Hero: Blythe Hill Transcends the Dress

To honor Blythe, we’re donating 50% of all online sales through December 18th to IJM’s fight against human trafficking. Shop here.

Blythe Hill, Ember Hero

“Blythe is a real name,” writes Blythe Hill on Instagram, captioning a series of photos in which her name is butchered on Starbucks cups. Blike, Blthy, Blive, the cups say. One of them, zen-like, says Life.

The photos are stylish, well-snapped. When Blythe is in them she’s deadpan, enjoying the drink and a wry moment with her followers. She is fashionable in a way that makes you think of Pinterest glazed with mid-1900s New York. Her style sense even landed her a position with a leading trend forecasting firm in Los Angeles, advising corporate clients on what’s just over the fashion horizon.

“I get a kick out of getting dressed,” she told me. “It’s a small opportunity to express myself, to be creative.” And it was a silly experiment in creative fashion that ended up inspiring thousands of women around the world and raising over $150,000 last year to fight sex trafficking.

“Dressember started, honestly, out of boredom,” said Blythe. She was in graduate school, and the way that classes rolled into classes and semesters into semesters was feeling stale. “I thought a style challenge would be an easy way to spice things up, to practice creativity with a limited schedule.”

Near the end of 2009, she came up with the idea to wear a dress every day for a month. And since December was the next full month, she started calling the experiment Dressember. “I love puns,” she said, “so the deal was pretty much sealed at that point.”

She had no intention of turning Dressember into a campaign, or even an annual challenge. But when her friends saw her wearing dresses all month they wanted to try it, too. “It wasn’t until friends wanted to join, and then their friends wanted to join, and I saw its organic growth, that I started seeing potential for something bigger.”

Every year the Dressember community grew, even expanding internationally. Blythe soon took notice of Movember, the November mustache-growing campaign that raises money for men’s health organizations. “Maybe I can use Dressember to raise money for an anti-trafficking organization,” she thought.

Last year, Blythe aligned Dressember with International Justice Mission (IJM), a nonprofit that rescues victims of human trafficking, and set what she called “the huge, scary goal” of raising $25,000 for the organization. The 31-day Dressember campaign hit that goal on day three. “I realized I needed to start dreaming bigger,” said Blythe.

By December 31 last year, 1,200 women in 32 countries had raised over $165,000 for IJM—more than six times the original goal.

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Just as donations started to surge in last year, Blythe noticed some criticism of Dressember trickling onto Twitter. “There were some valid points made,” she said. “Someone said we ought to be careful what brands we wear, and there’d be an unfortunate irony if our dresses were produced by slave labor. I appreciated that.”

She also received some emails from transgender people who were concerned that Dressember promoted gender binaries. Blythe changed some of the campaign’s language. “I was not trying to say that only women can wear dresses,” she said.

But others were less constructive. One person took issue with participants posting selfies, calling it vain. “Instead of offering some sort of solution,” said Blythe, “they started an Instagram account to mock Dressember, with boys in dresses in suggestive poses and borderline lewd captions.They also started harassing Dressember participants, which is what made me the most upset.

Another person, a friend of one of her friends, took the time to find Blythe on Facebook and send her a message calling Dressember “stupid.”

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If Dressember as a fashion challenge was born out of boredom, Dressember as activism came from something much deeper.

“I was molested as a little girl,” said Blythe, “and for years I carried the weight of questions of worthiness, value, and guilt.” When she learned that millions of girls and women all around the world are trafficked from their homes to endure sexual abuse, she said it lit a fire inside her. “It took years for me to heal, forgive, and move forward, but hearing about women and girls who experience horrific things still fires me up.”

Blythe wanted to do something to help. “But I kept hitting a wall,” she said. “I’m not a social worker, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a cop, I’m not a psychologist.” The things she enjoyed and was good at—fashion, design, trend analysis, writing—felt like the wrong tools for pursuing what she was passionate about. While her heart strained towards human rights, her talents kept her working in Los Angeles. “My interests didn’t seem to match up with making a difference,” said Blythe.

Last year, when Blythe transformed Dressember into a fundraiser for IJM, she found a way to align her enjoyment of creative fashion with her passion to stop sex trafficking. And deeper still, she created a platform where femininity—the epicenter of some of her earliest, deepest wounds—is powerful, and supports the work of healing and wholeness for women around the world.

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When critical voices began to attack Dressember, as they do with any successful venture, Blythe said that she mostly kept it to herself. “It was a lonely experience to process the negative feedback that came in,” she said.

To fight through it she reminded herself that rescuing one person from trafficking was worth upsetting 1,000 people. And that for every Dressember critic there were probably 1,000 supporters. And she talked with her mentor about it. “I’ve learned a lot since then,” said Blythe, “and feel more prepared to face the criticism that will likely come this year.”

For one thing, she now has other people beside her. “Last year was pretty much a one-woman effort,” she said. “My main strategy is to let others in on the journey, and try not to carry the weight of it again.” Blythe is building a team to help her run the campaign. “I’ve learned how important it is to be a part of a team of people,” she said.

And secondly, she said that she’s learning to “guard the gate,” to choose what feedback she believes is valuable. “I talked with my mentor a lot about deciphering between valid and useless feedback, and learning to put the feedback I’m not sure about on hold until I can take it to people I trust.”

This year, the Dressember team set a huge goal. They hope to raise $500,000 for IJM—20 times last year’s goal. “It’s big, but I have a feeling the ripple effect growth that Dressember saw as a style challenge will carry over to the campaign,” said Blythe.

Every person who joins the campaign ratifies the basic values Blythe brought to it: that personal creativity can make a difference, and that femininity is powerful.“It’s always really encouraging to see people get excited about Dressember,” said Blythe, “to see their eyes light up with their own ideas within the campaign or beyond.”

She said she got an email a couple weeks ago from the director of a safe house for women coming out of prostitution in the States. “She emailed to let me know some of her girls heard about Dressember and are thrilled about it, and can’t wait to participate,” said Blythe.

“That’s the sort of feedback that puts the wind back in my sails.”

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To honor Blythe, we’re donating 50% of all online sales through December 18th to IJM’s fight against human trafficking. Shop here. And learn more about Dressember here.

Hero: Amyie Kao Makes Water from Coffee

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a clean water well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Amyie Kao was getting restless. It was late one night in 2012 and her husband Daniel was under the sink, installing a filtration system in their new coffee roasting facility. He kept fiddling and adjusting and testing, inching towards optimal water to brew their coffee, for hours.

They had recently founded Mariposa Coffee Roastery together and moved the business into their first dedicated roasting space in Norman, Oklahoma, near the University of Oklahoma. Daniel started roasting coffee in college at OU, a hobby that quickly escalated to an obsession. He built his own roasters, housing one in a rented storage space a few miles away because it wasn’t allowed on campus.

As Amyie watched him tinker she thought about the importance of water in coffee—in brewing it and in growing it. In her mind, a restless and combinatorial mind, Amyie overlaid two maps. The first showed the global “coffee belt,” the region straddling the equator where coffee is grown around the world. The second was a map she had seen of the global water crisis, which showed where billions of people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, didn’t have access to clean drinking water. The two maps highlighted many of the same areas.

Amyie and Daniel knew that quality coffee requires attention and care from farmers, who grow and carefully handpick and process coffee cherries to produce great beans. “When we roast our coffee, our goal is to honor the hard work that’s been poured into every single coffee bean,” said Amyie. This sense of responsibility to the farmers behind their coffee is a core value of their business. Hence Daniel’s hours under the sink.

When Amyie realized that many coffee farmers live in areas where clean drinking water is scarce, it was an affront to this sense of connection and responsibility to the farmers. To learn more she contacted Water4, an Oklahoma City nonprofit that drills wells in water-scarce communities around the world.

Water4 sent Amyie some photos from Rwanda, taken in a district called Nyaruguru (Nyah-roo-guh-roo). Amyie knew the region. It’s beans won the Cup of Excellence in 2011, a competition known as the Oscars of the coffee world. She had seen a one pound bag of coffee from Nyaruguru selling for $30.

The photos showed the only water source for three villages in the district. It was a pool of brown water, an unprotected spring that surely held bacteria and parasites. “People had to hike 45 minutes down a mountain to a water source that could be contaminated,” said Amyie, “and then haul heavy jerry cans full of water back up to their village.”

The people growing $30-per-pound coffee, Amyie realized, didn’t have clean water to drink.

A Dodgy Part of Town

Making this sort of connection—between her own pursuits and larger justice issues—isn’t unusual for Amyie. After working for a U.S. Senator during college she led letter-writing campaigns for social justice, having learned that handwritten letters carry much more weight than form letters. When she was president of the Pre-Med Club at OU she gave a presentation about genocide because, to her, the connection between medicine and global justice was inescapable.

Amyie was born in Oklahoma City to Chinese parents who had owned grocery stores in Vietnam. The Vietnamese had seized nearly everything they owned during the war, and they had come to America as refugees.

Amyie Kao, Ember Hero

She grew up in what she calls a “dodgy” part of town. Years later she watched a documentary about human trafficking and saw shots of her childhood street. She says she grew up playing in her backyard a lot because the front wasn’t safe. But still she remembers it brightly. “I remember spending countless hours playing under our giant pecan tree, exploring my grandmother’s garden, and romping in the dirt,” she said.

Her parents had forgone education to work in their family business in Vietnam, so when they got to the U.S. they had few professional opportunities. They took low-wage jobs and went to night school to try to improve their situation. But “they didn’t quite make it out of the low income bracket,” Amyie said.

She remembers being six years old when her grandmother had a stroke. The family rushed to the emergency room. Amyie said the “doctors were incredible impatient with the language and cultural barriers.” The hospital staff openly discussed the family’s poverty and that they wouldn’t be able to pay the bill, thinking that no one in the family could understand them. But Amyie understood. They told the family to seek treatment elsewhere.

“Most physicians try to be kind,” she said. “And then there are some that aren’t. I felt powerless to do anything about it.”

As the family’s best English speaker Amyie often played intermediary between her family and America. She said that most people at most times have been kind to her family. But some people at some times—often important times—treated them as inferior and unimportant. And young Amyie stood in the middle, relaying the messages.

Water Made from Coffee

More people die each year because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation than from all the violence in the world, including wars. And the women and children who usually walk long distances to fetch water miss out on time working or in school and are in danger of harassment and sexual assault.

“We had this realization that, while we’re tinkering with our water system, the very people producing our coffee might not be alive to see the next harvest.” To Amyie, the connection between coffee and water became inescapable. Honing their craft of roasting coffee wouldn’t be enough to honor the farmers growing it. She and Daniel would have to do something about water.

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They discussed it and decided to set aside a portion of their profits to build wells in coffee growing communities. “We’re a small startup,” she said, “so we had to set aside a little money each month.” After nearly two years they were able to commission Water4 to build a well in Nyaruguru.

The people in those villages now spend less time collecting and hauling water, and when they do get it, it’s clean and safe to drink. This means lower risk of disease, less vulnerability to violence, and more time spent at school or in the garden. In a place where clean water was nearly impossible to come by, a well is a small miracle.

Amyie and Daniel are setting aside money for a second well now. They want to put another well in the same area, so that if and when one needs maintenance, a common challenge, the people there still have clean water to drink.

And they’re also saving up for a trip to Rwanda to visit this place where the coffee map and the water map intersect. They want to see where their treasured coffee beans come from. They want to shake the hands of the farmers who nurture them. And they want to know, directly, the importance of water in coffee.

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Morgan Coleman Turns Insecurity Into Art

morgan_coleman_4When I meet her in a funky little bar in the Paseo district of Oklahoma City, Morgan Coleman has purple hair and she doesn’t talk like a poet. She talks with the same use of cliche and personal verbal tics we all do. And she talks with a mix of pride and humility about her childhood, a mix that seems both familiar and out of place.

It’s a childhood that inspired lines like these, which she delivers into a microphone in a small, crowded room painted with gnomes:

“it’s a shade that follows you through your life
a tattoo on your scared flesh
typing different over paper like that’s your new name
Like this was just a shift in the stars
when you can only see black night skies”

Morgan Coleman is a poet, and she maps the harder parts of her life experience with gymnastic words, bent and tumbled to fit the challenges she’s faced. “I haven’t had the easiest life,” Morgan told me.

As her story unfolds I find out what she meant: alcoholism and violence in her childhood home in Connecticut; working from a young age and spending nights under a bridge a mile away because that felt safer than her bedroom; close brushes with suicide, a stay in a home for troubled youth, and the long loneliness of feeling, and being treated as, different.

But these hard circumstances are not the whole of her story, even during her younger years. Morgan was very bright. She attended a magnet school focused on global studies and traveled to various countries and all around the US. After high school she helped lead trips of American high school students to Europe, where they studied geology through extended field trips to places like the Alps.

When she was 21 her parents divorced and her mom made a quick move to Oklahoma. Morgan moved with her, and through her job at Barnes and Noble she got plugged into the local poetry scene.

morgan_coleman_performing_1_webOklahoma is a very conservative place, a very conservative-American-evangelical-Christian place, the sort of place where people expect you to have a good job, a happy heterosexual family, and a favorite college football team with Oklahoma in the name. And it goes without saying that you attend a good, strong church every Sunday. If your life doesn’t look like this picture it can be hard to feel at home.

The poetry scene in and around Oklahoma City is filled with people who, one way or another, don’t feel at home. They’re often more liberal, less Christian, less heterosexual, and less concerned with college sports. Because of this, Morgan tells me, there’s a deep value placed on vulnerability and acceptance throughout Oklahoma’s poetry community. The people who come to share and listen to poetry are really there to connect, to find people who feel out of place like they do.

And this is why Morgan found so much space to breathe here. She is an outsider. She doesn’t fit the conservative Christian mold. She has purple hair. In Oklahoma’s poetry community, Morgan found a place where the ways in which she felt insecure and hurt and alienated became the sources of art and beauty.

Late last year, in between studying for a career in chemical engineering, Morgan won the chance to represent Oklahoma at the Women of the World Poetry Slam. The poems she wrote and performed about all the hardest parts of her life have lifted her up as a sort of hero.

And this is why, when she tells me about a childhood that leaves me fumbling for words, she talks with that mix of pride and humility. It’s the same mix you hear from people who have accomplished something great, like building a company or getting a novel published. It felt strange to hear that tone when she told me stories of alcohol and abuse.

But, Morgan tells me near the end of our conversation, she doesn’t wish for a different childhood. That one was hers. And not only did she survive it, but she is transforming it into art, into beauty, into a way to connect with other people who share similar wounds. With it, she is accomplishing something great.

Buy Morgan’s latest book of poetry and help send her to WOWPS here! http://emberarts.com/store/busting-out/

Lindsay Branham Helps Child Soldiers Find Home Again

 We’re giving 50% of our online sales for one month to Lindsay’s Mobile Cinema project. Shop here.Lindsay Branham, Ember Hero

Shooting was stalled, and Lindsay Branham and her team of New York filmmakers were stuck in a village in the struggling and beautiful Republic of South Sudan. Their production schedule demanded action, but local government officers were threatening to shut them down completely. They had come to film a story about an abducted child soldier returning home, not for Sundance or box office glory, but as a tool to help people in Central Africa recover from the very real abductions and violence they had endured at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty,” wrote Irish Poet John O’Donohue, in a quote Lindsay shared with me by email. “Beauty,” he continued, “triumphs over the suffering inherent in life.” In the LRA’s ongoing brutality in Central Africa, Lindsay found staggering depths of pain. She brought the film crew to capture the triumph of reconciliation and healing, of beauty, and to help it along.

The LRA is notorious for abducting children and forcing them to commit violent acts against their own families and communities. Lindsay and her partners, including the Congolese organization SAIPED, create beautiful short films that capture these traumas, and that illustrate a path to recovery. Together with techniques like role playing and community discussion, these films help people, families, and communities navigate the emotional minefield of losing their children and, sometimes, seeing theme escape and return home. She calls it the Mobile Cinema project, and she created it as part of her work with Discover the Journey, a non-profit network of media makers and storytellers that works to change the lives of children in conflict.

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“After the very last meeting, when we were told we would not be able to continue the project, I walked out to our car and finally just cried,” said Lindsay. They had already cast villagers for the film, and she felt that she was letting them down, along with their whole community.

When she got back to the village she called a community meeting with the cast to break the news. One by one, cast members expressed their sadness. Samson, the young teenage boy who’d been cast in the lead role, started to cry. His brother had been abducted by the LRA and was still missing, he said. He saw his role in the film as a way to honor his brother by helping others who’d been through his trauma.

“To make meaning from [pain] was something sacred,” said Lindsay, “and I hadn’t seen that or predicted how deeply people would want that until we were there sitting in the grass saying we were leaving.”

They had eleven days left for a shoot that needed three weeks. The next morning they flew from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and started auditions that afternoon. “Thankfully,” said Lindsay, “the actors we ended up working with in Congo showed the same level of zeal and excitement for the vision. And it only communicated to me just how much people want to be agents in their own healing process.” They shot into early mornings and, with the help of a heroic Congolese producer and translator, finished a film about a child soldier’s tumultuous return to the home he’d been ripped away from, a film that will promote healing throughout the region.

In a conversation that spanned a number of emails and a rainy-day interview in Uganda, I asked Lindsay why it’s worth it to her to engage with such painful stories, to really care about these people and so to take on an element of their suffering.

I keep myself open to pain, and beauty in pain, because I loose my own humanity if I don’t,” said Lindsay. “If it’s the natural rhythm of life to die and live and die and live and die and live—our cells are constantly dying and being regenerated, plants are dying and being regenerated, that seems to be the cycle, the way our world functions—do we not also have to have our own souls and hearts die in order to fully live?

Shop our brand new products by December 11 and we’ll donate 50% of your purchase to support Lindsay’s work. And see Lindsay’s first Mobile Cinema film here.

Dreamer: Kerry Docherty, Mindfulness Mentor

Dreamer Kerry Docherty, Mindfulness Mentor

Think about an orange-robed monk meditating quietly in a temple in the green hills of Thailand. Now, imagine the exact opposite person. You might think of someone in a dark suit barking into a cell phone and hustling through a big, crowded city. Someone like a lawyer in New York. These two would seem to live in different worlds, but Kerry Docherty is building a bridge between them.

The year before she started Pepperdine Law School she spent three months in Thailand, ending with a week in a Buddhist monastery. “I had nothing to do all day but sit with my thoughts and meditate,” she told me by email. “What a struggle!” But this introduction to the usually unnoticed workings of her own mind stuck with her, and during law school she started training at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

The practice of mindfulness helped Kerry handle the stress and competitiveness of law school, and she continued the practice when she moved to New York to clerk for a judge in Brooklyn. The judge’s daughter was applying for college at the time and Kerry taught her the basics of mindfulness to help handle the stress, which proved very helpful. “Most of our lives,” Kerry said, “we are told to ‘calm down,’ ‘pay attention’ and ‘chill out,’ but we never learn how to do these things.” Kerry wondered if there was a market for this kind of training, and a way to unite her two worlds into one pursuit. She started exploring mindfulness training as a business.

“Walking away from a financially stable and comfortable career was scary, exhausting, energizing, and empowering,” she said. “My biggest obstacle has always been myself, particularly self-doubt and people pleasing. But at some point I just accepted that I can still have self-doubt and move forward.” She said that the day she decided to put aside her law career and fully commit to her new pursuit was the day doors started to open. Now she works full time on her business, The Mindful Mentors, teaching the practice of mindfulness to everyone from busy professionals to a class of fifth graders.

When practicing mindfulness, says Kerry, “we’re learning about ourselves and about the fleetingness of emotions; we’re learning that there is beauty in the mundane moments of the day; and we’re learning that there is a place inside of us that is always okay, even when the world isn’t.” Kerry is injecting the world of the monk into the chaos of modern American life, uniting the two worlds she lives in. And, fittingly, one of her key client groups is New York City lawyers.

Connect with Kerry using the form below. Send her a question on mindfulness, an encouraging word, or order one of her guided meditation CDs—one for adults and one for mindful youngsters.
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Our First Podcast: A Conversation With Ember Hero Rachel Goble

Rachel Goble cofounded The SOLD Project to help prevent the sex trafficking of kids in northern Thailand. We chose her as our latest Ember Hero. All this month, we’re donating 50% of our online sales to further her work with The SOLD Project.

I had the pleasure to chat with Rachel over Google Voice. She had just returned from Thailand and I was in Kampala, Uganda. Isn’t technology amazing? We talked about her background, how and why she started The SOLD Project, and how hope informs her work and life. I hope you enjoy.

Rachel Goble, Ember Hero

Ember Hero: Rachel Goble Keeps Children Out of Brothels

Shop here and 50% of your purchase will be donated to support Rachel’s trafficking prevention work at SOLD.Rachel Goble, Ember HeroEarlier this year, in a small, green village in the hills of northern Thailand, a woman approached a 14-year-old girl and made her a simple offer. She could earn the equivalent of $1,000 dollars, the woman told her, for losing her virginity to a paying customer. This woman wasn’t going to forcibly kidnap her. The girl had the choice to say yes or no.

Silicon Valley native Rachel Goble, through her organization The SOLD Project, is working to educate Thai girls on the real terms of offers like these—that they won’t be paid $1,000, that they’ll likely be confined to a brothel for years and forced to sleep with not just one, but thousands of paying customers, that accepting one of these offers will lead to new kinds of pain and poverty, the kinds that tear not just at the stomach, but at the soul.

Rachel’s childhood was at the opposite end of nearly every spectrum from the poor, undereducated Thai girls most at risk of being trafficked. Her parents run Goble Properties, a San Jose commercial real estate company founded by her grandfather. The business afforded Rachel an idyllic childhood. “I lived down the street from some of my best friends,” she told me, “and so evenings and weekends were spent riding bikes between each others’ houses and getting into mischief.”

Rachel Goble, Ember HeroRachel’s parents also had a unique passion that took her into a much larger world. “Some of my earliest memories are tromping through jungles looking for land while a Mayan man would swing a machete only inches from my head to clear a path,” Rachel recalled. Her parents began exploring the connections between the environmental damage and poverty in the Central American country of Belize. Rachel took her first of many trips to Belize when she was only nine.

By Rachel’s teenage years the Gobles had built Jaguar Creek, a sustainable center in the jungle to host teams from universities and churches around the world, who would come to learn how environmental degradation contributes to extreme poverty. Belize, Rachel said, was her second home. Her passport was completely filled with stamps by age fifteen. And she told me that her time there gave her a great and lasting gift: a sort of naivety in regards to cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, a comfort amidst difference.

It was this foundational comfort that allowed her to find one of the world’s most uncomfortable places, a place whose desperation became her calling. While traveling in India as part of her postgraduate work at Fuller Theological Seminary, Rachel visited a brothel. “We walked up sets of stairs to a hallway lined with rooms,” she recalled. “Each of these rooms was a waiting area that then had multiple doors that opened to bedrooms. This was where the women slept, as well as took customers.”

She sat down with two of the women in a waiting room and asked them their stories. One of the them, still in her early twenties and already a brothel veteran, said that unlike Rachel she had no opportunity, no way out. Although there were no bars or chains, she was trapped.

Trafficking is, in economic terms, people with opportunity and resources preying on those without, or put more simply, the rich paying to sleep with the poor. And Rachel, who had grown up with so much opportunity, now faced a woman whose life was shaped by the absence of opportunity. The consequences were unbearable. “I realized then that prevention was my calling,” said Rachel. “That no person should ever get to a place in their life where they’ve lost hope.”

About that same time Rachel was introduced to another Rachel, filmmaker Rachel Sparks, who was producing a film about trafficking in Thailand. When they both returned to the States they connected over similar experiences, and very similar conclusions: that trafficking is enabled by poverty, lack of education, a fundamental devaluation of girls and women, and that preventing trafficking starts with empowering girls.

In northern Thailand many families can’t afford much education, and by age 15 girls often have no choice but to drop out of school and start making an income for the family. But without the skills that a good education provides their chances to make money are extremely limited.

Student in Northern Thailand

Rachel signed on to help produce the documentary, and to start a non-profit alongside the film to start doing the work of education and empowerment—the work of prevention—in Thailand. Today that non-profit, The SOLD Project, has 140 students on scholarship, giving them the education that might save them from the world of trafficking and prostitution. These students get mentored by staff and older students, and have access to a resource center that gives them a fun and encouraging place to spend their non-school hours. SOLD also teaches the communities where they work about the tricks and terrors of trafficking, helping bind them together in a sort of safety net of prevention.

The 14-year-old girl at the beginning of our story is one of these students. Her sister came to SOLD, scared, and told them about the trafficker. A thousand dollars is a near life-changing sum in the hills of northern Thailand, especially for a family in hard times, as theirs was. Many girls, too many, have been taken in by such shiny, empty promises.

But this 14-year-old girl said no. She told the SOLD staff later that she remembered the the anti-trafficking training she’d been given and she simply told the woman no. And the next morning, instead of going to a brothel, she went to school.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that her life was saved.

This is what Rachel is after, that more girls, indeed all girls, have the education and opportunity to say no. “This is our message,” she says, “that child prostitution and exploitation can be prevented, and we all have a roll to play in ensuring that prevention.” And somehow her simple story about a girl in northern Thailand, more than a raft of statistics and annual reports, makes me think she must be right. 

The Rachel, Ember Arts

All this July we’re giving 50% of our online sales to The SOLD Project in Rachel’s honor. And this necklace is a special, limited edition piece we’ve designed to represent SOLD’s work to prevent human trafficking.

The necklace is made of two types of recycled paper beads: black beads, which represent the dangers of trafficking, and beads made from old books, which represent the stories that SOLD are helping their students live.

There are four sections of story beads along the necklaces sides, representing the four pillars of SOLD’s work: Education, Mentorship, Resources, and Awareness. And there are 140 beads in total, representing the 140 students SOLD currently has on scholarship. And the necklace transitions from dark in the back, through the four pillars, to bright stories in the front. It represents Rachel’s dream and The SOLD Project’s continuing mission to lead children out of trafficking’s dark halls and into the light of opportunity.

Partner Update: Gladies’ New Business

Join our contest on Pinterest to win a Mabira Necklace!gladies_portraitGladies is one of our first partners, which means she’s been working with us for the last five years. We affectionately refer to her as ‘Special Teams’ because she’s smart, dependable, and can get just about anything done. Recently she made a big step towards her dreams by starting her own small business.

Gladies fled from her family home in Amuru, an area in northern Uganda, about a decade ago during the civil war. When she first arrived in the Acholi Quarters community of Uganda’s capital city it was only a collection of mud huts around a stone quarry, where men, women, and children could do hard labor for about $1 per day. That’s what Gladies did to pull her family through.

These days Acholi Quarters is looking a lot better, and so is Gladies’ family. She has three children, and she’s paying for all of them to attend good local schools, an expensive feat in Uganda’s capital.

cover_gladies_smallAnd now Gladies is using her earnings from Ember Arts to expand her earning potential, too. She recently traveled back to Amuru and bought a rice milling machine, and rented a place in a big trading center to collect, mill, and sell rice. Farmers come for miles around to sell their harvest to her.

She partnered with her brother in the business, so now his family is benefiting, too. And they have big plans for the future.

Gladies and her brother plan to put up their own commercial building in the trading center, a place where they can process and store not just rice, but other crops, too. Building, she says, will start in December.

Like most of our partners here in Uganda, Gladies wants to eventually move back to her family home. With the money she’s earned and skills she’s learned as an Ember partner, she’s well on her way to accomplishing that dream.

 

Dreamer: Megan Krempels, A Creative Director’s Global Sabbatical

Connect with Megan and read more about her adventures on her blog.Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerIt’s a long way from South Korea to small-town colonial Pennsylvania, a trip Megan Krempels made at the tender age of two, when she was adopted from her native Korea by an American couple. Last month, after 28 years, she took the scenic route back. Megan put her successful career as a creative director on hold and sold most of what she owned for a four-month, around-the-world exploration of new cultures, her own identity, and the tensions between successful American life and the deeper values she has cultivated in herself.

Megan grew up in a small town near Pennsylvania Amish country—”the only Asian in a sea of white people,” she told me by email. Then for college she moved to Los Angeles, where she felt like a “small-town girl in a sea of city kids” and an “Asian who looks Asian but doesn’t act Asian.”

“You just feel out of place, everywhere,” Megan said.

She stayed in Los Angeles after school and built a career in design, eventually helping launch Little Black Bag, a fashion e-commerce site, as the company’s Creative Director. From there she got offers from a number of top companies and had startup ideas of her own. But something didn’t feel right this time.

“Here I was at the top of my career, being requested at incredible jobs most people would kill for and I felt completely jaded and empty,” Megan recalled. “Why do I keep hustling for this? To buy more? To move to a better place? I started getting healthy as a human but as a corporate cog I felt burnt out.”

She decided to leave Los Angeles, and started kindling an old dream of traveling the world, a dream she had postponed due to financial worries. “Fear of not having money kept me in the spin cycle,” she said. But now she thought about it differentlyShe had some savings, a retirement account she could cash out, a tax refund on its way, and plenty of stuff she could sell. She decided to go for it.

Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerShe listed most of her stuff for sale on Craigslist and in a few days was driving across the country with her dog, going back home to spend time with family and old friends, and to plan her adventure.

First she booked a flight to Peru, a country she’d itched to return to ever since a trip there in high school. When she learned she needed proof of a return flight to be allowed in the country, Megan happened upon a strange itinerary: Rio De Janeiro to London to Seoul, back to London and finally back to Philadelphia. And it was cheaper than direct flights home from Rio. She booked it, realizing as she did that it would be her first time to Korea since her adoption in 1984. This trip would truly take her full circle.

Megan’s goal in traveling, as close as I can get it, is simple enough to write. We all know the stuffiness that creeps into our lives, the accumulation of questionable habits, unquestioned assumptions, postponed and missed opportunities. These things hang around because they fit into our current lifestyle and relationships. Even seeing them clearly is tough. Changing them is near-miraculous.

Traveling internationally, not touristing but really traveling and experiencing cultures that are different from our own, is a wide open door that we walk through, out of our own stuffiness. From such a distance—the actual geographical distance giving rise to an emotional one—we can see our little worlds as the strange and arbitrary places they are and we can choose to live differently.

Part of the stuffiness Megan was trying to air out in her travels is the uniquely Western—and perhaps even more uniquely American—elevation of economic achievement as the primary value of a person. “Accomplishments, accolades, job titles, earning money and stuff: my personal self-worth was, um, 100% this for the majority of life,” she wrote on her website. And by unraveling this flag of identity and exploring other value systems, she seeks to get closer to her own core values, and ultimate value, as a human being. “The fullest versions of myself. Who is that?” Megan asks. “I honestly dunno. I’m learning it little by little but honoring each second.”

Finally, after four months in South America and a quick stop in London, she touched down in Seoul, South Korea and walked out into the country of her birth for the first time. “Physically, at first glance, yes I fit in,” she told me. “The clothes magically fit, the shoes slide on my short, wide feet perfectly, and they know how to cut my hair.” But when she asked locals if they could spot her as a foreigner, “there was a resounding response of, Yes, duh, absolutely.”

Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerMegan’s American upbringing and fast-lane career success set her apart from the average young Korean woman. “The country still values traditional gender roles in their most stereotypical sense,” she said. “Girls have found this interesting space of emulating the little girly-girl where they primp in public in front of huge floral-motif mirrors and take selfies in coffee shops. Meanwhile they run the show at home with their husbands and sons.” Megan was not as fashion-conscious as her Korean counterparts, and not as conservative, and acted a little more confident.

At first she was turned off by the formality of Korean culture. “Korea is a land of discipline and conformity,” she wrote, recalling a trip to a Korean salsa club. “You could only dance with a partner or you were forced into a corner to practice the steps in a group in front of a mirror. You weren’t allowed to just dance freely.” But soon she started noticing positive things: people’s considerateness of others in public spaces, thoughtful design incorporated into everyday life. And when she got out of Seoul a whole new appreciation blossomed. “Once I got out of the hustle of the city, people invited me into their lives and homes like family. I’ve never felt that way before. That feeling of being fully accepted and part of a culture immediately without trying.”

Now back home in Pennsylvania and planning her next venture, Megan says the trip helped her to appreciate her unique identity as a small-town-Korean-American-woman-startup-leader. “It’s become kinda fun to surprise people and remind them not to judge a book by its cover,” she told me, “to show them that someone young can have wisdom, a playful person can have depth, an artist can have a science brain, and being Asian isn’t easily defined.”

Through her travels Megan realized that she’s not alone in her mixed identity. “I’m not part of one single entity. But I don’t actually think any of us are now, so I feel a little less alone in that.” Our increasingly connected world gives us the opportunity to identify ourselves not only by our origin, but also by our destination, and perhaps most importantly by the journey we take to get there.

Connect with Megan and read more about her adventures on her blog.Megan Krempels, Ember Dreamer

 

Dreamer: Musician Karina Frost

By day Karina Frost manages our shipping department. By night she rocks San Diego’s soul.Karina Frost, Musician and Ember Dreamer

“My brother and I shoved toilet paper in our ears many nights to drown out the song my mom and dad just had to listen and dance to at full volume,” musician Karina Frost told me by email, a smile in her writing. “My parents’ love language is definitely music and dance.” It’s easy to imagine how contagious such a love would be to a child watching her parents enjoy themselves, their lives, each other.

As a young child Karina’s own particular love was books, or one book in particular: a children’s chapter book called Old Granny Fox. Raised in a Mexican household in Chula Vista, California, she spoke and read only Spanish. But so entranced was she by “aged, yellowed pages and the glorious musty smell” that she held the book close and imagined 100 different adventures for the old fox. Years later she joined an English speaking elementary school and found in books both a refuge from and a tool to tackle the challenge of learning a new language and a new culture. Books became, she told me, “as much a part of me as my blood and muscle.”

Both of Karina’s parents are from Ensenada, a small coastal city on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, about an hour’s drive from San Diego. Her parents drove her and her brother to Ensenada nearly every weekend, where they were surrounded by family.

One of the great privileges of being family to a younger generation is introducing them to the small wonders of the world, and sometimes watching them fall in love with one of them. Visiting her grandfather in Ensenada when she was only 12, Karina asked him to teach her how to play a song on his classical guitar. He taught her to play La Bamba. She took that guitar home for a week and wrote her first song.

fox n janeThe lyrics, she said, were embarrassing. But the collision of her love of music and her love of words was transformative. The next Christmas, Santa brought her a guitar of her own, and in writing and performing songs she found an opening through which her deepest thoughts and feelings could flow, and a place to connect on that level with others. “I have to admit,” Karina said, “the true reason I perform my music and not just write songs while alone in my little room is that I feel the most connected with mankind while exposing myself in the intimate way a performer does.”

It seems to me that her ability to dig down into herself, into the places where we all feel alike but alone, and to bring back something to share is foundational to Karina’s life. This, after all, is what she must love in the books she so treasures. This is what was unleashed in her when she wrote that first song. And this innate understanding of the value of her own thoughts and feelings and stories is probably why, though she still owns the book, she has never read the actual pages of Old Granny Fox. She doesn’t need to. All the fox’s stories are within her.

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