Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fair Trade Friends

When I strolled into SERRV’s sixth-floor offices on State Street last week I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I spoke with marketing director Renee Kalvestrand, she told me that some of MarketPlace India’s artisans will be visiting and I will have the opportunity to interview them—through an interpreter, of course.

I’ve written about SERRV before, that is, when their storefront on Monroe Street was called A Greater Gift (see my May column). A Greater Gift recently changed their name to SERRV, which is their parent organization.
Says Kalvestrand on the change: “SERRV has had a long history—over sixty years. That’s really who we were and having two names was difficult. Going forward we want to be this one strong organization.”
SERRV’s general description is a “nonprofit alternative trade and development organization,” per their website ( The SERRV storefront on Monroe Street sells fair-trade items handmade by artisans around the world, from Mexico to Vietnam. With the name change also came a move next door to 2701 Monroe St. The shop gained five hundred square feet of space.

When I arrived for the interview I saw four beautiful Indian women sitting in an ordinary looking conference room. Sunanda Zunjar (to my right) wore a hot pink sari with gold embroidery and a wristful of bangles; Shardha Ghadge (to my left) wore a lovely green sari with purple and gold accents and Nooreen Dossa (closest left) donned a simple white and red tunic with a red wrap. I felt so ordinary in my “western” clothing! Seeing Zunjar, Ghadge and Dossa was like seeing that first tulip pop up in spring in your barren yard: unexpected, yet quietly beautiful.

From talking to the artisans it’s clear that MarketPlace India, a group of women’s co-ops, has made a huge difference in these women’s lives. Says Zunjar, supervisor at the Arpan Cooperative: “In the last twenty years, the guts we have now … we may not look strong from the outside but we’re strong on the inside.”
Shardha Gadge, tailor at the Cooperative, agrees: “The skill training has brought about change in our own lives and benefits the people around us.”
I asked Pushpicka Freitas, president of MarketPlace India and Nooreen Dossa, assistant director of SHARE, about the fifteen-year-old co-op and their trip to the U.S., as well as spoke with Renee Kalvestrand, marketing director for SERRV.

When was MarketPlace started?
Pushpicka Freitas: In 1980 in India, and in 1986 in Evanston (Ill.). We started very small, with three people.

How does the co-op work?
Freitas: It’s really leadership building work. The women run their own co-ops. They determine their cash flow, fabric to order and more. That’s the basis of their leadership development.
They do the quality checking and then it’s shipped over [to Evanston]. In Evanston we manage the shipping; in India, they execute all of the orders.

How do these co-ops affect the women involved?
Freitas: In their identites. [In India] women are identified by their relationship to a man. Women tell us they’ve been helped by [the co-op] because they say they can now make decisions in their families. The artisans also take life-skill enhancement classes.
From 1980 [when we started], there are still some of the same women in the co-op. At that time, they wouldn’t look you in the eye when they talked to you. Now they tell you what to do!
One woman told me that her in-laws started to arrange a marriage for her fourteen-year-old daughter. She talked to her husband, asking him to talk to his parents to prevent it. He told her, “You talk to them; you go to all of these meetings and talk to people. I want you to talk to them.”
It’s that confidence—they’re becoming role models and leaders in their communities.
Nooreen Dossa: [The women] can provide education for their children. The school dropout rate is lower. They are taking professional courses—like computer engineering. They are now thinking long-term about education.
Freitas: No one is getting rich, but they are getting comfortable. The women are now contributing in addition to running the family.
Zunjar (interpreted through Dossa): Now we get out of the house. We use public transportation and travel independently. In March, we had a cancer checkup for the artisans and people in the community. So we took a group of women to the checkup, which was outside of Mumbai. The women are more confident and active now and would not have been able to handle taking the public transportation alone.

How has your experience been in the U.S. so far?
Zunjar (interpreted through Dossa): There are no words to describe the feeling I have—I see one exciting thing, then another exciting thing. We visited the shipping agency and we saw where our catalogs are printed. It’s very important for us to take in this experience, so we can give a good picture of what our lives are like as well as let the let the other women in our group know what it’s like over here.
Renee Kalvestrand: These women influence other women they know—and that all happens because of the value of employment and they’re empowered that way.

P.S.: Check out our shoes in this picture! Clockwise from top left: Zunjar's gold flats, Ghadge's fashionable striped shoes, Dossa's comfy bronze numbers and my leopard pumps.

SERRV, 2701 Monroe St. 233-4438.

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