|Pathways for Promise student and former garment worker, Shahnaz Khanam|
This piece was sponsored by Pathways for Promise in partnership with the Ethical Writers Coalition.
As a western consumer, I struggle to identify the best way forward for the garment industry.
On the one hand, I reluctantly agree with the “vote with your dollar” rhetoric that pervades the conscious consumer movement, but I am uncomfortable with the implication that merely consuming more or better would lead to long term solutions for garment workers.
Not to mention that the concept of consumer-driven change stems, at least in part, from post-war propaganda meant to firm up the economy and strengthen traditional social ideals. It’s not that it’s bad, or wrong in every context, but the people who helped drive consumer culture were not primarily interested in our long term physical or psychological well-being. Just because it’s normalized doesn’t mean it’s the ideal framework.
So, with that being said, I strive to pinpoint and support systemic solutions for problems in the garment industry. From where I stand in the US, I aim to support policies that demand better corporate oversight of factory conditions and that reward the companies and agencies that create awareness and provide models for progress. As an individual, I participate in awareness campaigns like Fair Trade Month and Fashion Revolution.
As a global citizen, I look for agencies that work at the grassroots level to promote change from within.
American women are unlikely to transform the garment industry. But the women of Bangladesh’s garment industry are poised to do what we can’t…
Enter Pathways to Promise.
Founded in 2016, Pathways for Promise is an educational scholarship program that provides opportunity to promising young women in Bangladesh so that they can work to transform their communities.
As a program of the Asian University for Women, it adopts the basic tenets of the larger institution, to:
- Identify talent in places where women’s potential is ignored
- Establish international networks of educated women and their supporters
- Cultivate the next generation of leaders in Asia and the Middle East
All AUW students – representing 15 countries and 25 languages – live and study together in Chittagong, Bangladesh to provide support and promote cross-cultural understanding.
Pathways for Promise is a bridge program that connects high-potential women to the formal education AUW provides.
Potential students, primarily garment workers and ethnic minority groups like the Rohingya (read more here), are required to take entrance exams and undergo an interview process to determine skills. Unlike other programs that assess English-language proficiency and educational preparedness, however, Pathways for Promise assesses character traits like engagement, anger at injustice, and desire for systemic change, which means women who otherwise may have been overlooked are given a chance to succeed.
In its first year, Pathways for Promise partnered with a select group of factory owners to offer entrance exams on the factory floor. Additionally, the factory owners agreed to continue paying monthly wages to workers who went on to receive a formal education through the program. Out of more than 1,000 applicants, 30 were selected and are now enrolled in Pathways for Promise.
The program in its entirety lasts 5 years, offering intensive English-language learning in the first year followed by another year of additional preparation before students enter a 3-year Liberal Arts program, where they can major in Environmental Science; Economics; Public Health; or Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
Initial funding for Pathways for Promise was provided by the IKEA Foundation, who paid for the first 26 garment workers’ educations, and Open Society Foundations, which works to promote tolerant and democratic societies.
Education = Transformation
The Pathways for Promise Program, even in concept, is compelling. But it only really matters if it works.
Based on data from the AUW at large, Pathways for Promise is promising not just for individual students but for the communities they impact:
- 90% of reporting alumnae secure gainful employment or enter reputable graduate programs.
- “AUW alumnae work in nonprofit organizations, research institutes, private companies and schools. The majority of alumnae pursue graduate studies outside their country of origin due to the availability of scholarships, but 85% of employed alumnae go on to work in their home country, thus limiting “brain drain” in the region. Roughly two-fifths of graduates have gone on to teach or work in the private sector; 36% of graduates have gone on to work in nonprofits or government.”
- “AUW has cultivated an international network of emerging leaders who are earning income, living independently, uplifting others, and promoting sustainable human and economic development in the region. Their accomplishments offer the surest proof that AUW is effectively achieving its mission.”
Based on early data, the students of Pathways for Promise are on their way to changing the world.
It is good, I think, for westerners to have empathy for the garment workers we inadvertently impact through our purchases.
But it is even better when we realize that we are not meant to be saviors, we are meant to be partners.
As the manager of a small nonprofit, my goal is to see my volunteers rise to the occasion. That means providing them with adequate support, resources, and education to work fairly autonomously in their roles. That also means trusting that they are capable, and worthy of being treated as equals.
If I recognize this as the key to building strong teams at home, I need to let go of the myth that I’m holding the key to changing the garment industry in my wallet, and learn how to be a support, not a foundation.
I am excited to see a world transformed by small steps – and by people empowered to promote progress right where they’re planted.
We don’t need superheroes. There are kickass humans getting the job done.
Additional Reading: Pathways for Promise, Walking With Cake