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Fair Trade’s Legacy: People & the Power of Collaboration

The Awajun Necklace, made with seeds from Peru

I was compensated for my time writing and photographing for this post by Genesis Fair Trade

The community organizing group I was involved in a few years ago often reminded its members that the collective is what empowers organizations and citizens.

They use the term, People Power

Individuals can strive for justice, but our voices are amplified and mobilized toward systemic change when we find our voices, together. When we proclaim our value, in unison. This is, perhaps, why I like singing in choirs so much. It’s both a metaphorical and literal example of what happens when people come together, set aside their egos, and work toward a singular goal.

This is also why I find the stories of grassroots organizations and fair trade co-ops so compelling. They are proof of hope. They are examples of how to value people both inside and outside organizational structures in order to bring about progress.

And this is why Fair Trade Month, which occurs every October, feels like a holiday to me. It’s a time when hardworking fair trade artisans and institutions not only get to highlight their individual organizations, but come together to celebrate the broader values of justice, quality of life, and thriving that hold them together.

Fair trade organizations share core values, but each one is structured slightly differently. For the sake of clarity, today I want to talk about the way one particular fair trade company is run: Genesis Fair Trade.

Genesis Fair Trade works with several artisan co-ops in Central and South America and across the world. These co-ops are self regulated, but contract with Genesis Fair Trade at a fair trade wage to provide scarves, ponchos, toys, jewelry, and even cell phone cases. The backpack featured in this post was produced by Guatemalan artisans using local materials.

Guatemalans, particularly indigenous Maya, have been marginalized for hundreds of years due to colonialism. The Guatemalan Civil War, which occurred between 1960 and 1996, brought the injustice to a head when former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt committed genocide on the Maya, leading to displacement, starvation, and severe human rights violations. It should be noted that the US backed the initial coup d’etat that led to civil war. We are, as always, complicit.

To be honest, when I came across that bit of history, I was shocked almost to tears. To write about the work of the Maya, work that I literally carry on my back, knowing that my own people had a hand in the injustices that led to genocide, feels heavy. Yet this is why we must share.

Fair trade is more than offering a helping hand. It’s, maybe, one small act toward reconciliation and redemption. One small step toward People Power. 

Today, Genesis Fair Trade, in addition to offering fair prices, assists with education, water supply, and health care in the communities where it operates. This network of community organizations ensures that the most vulnerable in Guatemala, and elsewhere, can begin to thrive again.

The Maya and other marginalized communities stood up to injustice, and they suffered greatly for it (historians estimate that 200,000 civilians were killed by the government during the conflict). Nevertheless, they persisted. Knowing their history and sharing in their future is one way we can work toward a better future, together. We do not exoticize them. We see them as equal partners in building the world we want for ourselves.

Del Sol Al Mar Clutch from Mexico
Here’s the other thing about fair trade: it is one step closer to solving the problem of poverty.

As I’ve written about before, charity isn’t a solution to social ills, it’s merely a stop-gap. While the work of charities is incredibly important – hey! I even work for one – the nonprofit sector can also be shortsighted when it comes to long term, infrastructural change (watch Poverty, Inc.). Ensuring that talented people can maintain living wage employment and care for their loved ones means that no one needs to swoop in and “save” anyone. When everyone has what they need in the first place, we eliminate the need for charitable work that, despite its best efforts, often creates uncomfortable power dynamics between the savior and those that supposedly need saving. We leave our mutual integrity intact.

Genesis Fair Trade likes to think of this as the new way to give back. There will always be crisis and poverty that requires monetary and physical mobilization, but effective fair trade models honor our shared humanity by ensuring that everyone can contribute in a way that honors who they are and what they do – and have a life of abundance.

Americans would do well to consider what that would look like in our own lives.

Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing more products from Genesis Fair Trade in a Gift Guide for Travelers. Later down the road, I’ll post a full review of the backpack.

Shop Genesis Fair Trade

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