalence of sexism, harassment and sexual assault worldwide. We were horrified by the tragic events in Steubenville and New Delhi, India. These assaults touched and angered so many of us and triggered an urgent call not just for dialogue and awareness, but also, for education and systemic change.  To that end, the Title IX movement, which is working to fight campus rape culture, launched earlier this year. Its mission is to work to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Survivors and allies have filed federal Title IX and Clery Act complaints at various universities in the U.S. for not providing the needed resources and for covering up rape when it happens.

For the last year I have wanted to add my voice to those who are covering these movements, but I knew I needed to learn more before I wrote about such an important issue in the public sphere. So I read and researched like crazy, and most importantly, listened to the hundreds of survivors who told me their stories. Even though I was thrilled by the increased visibility of this issue in the mainstream media, as I gained more knowledge I started to become frustrated with the vast amount of misinformation being propagated by our media and culture at large. A few weeks ago, I finally felt ready to co-author a piece on the media framing of teenage sexual violence for The Huffington Post. I am publishing the slightly longer version here, along with related articles and research that go beyond media framing to provide resources for parents, teens, and educators to end sexual violence. This will be the first of several pieces on sexual violence.

Last month, teenager Daisy Coleman bravely wrote a piece that detailed how another student from her hometown of Maryville, Missouri raped her and videotaped the assault. Her story echoes a familiar pattern of other high-profile cases involving teenagers, such as the Steubenville, Louisville, and Saratoga cases. While we find it encouraging that the mainstream media has been covering these cases, too much of the coverage has dismissed substantive research in favor of perpetuating various myths about young people and sexual assault.

We need journalists to re-frame the tone and questions that guide their reporting. The majority of the pieces covering teen sexual violence fall into superficial tropes that focus on the role of alcohol, the victim’s clothes, and sexting by “impulse-driven teens.” By fixating on sexting instead of what these teens are truly doing, which is “sexual assaultexting,” the media detracts from the fact that these boys are choosing to sexually assault another person and then shame them through social media.

Additionally, many journalists use language that deflects blame from the rapists and subtly shapes how readers understand teen sexual violence. Journalists tend to use passive phrasing, such as “she was raped,” which is problematic because it does not focus on the person who committed the crime. Too frequently, these cases are referred to as “scandals,” which only serves to sensationalize what happened while simultaneously obscuring that it was actually a crime. Often media coverage relies on terms that imply consent, such as “engaging in” and “sexual activity,” indicating a lack of knowledge about what constitutes rape. Ultimately, the way in which journalists cover teen sexual violence reflects a societal reluctance to label teenage boys as perpetrators.

These narratives support the “boys will be boys” myth that results in blaming the victim and the idea that teenage boys cannot be held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps this explains why, in the coverage of the Steubenville rape case, reporters from multiple media outlets slanted their focus to be sympathetic to the rapists and blamed the victim. Who can forget CNN reporters expressing how “difficult” it was to hear the perpetrators convicted of rape crying in the courtroom, because their “promising lives” had fallen apart? But what about the life of the girl who they assaulted, who has to live with the rape for the rest of her life? This question is often absent from mainstream media coverage.

What we find so frustrating about this kind of reporting is that it ignores the fact that research has revealed the extent to which rape is a calculated and premeditated crime. Several studies have concluded that young people are able to understand refusals in many different contexts. Thus these cases are not accidents or miscommunications as the mainstream media often suggests: they are a result of boys not respecting a girl’s lack of consent. Understanding that perpetrators have specific attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, and cognitive frameworks that shape their decisions to override this consent and that need to be addressed by comprehensive socialization and education” is a different framework than what the media usually defaults to, which is that these young rapists are simply confused boys who rape by “accident.”

Additionally, while journalists often focus on the victim’s consumption of alcohol as causing sexual assault, research shows how perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to facilitate rape. Therefore, when media coverage focuses on the alcohol usage of victims, they are giving rapists the social license to operate because these men know that women who are drinking are seen as less credible when they report sexual assault.

Furthermore, research on college rapists mirrors studies of convicted sex offenders, which reveals that the majority of rapists are serial predators who often begin committing sexual violence as adolescents. Thus the cases we see in the news aren’t accidents or a ‘blip’ on a boy’s otherwise flawless record — they are more often than not the start of a long career as a serial rapist.

Given this research, it is distressing that articles that cover teen sexual violence pay little attention to how we fail to educate teenagers in ways that actually prevent sexual assault, such as comprehensive health education at school and in the home that focuses on teaching sexual respect and what constitutes sexual consent. Journalists need to work on reframing how we understand sexual violence prevention, because the research clearly shows that the only thing that causes sexual violence is someone choosing to assault another person. There needs to be an emphasis on preventative education which has been proven again and again to be a successful tool in helping to cut sexual assault rates amongst young people.

The tragedy of many of these cases goes far beyond the crime of sexual assault. It is also the dozens of young people who witnessed them and did nothing. We need to teach adolescents to act ethically in these situations. With bystander education, in which individuals are taught how to intervene when they see someone in trouble, these cases could have been prevented. Media coverage should stress the importance of bystander education as a successful way to empower young people to stop rape. Examples of noteworthy programs include the New York State Department of Health’s toolkit for bystander intervention and the University of New Hampshire’s Know Your Power campaign.

Most importantly, what needs to be clear in media coverage of teen sexual violence is that sexting, alcohol, and the Internet do not cause rape. The true issues at hand in these cases are disregard for other people’s bodily autonomy and lack of empathy for sexual assault survivors. Until those working in the media understand this, misconceptions regarding teen sexual assault will continue to be perpetuated to a wider audience.

When journalists ignore the research on sexual violence and toolkits about how to properly cover sexual assault and instead resort to superficial and sensationalist reporting, they are hurting efforts to end teen sexual violence. The media should not only do a better job when covering these stories, but also work to help educate and shape public opinion about what works to stop sexual assault. We owe it to young women like Daisy Coleman to accurately tell their stories and be allies in fighting sexual violence.

Resources for Teens:

Want to take action? Check out the I will End Sexual Violence and love is respect campaigns, as well as the Representation Project and SPARK movement to see how you can get involved in ending not just sexual violence, but the sexualization and objectification of young people in the media!

Resources for Parents:

The Conversation You Must Have With Your Sons

Hey Teenage Boys! Worried About Steubenville? Don’t Be.

Boys Will Be Boys, But Not Always Men

What To Tell The Next Generation

In Steubvenville Rape Case, a Lesson For Adults

Additional Resources for Educators:

The Effectiveness of Empathy-Based Rape Prevention and Bystander Training

Importance of Targeting Intervention at Teens

Five Creative Ways That Students Are Fighting Rape Culture

Why People Don’t Intervene When They Witness a Sexual Assault, and How We Can Change That

Please, No More Dating Guides

General Resources on Sexual Violence and Rape Culture:

Mapping a Global Pandemic: Sexual Violence Against Women

Rape Culture 101

This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like

How Slut Shaming Becomes Victim Blaming

The Five Ways Sexual Assault Is Really About Entitlement

My Related Posts:

Why We Need Independent Media

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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

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Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

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Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

In December 2015, a food blogger published a series of posts on DallasFood.org investigating how the Mast Brothers – an “artisanal” chocolate company known for its “bean to bar” production and  commitment to authenticity and transparency – did not always make its chocolate from scratch and is less than transparent about its production sources.  As this Quartz piece noted, the story highlights how a company’s marketing, which in this case included beautiful packaging and bearded, hipster founders, can successfully launch a product of questionable quality into the market and help shape it into a consumer and media darling.

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
My Related Posts:

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Misee Harris: Why a Black Bachelorette May Matter More Than You Think

"I'm totally in love with this island and $40,000 ring — I mean, you."

“I’m totally in love with this island and the $40,000 ring — I mean, you.”

The Bachelor. For 25 seasons, millions of viewers have watched a familiar formula of women crying, helicopter rides as first dates, and so many red roses given and ‘I love yous’ exchanged that have, with the exception of three cases, ended in break-ups. The show isn’t exactly a rousing advertisement for the institution of marriage, but rather a venue for many contestants to pursue pseudo-permanent reality television careers and fratty cruise events where they can hook up with other like-minded, shallow people.

Can you tell I’m not a diehard fan? (And yes, I know I enjoy my Housewives. But we all have our contradictions, and I’m living with mine every day, gfs).

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Pediatric Dentist Misee Harris campaigns to be the next Bachelorette.

So it may surprise you that I’m actually a big advocate of Misee Harris’ social media campaign to become the first black bachelorette. The pediatric dentist from Tennessee is an absolute knockout who also has a huge heart, given her commitment to mentoring young women and volunteer efforts with children who have autism. She has a precious video of her with her dog, is sweet with her Facebook fans and quotes 2 Chainz. Nuff’ said.

I'm annoying and shady and nobody liked me...thank God I'm white! It's like, totally awesome.

I’m annoying and shady and nobody liked me … was I picked because I’m white? That’s like, totally awesome.

So why the social media campaign? Although Harris applied and was chosen to be a contestant on a previous season of The Bachelor, she ultimately withdrew because she was concerned about ‘being another token.’ Given that all 25 seasons of the franchise have featured white Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and that there have been very few contestants of color, this is totes a valid concern. Here is what bothers me. Misee Harris is pretty much perfect. I mean seriously, how many people do you know who possess all of her exceptional qualities? When you consider some of the other not-so-perfect contestants on the show (Vienna Girardi anyone? Or Brad Womack? OK those were the only seasons I watched, promise ;)), it seems a bit ridiculous for creator Mike Fleiss to make the claim that diverse contestants don’t come forward, and that when they do, it feels a ‘bit forced,’ like ‘tokenism.’

An earth angel, not a token! (photo courtesy of Jaimie Tull of Tull Studios).

First of all, isn’t there an argument to be made that viewers have been ‘forced’ to endure ten years of nearly all-white casts that for many of us, do not reflect the diversity of people we engage with in our daily lives? Also, tokenism in this context would imply that a non-qualified contestant was picked simply because they added diversity. But to dismiss a beautiful, successful, charitable woman because of the color of her skin? How does that constitute anything but systematic racial exclusion? Seriously dude, check out the Wikipedia definition of these terms before you preach such foolishness, fo’ real.

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I was SO heart-broken a week ago, but now I’m the new Bachelorette—score!

Furthermore, why is it that the Bachelorette must be a former contestant? Isn’t the formula getting a tad stale? I mean really, every season, it’s the same deal—white woman gets ‘heart broken’ on The Bachelor, sits in Chris Harrison’s hot seat during the reunion show for ten minutes and cries about how she is ‘looking for love’ and has finally moved on from the Bachelor who she fell in love with over those two dates she had with him, only to come back a week later smiling and radiant as she is announced the new Bachelorette. We. get. it.

Now I know there are many peeps out there who will argue that The Bachelor isn’t a show that contestants of color should strive to be on in the first place, and that it might actually demean an accomplished woman like Harris. I have a few responses to this, and I highly recommend that you act out a Snap! as I make each point, so get ready. First of all, regardless of whether or not you think Harris should be on the show doesn’t take away from the fact that Harris wants to be on the show. At the end of the day, she should be granted an equal opportunity, period. Yes I know, she could have been a contestant on The Bachelor and won a chance to become the next Bachelorette, but considering that very few contestants of color have gotten far on previous seasons of the show, the odds of that happening were very much against her. Secondly, The Bachelor is one of television’s most popular franchises that is watched by millions of people religiously and has, like it or not, cultural influence. To give a show an all-inclusive title like ‘The Bachelor’ implies that there are going to be all kinds of contestants on the show, not a whitewashed view of relationships and marriage that as Jezebel put it, “couldn’t be further from reality.” I mean seriously, if Mike Fleiss is going to be so blunt about his reasons for excluding people of color, then he should have named it ‘The White Bachelor.’ Or, ‘The Fratty Bachelor.’ Or even better, ‘The White, Fratty, Straight, Christian Bachelor.’ You know? Keep. It. Real.

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

Quick side note. Similar criticisms were leveled at Lena Dunham of the show Girls, for featuring an all-white cast in the middle of Brooklyn. And guess what? Dunham admitted that had been an oversight and promptly addressed the lack of diversity in the second season. I love me some self-reflection. LOVE.

Lena figured it out, so why can't Mike?

Lena figured it out, so why can’t Mike?

Finally, it is precisely this cultural permeability, this accessibility, that can actually make a show like The Bachelor a potentially powerful tool for creating conversations on topics around relationships and some other pretty serious issues. Doubtful? OK, let’s take the example of Sean Lowe’s season, which did feature a fairly diverse group of contestants, including an Iraqi woman named Selma Alameri. Former Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky took it upon herself to write a blog entry titled “Selma’s boobs, Roller Derby, and Tierra Drama” in which she makes fun of Selma’s cleavage and criticizes her intent to stay true to her mother’s wishes and not kiss Sean on national television.

(Brief aside/rant: There’s nothing I love more than when someone like Ali, who has reaped the benefits from The Bachelor for all the reasons mentioned above, takes an opportunity to shame a woman of color’s body on a public forum as well as provide ‘cutting-edge’ cultural criticism. No really, it’s like, my favorite thing ever. She should totes come back for another season of The Bachelorette, cause last I checked, season one didn’t work out too great. Oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!).

Aside over. When reading the comments in the article below, there was definitely quite a bit of backlash against Ali for, as one person put it, “discussing other cultures in a blog when you don’t know anything about that culture.” Then one person responded to that comment by asking,

Maybe you can help explain why this point of view is wrong. To those who don’t know much about/understand these cultures, Selma is a bit confusing. Where do we draw the line of modesty on national television? I don’t know much about the Muslim faith myself, but I was under the impression that women were supposed to dress more modestly, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not be spooning and caressing on national television. What makes kissing so taboo in relativity to those other things?

Then over at Reality Steve, the blogger who posts spoilers every season, someone responded to his comments calling Selma a ‘tease’ for dressing sexy but not ‘putting out’ by noting,

I take MAJOR issues with you going on and on about how Selma dresses sexy and thus she was a ‘cock tease’ for not putting out with Sean. Wow Steve, so if a woman dresses sexy, she has to put out? That’s how rape culture is perpetuated, FYI.

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

This is why I think pop culture shows can be so awesome, because they can facilitate important conversations on issues like culture and gender that need to be had, just by the nature of their accessibility. While the diversity of blogs in the blogosphere is exciting, there is a potential that certain communities which cater to specific topics will only pull in the interested and invested, ultimately preaching to the choir. I love the idea that having a diverse group of contestants on a show that so many people watch might provoke questions and spark conversations on cultures that are different from theirs in a way that they might not normally engage with. I mean seriously, I love that someone might actually learn something, or at the very least, be inspired to learn, about the Islamic faith after watching an episode where two people go on a date, climb a rock, and toast marshmallows over a campfire. Furthermore, as this blogger put it,

Such a show would inherently promote the idea that black women are desirable. It disrupts the cultural narratives in media—that some see as propaganda—promoting the expectation that African-American women should be perpetually single. It de-emphasizes the standard of a white, fair-haired woman as the epitome of female beauty and worthiness, a standard which fuels billions of dollars in sales of hair dye, hair extensions, and skin-bleaching creams globally. This beauty ideal also contributes to the absence of black women from the ranks of the highest paid models and actresses, where our form of beauty tends to be an occasional exotic trend rather than embraced as an everyday normality.

Scandal proves we're reading for a black leading lady.

Scandal proves we’re reading for a romantically attractive black leading lady.

As she further points out, it is not like Americans aren’t interested in high-profile relationships involving black women, including those of Beyonce and Jay Z, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, and of course, Michelle and Barack Obama. Seriously, if Americans are ready for a relationship between two black people in the White House, then why can’t they watch a black woman date on a show that isn’t just comical (read: Flavor of Love)? And if Mike Fleiss is so concerned about ratings, perhaps he should look to the show Scandal, which features an affair between a powerful black broker played by Kerry Washington and a white president that is bringing in eight million viewers an episode.

Pop culture visibility matters, and Misee Harris deserves to be part of it. If she were chosen I would totes watch, and it’s not just because she’s black. It is because she is a professional, talented woman who would add interest due to the nature of her accomplishments. That being said, picking a diverse roster of candidates for her would also add a lot of interest, and it would probably get people talking. And that’s a good thing, right girlfriends?

Want to show Misee some love and support? Check out her Facebook page and her twitter account, and tweet Mike Fleiss @fleissmeister letting him know you want @miseeharris as the next #bachelorette!

And check out this Huff Po live interview with Misee!

An abridged version of this article is now on The Huffington Post.

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Filed under Media & Culture

Update, Feedback Needed, and ‘One Billion Rising!’

Hey peeps! I know it’s been a little while since I last posted, so I wanted to shoot you all a quick update. I have been a bit under the weather these past few weeks so I haven’t been able to write as much as I’ve wanted to, but don’t worry (you weren’t worrying, were you?), I have been doing some mad research on the posts I will be publishing soon that are related to my Ethical Fashion series. Also, I wanted to expand this blog’s scope a bit, and so I added a Pinterest and Tumblr! The reason why I am adding these new features now is because when I started this blog, I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like. I knew I wanted to start conversations on topics that I was passionate about, but I didn’t know how in-depth these posts were going to be, or what kind of engagement readers were looking for. I have only been blogging here for four months, but I do feel strongly now that this site is most appropriate for more complex discussions of culture, fashion, gender, and media, and the feedback I have gotten from many of you is that you appreciate the time and thought I put into researching the range of topics that are covered here. And while I am all about thought-provoking, carefully researched posts, the fact is, sometimes, I just want to bust a little, you know? I mean, in any given day, I will find myself grappling with Beyonce’s feminism, why Mindy Kaling is only dating white guys on The Mindy Project, Sports Illustrated‘s racist swimsuit issue (just. when. I. thought. I. had. seen. it. all.), and more. And it’s a little frustrating to not share these ideas/rants with you. This is my main site, but these other platforms will hopefully expand the scope of this blog and allow for different kinds of engagement. It will also give me the chance to engage with everyone more often, since realistically I am only able to publish a piece on here one to two times a week, given how much time I put into researching and writing them. So to avoid any confusion about what the purpose for these various social media outlets are, here’s a breakdown:

  • Facebook: Love. my. FB. friends. We share awesome links related to the topics covered in LG, and we get into amazing discussions! I have gained so many resources and gotten some really helpful feedback from the peeps on this page, and we all try to post links that are current and relevant. Join us for Valentine’s Day as we share events related to the ‘One Billion Rising‘ events happening all around the world!
  • Twitter: A really chill place to connect, but I find the 150-word count limit to be one of the most challenging aspects of my day. I mean, you’ve read my posts, right? Still, a great place to give a quick shout-out and share links, not to mention foster the idea that Mindy Kaling and I are besties. Plus, totes excited I FINALLY know what FF (Follow Friday) is! I had no idea and until about a day ago was just like, “Umm…back at you FF!”
  • Tumblr: I’m really excited about having a Tumblr! This is where I will write quick posts that either add to the longer posts I am writing here, or are on topics that may not be related to what I am writing about at the moment, but are still relevant to what I write about generally. I will also be posting re-caps of shows (critical gfs, always critical), pictures and links of organizations and sustainable companies that I think are awesome, and even short interviews with people who inspire me.
  • Pinterest: I love that you can look at my Pinterest boards, and get a good sense of what my passions and even my values are. It’s corny, but a picture really does tell a thousand words.

Please let me know if there is anything else you would like to see me write about on Tumblr, or if you think I should add another board on Pinterest. Also, thoughts about Instagram? So many of my friends have one, but the privacy settings sketch me out. I would love to share pictures of an Eco-fashion show I will be attending in March, or a visit with an artisan from Guatemala who will be coming to the area in April. But the idea of these pictures potentially being used for advertisements without my knowledge makes me a little wary, and I guess I could always add those pictures into my posts anyway. Please let me know what you think!

Also:

  • Links: I just updated my Blogroll on the side of my blog. I would LOVE to hear of any other blogs or sites that you think I might be interested in that are related to the main topics that are covered here!
  • Giveaways: Over the next few weeks as I continue with my Ethical Fashion series, I will be featuring quite a few giveaways. Needless to say these products promote smaller organizations, non-profits, and companies that are relevant to the topics covered by the series and whose causes are ones in which I firmly believe. I know a lot of people are skeptical of the giveaways that are provided by corporate sponsors to bloggers, and the reason why I am doing so many giveaways is partly because I want to demonstrate that there are alternatives to these corporate promotions that are so prevalent in the blogosphere. I have done a lot of research on these organizations and I hope that I can help create awareness around their truly amazing missions. For example, a few weeks ago I gave away this gift basket from the amazing worker-owned, cooperative Equal Exchange, which produces organic food items from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The gift basket benefits Congolese women who are being treated at the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, for immense trauma they have endured as a result of the civil wars in the region of Eastern Congo. The hospital is also connected to the non-profit Mamafrica, which I wrote about in a recent post! So needless to say, I put a lot of thought into these giveaways!

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day! Ok, keepin’ it real (since doing so 24-7 was my New Year’s Resolution), I’ve become a bit disillusioned about Valentine’s Day. It’s not even that I’m not a romantic, because seriously, one of my favorite movies ever is Love Story, no lie. It’s just that I don’t know whether love should be marketed and sold for one day a year and given to Hallmark in the form of a billion dollar check. Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate too, but why can’t we share love, and surprise each other with chocolate, every day? Cause that would be amazing, just sayin’ (speaking of which, my next post will be on the chocolate industry, and you might be surprised by how related it is to my posts on fashion, so stay tuned).

That being said, I am really excited about the One Billion Rising event that will be happening today, in over 160 countries around the world. The event is a global campaign to fight violence against women, and was initiated by playwright Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues) in response to Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ comments. Why ‘one billion?’ Because one of every three women on the planet (one billion) will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. The page that is linked allows you to search for an event that is happening in your area, which may include flash mobs, dances, yarn bombing, strikes, protests and more!  While I do think the event is a bit heteronormative (there are men out there who are victims of violence), I still think it’s a cool way to raise awareness and promote women’s empowerment and solidarity on a day that is mostly about fluff. Supporting women in the global fight to end violence?? Now THAT’S love. Happy Valentine’s Day (for real), and I heart you all for your discussions, feedback, and from many of you, the inspiring stories of the amazing work you do.

One Billion Rising Promotional Video:

Have a One Billion Rising event to share? Let me know in the comments below! And also feel free to provide feedback about my questions regarding Instagram, Tumblr, etc.

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Filed under Inspirations

2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Happy New Year! So I have finally come out with the much-anticipated (at least by me) ‘Fiercest figures of 2012’ list. I know I’m a little late with this (I’m running on ‘new blogger’ time) but I’ve been busy making some changes to my blog (stay tuned for some new added features, like Pinterest!) and expanding my series on Ethical Fashion, which I will be returning to this week. While the assortment of people and movements I have highlighted on this list may seem kind of random, rest assured that there is a rhyme and reason to this madness. All of these figures are connected by a theme of fierceness, which goes so beyond being able to pose as an attractive circus freak a la America’s Next Top Model, regardless of what Tyra may think. Fierceness, for me, is encompassed by those who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice. And hey, if you can do all of those things while posing as an attractive circus freak, then props. to. you. I’m not hatin’ homies.

Fashion: In many respects, it was a depressing year for fashion. Three hundred people killed in a textile factory fire in Pakistan. Toxic chemicals found in the clothes of popular brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret. The fact that Wal-Mart refused to pay for Bangladesh factory safety improvements that could have prevented the deaths of 112 people. The report that revealed that ‘fast fashion’ brands like H&M and Forever 21 were exploiting their workers. Ugh. The list of sad, if not horrific stories never seemed to end, shattering the facade of glamor to which the industry so desperately clings. But these catastrophies did not go ignored. Protest movements from around the world rose up and united in their calls for a more equitable industry.  And at the same time, notable industry players were openly challenging the status quo of the industry, from normative beauty ideals to treating cultures like trends. Here are just a few of these people and movements that I thought were noteworthy to mention:

27bangladesh-articleLarge

Thousands take to the streets on the outskirts of Daka to protest working conditions in Bangladesh textile factories (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters).

Bangladesh protests: Thousands of people took to the streets to protest  the factory fire that was counted as one of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disasters. The story was covered internationally, with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity calling out “Western brands” for faulty monitoring practices.

Greenpeace: You want to know what fierce is? It’s releasing a report that reveals the toxic chemicals found in the clothes we wear, and then successfully sparking a world-wide protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Talk about getting it DONE. Awesome.

Fair Tuesday/Buy Nothing/Buy Local day: Following the consumer excess of Black Friday, these three movements emerged as a counterpoint. Fair Tuesday came out of the Fair Trade/Ethical Fashion movement, and Buy Nothing/Local out of Occupy, but taken together, the message was clear: Buy less, and if you do want to get someone a gift, make it an ethical one that uses fair labor and environmental practices.

Paul Frank Industries apologized for this offensive flyer and party, and then expressed interest in holding a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and working with a Native artist to make designs!

Paul Frank Industries didn’t just  apologize for this offensive flyer and party. They also invited Jessica and Adrienne to help host a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and expressed interest in working with a Native artist to make designs!

Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin: As I wrote in a previous post, the fashion industry is often guilty of treating different cultural groups like trends. And in the last few years, ‘Indian’ fashion has been all the rage, with outlets like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 describing their shirts as ‘Navajo’ and ‘tribal,’ and influential retailer Victoria’s Secret sending a headdressed bikini clad model down the runway. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin decided to use their online sites to demand that Native American people be represented respectfully and authentically, and in the past year, have raised awareness and sparked campaigns against Urban, Victoria’s Secret, and Paul Frank’s Fashion’s Night Out ‘Dream Catchin’ Pow wow’ party, to name just a few examples. Adrienne’s recent piece on the sexualization of Native women in pop culture, from Victoria’s Secret’s headdressed bikini clad model to Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl dressing up as a ‘pocahottie’ on Halloween, that trivializes the high rates of sexual assualt that Native women face, was really powerful.  And I’m obsessed with Jessica Metcalfe’s boutique on her site, which features the amazing work of Native designers. Love. them.

Bruno Pieters: After taking a two year hiatus from the fashion industry, former art director for Hugo Boss Bruno Pieters decided to start Honest by, the first company in the world to share the full cost breakdown of its products. As Pieters noted in this interview, “We communicate everything about the materials, the manufacturing methods, and even the pricing strategies of the products stocked with honest by, to our client. Every part of the collaboration process is transparent including the store mark up calculations.” 100% full transparency? Can we talk girlfriends??  Pieters is a trailblazer for the industry and hopefully other designers will not just take note, but follow in his footsteps.

Diane Pernet & Bruno Pieters in the art film, To Be Honest:

Kahindo Mateene: Rising star couture designer Mateene sees fashion as a “creative expression of a woman’s independence and individuality.” Many designers view fashion as a valuable avenue for self-expression, Mateene takes it one step further when she states that “fashion is most stylish when it is produced with the highest ethical and socially conscious principles.” Her online site, which was launched in 2012, boldly states “Modern. African. Ethical.” Not only are her clothes made with fair trade principles, but the African textiles and prints inspired by her Congolese background are gorgeous!

Cameron Russell: Former supermodel Russell gave a fantastic TED talk, where she focused on the social construction of beauty, and the privileging of whiteness within the industry. Contrasting pictures of her before a shoot with her actual modeling photos was a startling reminder of the power of image. She is currently one of the directors of the consulting firm The Big Bad Lab, a media platform which she hopes will allow girls to explore fashion creatively without such restrictive social norms attached to what is “ideal.”

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men's and women's collections

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men’s and women’s collections

Casey Legler: A former Olympic swimmer, Legler is a woman posing as a male model, challenging heteronormative views of gender. She looks superb in both men’s and women’s clothing, and is infinitely charming. As she notes, “I find the gender fluidity of this work so excited. Seeing me on the men’s board speaks to this notion of freedom. There’s something really bold about that. It seems to be saying ‘Look, there is also this other way. And it’s pretty rad.'”  Amen.

Elizabeth Kline: Her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, has been described as the Fast Food Nation for the fashion industry. It’s a fantastic, accessible account of how cheap fashion has impacted people, the environment, and global economies.

Diana Wang: Seduced by the title of ‘head accessories intern’ at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, Wang headed to New York City to start what she hoped would be a glamorous experience that would open other doors into the fashion industry. Four months later, she returned to her home to Columbus, Ohio, and filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, for not paying for her work. Reading her story is something out of the Devil Wears Prada. It helped to open up a larger debate about the exploitative nature of intern work, as Wang claimed that there were little educational benefits to outweigh the unpaid nature of her internship.
Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood: I am often wary of famous designers who claim social responsibility, as it can be difficult to gauge whether it is being done to just attract a new consumer following. But Westwood, with her punk sensibilities, is committed. From her ethical fashion line made in Kenya to her many environmental and political campaigns which she details on her blog ‘Active Resistance,’ to her clothes that express support for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and call for climate change, Westwood is one of the few designers actively using fashion as a vehicle for environmental and political activism. Her message to ‘buy less, choose well, make it last,’ has become the ethical fashion community’s mantra. I loved it when she just told people to stop buying clothes for six months to keep landfills from filling up. I mean, when Dame Vivienne tells you to do something, you kind of have to do it, right?

Bandi Mbubi: Although not directly related to fashion, Congolese activist Mbubi’s Tedx talk on the importance of sustainability in technology was an important reminder of the tragic consequences of unconscious consumerism. He documented how the crisis in Eastern Congo is being fueled by the fight over mineral resources that are often found in the technology we use. Interestingly enough, he touted technology’s ability to ‘get the word out,’ but emphasized the need for more transparent supply chains. Truly inspiring.

Media + Politics: From the presidential election to school shootings, global protest movements, drone wars, and crazy weather, the media certainly had its share of provocative stories to cover. However, the mainstream media, as I documented in a previous post, often fails to report on the news in a complex manner. Fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, news outlets often cut expensive funding for international reporting, instead focusing on entertainment -related news, or ‘info-tainment.’ The end result is a media landscape that treats its viewers as consumers, instead of citizens. That is why we so desperately need independent media.

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Amy Goodman: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is truly, one of my heroes. Her news station is independently funded, which has allowed her to open up the dialogue to include alternative voices. Her interviews are always multi-faceted, complex, and thought-provoking. Whether it is expanding the debate to third party candidates, addressing racism in the Trayvon Martin case, or hosting one of the most insightful, coherent debates on Israeli settlements, Democracy Now! is helping to give public discourse back into the hands of its citizens. Check out their 2012’s Year in Review, and Amy Goodman’s book The Silenced Majority, which recently made the New York Times best-seller list.

The 20 women senators elected this year, OBVI: Highest ever in the country’s history, and a remarkably diverse group. The House letting the Violence Against Women Act die was depressing, but the news of these women being elected brings me hope.

Anonymous protest

Hacktivist group Anonymous organized a protest in Steubenville that attracted over 2000 followers.

Anonymous: I didn’t use to be a fan of internet vigilante justice, but I’m starting to believe that in our ever increasing corporatized media and cultural landscape that it is needed. And as I followed Anonymous in their 2012 hacktavist struggles, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their anti-corporate protest that also seemed to have a strong social justice mission to protect the marginalized. But I straight-up developed a crush on the group when they released incriminating evidence against several young men charged in the Steubenville rape case. They, along with blogger Alexandria Goddard who covered the case from the beginning and fought for mainstream media attention, are truly the young girl’s knights-in-shining-armour.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma has had a long history of human rights abuses, leading thousands to flee as refugees (for more information on the Burmese refugee crisis, check out this wonderful video). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for her opposition against the government, was recently elected as a member of parliament in a resounding victory. Props also to Hillary Clinton (I mean, do you want to define fierce?), who has always admired Suu Kyi and has made Burma a focus during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Fierce women who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Savannah Dietrich – Challenged Victim Silencing: The brave young woman who, after she was sexually assaulted at a party and her attackers were let off too easy, tweeted the names of her attackers as a response to the judge who ordered that “no one should speak about this case for any reason.” That a rape victim might have received a harsher sentence than those who assaulted her sparked national outrage, and her team was successfully able to request that the boys’ court records be unsealed. The end result? The boys weren’t invited back to Trinity High School that year, and they also got a stiffer sentence. “Everyone thought I was this little girl they could intimidate,” she recently stated in an interview. Man, were they wrong. A true role model for victims of sexual assault everywhere.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn't care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn’t care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer – Challenged Normalized views of ‘Work-life balance’: Mayer was nominated by my cousin Whitney, a lawyer, new mom, and one of the fiercest woman I personally know. Mayer, who was hired from Google for a $100 million deal to be the CEO of Yahoo, received criticism from some women for only taking two weeks of maternity leave. But as Whitney put it, “I have no problem with it, and am enjoying watching her pull this company together. For all of our conversations about women’s ‘choices,’ we never seem to question this notion that women are the only ones who are capable of taking care of their children. And at the end of the day, is it really any of our business how she chooses to raise her child?” True DAT.

Blogger Libby Ann – Challenged Propaganda on Reproductive Rights: When I read this article by a former ‘pro-life’ blogger who had come to realize that she was ‘duped’ by the rhetoric of the movement, I passed it on to everyone I knew and posted it on my Facebook. Twice. It was the most articulate, coherent dialogue on abortion I had read. Ever. Why? Because quite simply, she exposed the ‘framing’ of the pro-life movement that emphasizes saving babies as a fraud, arguing that the movement does little to provide access to contraceptives, support poor women (finally-an economic element to the debate!) who could not afford to have children, or research why half of all zygotes that are so essential to the ‘personhood’ debate fail to implant. As she put it:

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about regulating sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women.

Talk about shutting. It. DOWN.

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight - and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight – and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling – Challenged Women’s Roles in Television: The Mindy Project is the first sitcom starring and created by an Indian-American, and one of the few starring a woman of color. It features Mindy as a successful doctor who calls the shots in a male-dominated workplace, but who’s girly and loves her girlfriends. She’s not super thin but has a positive body image. And in every single freaking episode, there is amazingly sharp and self-aware commentary on race, gender, sexuality, and pop culture. Why are people not freaking out more about this show? Oh, and just recently, Stephen Tobolowsky, the actor who played her boss, was let go because the writers wanted Mindy to be making “more decisions in the workplace on her own.” Are you freaking out now girlfriends? Mindy’s totally my crush (and I don’t need to say ‘girl crush’ because as Mindy put it in a previous episode, “are you that scared of people thinking you’re a lesbian?”). Watch this show!!

Saturday Night Live: Just got to give a quick shout-out to two brave sketches that nailed our current cultural moment. The first was ‘The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party,’ where rookie Cecily Strong aptly nailed the self-righteous hipster who is constantly taking Instagram pics, asking whether she can sing ‘Negro spirituals,’ and giving strong opinions on political issues about which she knows little. My favorite quote? “People are very happy right now, and that makes me very, very sad.” The second, on the iPhone 5, was one of the most brilliant sketches on SNL I have ever seen. Featuring Chinese laborers who confront the ‘Tech Experts’ complaining about the new phone’s features (‘it’s too light!), it was a truly scathing critique of ‘First World problems.’

Music: It was an amazing year for artists who used music to push boundaries and make cultural and political commentary, both blatant and subtle.  Very few of these musicians will be nominated for a Grammy this year, but the way they challenged the music industry can not be discounted.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

The fiercest single of the year? Um yeah, that goes to Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot, obvi. Their single, ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ criticized the Orthodox church’s traditional views on womencalled Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I a ‘suka’ (meaning bitch in the derogatory, not in that cool, ‘reclaiming patriarchy’ way), and called out Putin’s re-election as a fraud. Charged with hooliganism, they faced a prison sentence of up to seven years. Their arrests led to protests all over the world, with people donning masks similar to the ones that the band had worn.  Do I need to say anything more? If you haven’t checked out their brilliant performance, then you can watch it here. And stay tuned for an upcoming documentary on the band, which is heading for Sundance in 2013.

Punk rapper/Performance artist cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

Punk rapper/Performance artist Mykki Blanco cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

The Riot Grrl: Along those lines, this feminist punk underground movement that emerged in the early 90s seemed to re-emerge in public consciousness in a big way in 2012, because all of a sudden, everyone who was bad-ass was dropping them as an influence. Pussy Riot of course. But then there was Mykki Blanco, rapper/performance artist/drag queen who cited Riot Grrl icon Kathleen Hanna as an influence and described her style as “a mixture of riot grrrl and ghetto fabulousness.” Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls, appeared on Grantland and mentioned how the provocative nature of her show was influenced by having ‘some Riot Grrl in me.’ And Tavi Gevinson, 16 year old fashion blogger and founder of the teen feminist site Rookie, also expressed her admiration of Hanna’s band Le Tigre and 90’s era teen ‘zines like Sassy that were part of the Riot Grrl movement. I am SO stoked for the upcoming release The Punk Singer, a documentary on Hanna!

Frank Ocean: For all the reasons I listed in this post.

Azealia Banks: If the Grammy’s allowed EPs to be nominated, my girl Azealia would have been tearing it up this year. Her first single ‘212’ was addictive, raunchy, and fun. Her song ‘Fierce‘ would make the list just by virtue of its name, but it really was the chillest blend of hip-hop, house music and 1980s ball culture (see the amazing film Paris is Burning for more on drag balls). But it was ‘Liquorice’ that really did it for me, with her sharp indictment of the fetishization of black women. Feisty and fiercely intelligent, the openly bisexual Banks has stated, “I’m not trying to be the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

Nelly Furtado: Her song ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’ wasn’t just fierce because she looked hot while walking down the street in stilts. It was fierce because it featured amazing Native American hoop dancers, including champion hoop dancer Tony Duncan, in a way that was respectful and truly representative of the culture. Gwen Stefani, take note.

Solange Knowles: 2012 was a great year for Solange to drop the wannabe-B act and carve out her own niche, as the indie, totally hipster sister with an awesome sense of style and distinct set of pipes. I have watched this video dozens of times, and it never gets old. Featuring a stunning South African setting, fashionable dandies right out of the Congolese Le Sape Society (or Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), and even subtle commentary on the politics of hair and personal choice, the song is whimsical, sweet, and just right.

Marina Abramovic + Anthony and the Johnsons: Two brilliant performance artists collaborated for a patriarchy-smashing, provocative music video called ‘Cut the World’ that you may very well hate. I could only watch it once, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week (oh, and the documentary on Abramovic, The Artist is Present, was totes amazing).

Kitty Pryde: You know when something or someone is fierce, but you can’t really put a finger on it? (Ok, maybe this is a dilemma that only I really face). Well that’s exactly how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose homemade mumbling rap song ‘Ok Cupid’ simultaneously seems to capture teenage angst while never taking it too seriously. The style is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been playing it constantly since it came out. There is just something about this girl….

Le1f: Being an openly gay rapper in a homophobic industry is tough. 6’3 Wesleyan grad Le1f however, gets it done. Turning gay slurs into “expressions of braggadocio” and walking the fine line of making activist music that’s never preachy, he pretty much re-defines fierce. And his song ‘Wut,’ is seriously addictive. At the very least, you’ll be impressed by his dancing/voguing.

That’s all.

What did you think about my list? Anyone else you would have added? Let me know in the comments below!

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Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

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