The Willow Necklace
An Ember Arts Featured Fall Piece
What are your top three dreams?
This is a question we like to ask here at Ember. It’s a question we asked of our artisans in Uganda at the very beginning of our partnership. There is hardly a more beautiful sight than the radiance of an African woman’s face when she lights up and shares her dreams.
And it’s amazing that the women still dream. After surviving the brutality of civil war, poverty, domestic violence, and social injustice their dreams are fully fueled. The women each have individual, unique, and inspiring dreams, but one thing made it to the top three of every single one of their lists.
We asked each of our partners what she was dreaming of, and every women answered with dreams of education. Stella dreams of seeing her children graduate from university. Agnes dreams of owning a computer and finishing her own schooling. Lucy has nieces and nephews who she wants to purchase school uniforms for.
The women have dreams and incredible work ethics, now all they need is our support.
This is why Ember Arts is so proud to introduce our Library Bead Collection. Made from recycled book pages, the jewelry is a testament of hope. With every purchase of Ember Arts jewelry, our Ugandan partners are one step closer to earning the finances they need to fund their dreams of education.
We hope that the Library Bead Collection will inspire you to make a difference in the lives of Ugandan women, remind you of the value of education, and take you deeper into the journey of cultivating beautiful dreams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I was eight years old I went on a trip to Swaziland, Africa and brought with me my diary and imagination. There I met a boy who could not have been more different than me, yet we became instant friends. When I was eight years old, I began to understand things like race, social status, and what money could buy, but I hadn’t yet allowed those things to determine my perceptions of people. I became friends with that boy because he had a nice smile, his dog would lick my hand, and we could together throw rocks into the hillside. We had nothing in common and were from completely different worlds. I had years of opportunity ahead of me. He had very little to get him through the day.
After a month of play time, as I was prepping to depart, the boy asked me to do one simple thing for him. I thought very little of his request at the time, but over the years his words have stuck with me. His words have changed the way I think about people, and the way I think about my purpose in this life.
“Don’t forget about me.”
The boy knew that I would leave Africa and that I would go home to America, and that I would return to a life far different from his. And all he wanted was for me to remember, to record his presence, to acknowledge his existence.
I don’t remember the boy’s name, or hardly anything about him, but I remember the way he made me feel. He didn’t make me feel white, or rich, or like a tourist in his town. He simply treated me like he would any other playmate. He was ready and willing to do life with me.
I started working at Ember Arts just a few months ago, and with every story I hear about the work we are doing in Uganda, I am brought back to the memories of the times I spent in Swaziland with that boy.
At Ember we are all about doing life with our partners in Uganda. This means that we don’t care if our skin is different colors, or if many of our employees are separated by oceans. We will still throw rocks into the hillside, we will still laugh, and play, and hold your children. We will dream with you.
I have learned that one of the first steps towards dreaming is remembering. When teaching people how to dream again, we must first acknowledge the past from where they come. We recognize the atrocities that our Ugandan partners have suffered through. We have cried over their lost children, their broken families, their wounded bodies. We have sat in silence contemplating what to do with those memories of hurt.
And we have been blown away by the brilliant smiles the Ugandan people still wear on their faces. The Ugandan women and men who we have grown to love and cherish and support have taught us that all we need in this world is to remember that we each are human, to acknowledge that we each long to be known.
When I wear Ember Arts jewelry, I’m acknowledging that those Ugandan women are alive, and beautiful, and so worth while.
I will continue to remember that boy who I met so many years ago. I will remember that we all have dreams, and that we all deserve to live them.
I promised him. So I will.
Sustainability. It’s a buzz word, a word we hear so often.
We hear it used by environmentalists, politicians, fortune 500 companies, and our hipster friends. We hear this word nearly every day and yet do we ever hear anyone really define it? Do we know what sustainability really means?
At Ember Arts we talk about sustainability quite a bit. It’s something we strive for, it’s in our mission statement, it’s what we value.
Now sustainability can mean something different to different people. But we wanted to let you in to the world of Ember, to what sustainability means to us.
At Ember Arts we believe that sustainability applies to the way we care for the earth and also the people around us. We think it’s so important to create products in ways that will protect natural resources, promote reusing and up-cycling materials, and discourage waste.
We also believe that sustainability should not just be an ecological goal, but also a relational one. At Ember Arts, we want to build sustainable relationships with people — friendships that last and thrive. By being compassionate, steadfast, and authentic we believe that whole communities of people can work together to achieve positive social change.
“Sustainability is our long term goal. We want Ember Arts to be a launching point for the women we work with in Uganda and for our family and staff here in America. We want to see their time with Ember build skill sets, confidence, and self worth that allows them to move forward, dream big, and accomplish any goal.”
- Jessica Connolly, Ember Arts Co-Founder
When you really break it down, the word sustainable is all about support, strength, longevity, and the ability to continually survive and thrive. This is what Ember Arts strives to be for our Ugandan partners. Before Ember Arts existed, our artisans worked in a rock quarry where they would sit in the hot sun with a makeshift hammer, pounding stones into gravel. Making less than $1 a day, the women were barely able to stay alive.
Now, with the money they make from Ember Arts, the women’s lives are being sustained. They have enough food on the table, they’re building homes, their children are going to school, and they are investing money into new businesses. These women, their families, and their entire community are now living sustainable lives.
Although we’re not perfect, and we’re learning new business practices everyday, Ember Arts does several things in an effort to be sustainable.
For instance, we have a tiny office with just the essentials, enabling us to keep our wastes to a minimum and save on resources like electricity and water.
Most of us who work at Ember Arts, live in the community where our office is, which means we ride our bikes and walk to work. Sustainable commuting!
And probably the most important way we incorporate sustainability in our business is through the design of our jewelry. Apart from things like metal clasps and earring hooks, all of the materials we use in creating Ember jewelry are up-cycled and recycled goods. Using materials that are locally sourced like recycled paper, seeds, and wood, our designs are extremely sustainable, cost effective, and leave no waste.
Next time you hear the word sustainability, ask yourself what it could mean, and what you can do to practice sustainable living.
Clayton and Jessica Connolly (together with their parents, daughters, siblings, an artist in Uganda, and a couple of college students) bring life to the business and story of Ember Arts. Together they are empowering dreamers and working to build a compassionate, sustainable network of individuals who can make a positive impact in their world.
During the whole month of August the Connolly family is taking the Ember Arts story and hitting the road. They’re calling this adventure the Ember Ambassadors West Coast Road Trip.
Read some more about Ember Ambassadors as the Connolly’s share their plans for their road trip:
What are three reasons why you are taking your family and your business on a month-long road trip?
1. We simply love being on the road and seeing new places. Our girls have so much fun playing road games like “I Spy” and blasting music while singing along. We also believe that traveling to new places and seeing new sites is so enriching to young minds. We want our daughters to grow up knowing how big the world is and valuing every single person they come across during life.
2. Ember Arts is in a stage of expansion, a time when we are striving to grow our business and further our sphere of influence. Simply put, we want to see our jewelry sold in more stores, so we’re going out adventuring in search of those new partners.
3. Also, from past experiences we’ve learned that individuals are more likely to purchase a product when they can shake the hand of the person who is selling. We so value meeting with people face to face, sharing stories, and building relationships. We want to be as authentic and intentional as possible when interacting with our partners and customers. What a better way to build relationships than to simply stop by and say hi.
Give us a glimpse into your travel plans. What will you be doing?
Our plan is to drive up the West Coast of the United States, starting in our home base of San Diego and ending in Seattle. We are hoping to stop in as many towns and cities as possible, meeting with retail store owners. We’ll shake lots of hands, pass out business cards, and give away free jewelry, all with the intention of sharing the Ember Arts story.
Your road trip sounds amazing! How can I join in on the fun?
We would love to have you become a part of the Ember Ambassadors story. Here a couple of ways you can join us.
1. Follow us on Instagram (@emberarts) and on Facebook (search Ember Arts) to see fun photos of our trip.
2. Help us make our travel plans, tell us where we should go! Do you have a favorite boutique, bookstore, or gift shop on the West Coast that you think should sell Ember Arts jewelry? Let us know and we’ll try to stop by that store. You can send us your thoughts by emailing email@example.com or commenting on any of our social media posts.
This is Emily Grace Goodrich — designer and dreamer. She is the creative mind behind Ember Arts and has served as our jewelry designer in Kampala, Uganda for the past five years. She brings color, vibrancy, and ingenuity to both our products and the Ember Arts story.
Not a single day is the same for Emily, living in Uganda, though every morning she wakes to the sound of chickens clucking. She will often take a white minivan taxi into town to visit the Owina Market, where she searches for used paper and old books to use in Ember Arts designs. Several times a week she travels to the outskirts of the city to a neighborhood called Acholi Quarters, where the women of Ember Arts work and live. Emily is there to conduct meetings and train the women on crafting jewelry. It is a lifestyle she loves — something so much more than a job.
We are so very proud to have Emily on our team and are grateful for the beauty she brings to the Ember Arts family.
Emily Goodrich: I think there are similarities in some ways. I mostly studied painting and photography, but things like color and pattern and line are applicable across all creative fields. I think my designs are a lot more influenced by the ebb and flow of materials into Uganda. It’s tricky to figure out which jewelry components will be available in the local markets consistently; and so more and more, I’m trying to look toward alternative sorts of materials.
I’ve definitely learned a lot about hospitality and resilience from them, but lately, we’ve been learning together the value of celebration. This last year has had its fair share of bumps and challenges for the group and for individuals in it, but we’ve decided to start bringing a little fun into our meetings. We threw a small party the last time an order shipped to the U.S., and had refreshments and played a few silly games. The ladies have decided that this should be standard: they’re usually focused on business, and they realized that it’s important to enjoy each other’s presence.
No matter how many times I say otherwise, people still think I live in a mud hut. There are certainly people here that do, but Uganda is growing and changing. It’s a place of strange juxtapositions.
Uganda has its fair share of dirt roads, slums, and political struggles, but every single one of the women we work with has a mobile phone, and they know how to send text messages and mobile money. A lot of them have TVs and stereos in their homes, and are sitting and watching Columbian telenovelas and other international television shows during lunch. There are also opportunities for entrepreneurs and enterprising folks everywhere.
This is why I think the work that we’re doing at Ember Arts is so important. Most of the Ember ladies are content to move back to the village one day, but their children are going to inherit this new world of technology and rapidly changing information — even here in Uganda. When these women who we work with are able to send their kids to secondary schools and universities, I think it helps to ensure those children a voice in the future of their country.
There is a lot of room to do some good in the world with our purchasing power.
I really enjoy “making things,” so I think I’ll always be interested in the way that human beings interact with one another as consumers and producers. There is a lot of room to do some good in the world with our purchasing power. There are also a lot of ways to do harm. Eventually, I’d love to figure out how to make those ideas more accessible to people, especially when the assumption is that things like organic and fair trade have to equal expensive. There’s a whole lot for me to think through before I have any concrete steps, but I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing experiences in those areas. I’d love to share them in a tangible way, with a blog or maybe even a retail space.
Stop dreaming about it, and just start moving forward. I often find myself getting stuck in the realm of “maybe someday,” and I’m learning that even baby steps will get you there faster than waiting for the right time or enough resources. If you need money, start putting change in a jar. If you’re waiting for more free time, spend just fifteen minutes a day working toward that goal. Little things add up.
The first thing you’ll notice about Agnes is her great sense of style. She’s always well put together, or as they say in Uganda, “looking smart.” Perhaps this is because she has a designers eye; in addition to her work with Ember Arts, she is constantly making jewelry of her own and testing out new ideas. Her creativity, though, is well balanced by a gifted mind that constantly seeks out opportunities to learn new things.
At every meeting in Acholi Quarters, you’ll find Agnes huddled over a notebook, adding figures or taking records. These days, she’s the person you call to organize a meeting, or the representative sent to town to purchase supplies like earring hooks and string for the group. She has a quick wit and a good sense of humor, and has made herself an invaluable part of the beadmaking group.
Though she’s easily the best with words and numbers, it’s surprising to learn that she was never able to finish school. For awhile, she was overcome by challenges, and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her own dreams. These days, though, she is happy to see her children in school, and dreams of finishing her own studies, too. She’s working toward that goal, and even daring to dream smaller things along the way: she’s set her sights on getting access to a computer, and learning to use email, Excel, and other programs that can help her with her work.
Nearly all of the women we partner with through Ember Arts are mothers, and part of the privilege of working with them is the opportunity to see their children grow throughout the years. We frequently have babies and toddlers teetering through the office, and during training sessions, older children stop buy regularly to deliver messages from home and watch their mothers at work.
Achiro Paska’s two youngest daughters, Emily and Evelin, have been staples at our meetings over the last few years, and she was happy to be asked to show them off and speak more about their lives.
When prompted to share her favorite part about being a mother, Paska couldn’t choose; from pregnancy to teenagers, so far, she’s loved it all. With six children from ages 14 months to 14 years, she has certainly seen motherhood from many different angles. While she admits to getting annoyed when her children are quarreling with each other, most days she is happy to see them playing well together. They even have a favorite game that she couldn’t quite explain through her laughter, apparently it’s so funny that even the thought of it makes her giggle.
Paska herself was left with relatives at the age of three, and grew up without a mother. She is determined to live her life differently, no matter what sort of trials she faces. Her advice to other mothers is “Love your children, whatever you are facing, and educate them. If you educate and love them it is good, because they are the future.”
She is most proud of her children when they do well in school, and working to earn money for their school fees is her greatest concern. Her dream is that they will all finish their educations, and never have to struggle the way she did growing up.
We are thrilled to be partnering alongside hard-working mothers like Paska, and so grateful for the support of all the women- mothers and otherwise- that help make those dreams a reality.
When 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.
Oklahoma 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/