Dreamer: Jessica Connolly, Co-Founder of Ember Arts

Jessica with Gladies in Acholi Quarters, UgandaThe first seeds of Ember Arts were planted back in 2007, when my sister Jessica Connolly was pregnant with her first child. The birth of her daughter, my niece, transformed our family. It was my parents’ first grandchild. Jessica stepped away from marine biology to focus on motherhood. And both she and my mom started selling Ugandan jewelry, little by little, at farmer’s markets and craft shows.

Of course it was most transforming for Jessica herself. Not only was she suddenly a mother, a world entire for this new little person, but the process of being pregnant and giving birth gave her a burning new interest.

“I dove in and learned all I could about the maternity system and the choices women have,” Jessica told me. The birth of her daughter was attended by a midwife, a woman trained to understand giving birth not just as a medical event, but as a normal and healthy part of a woman’s life. That experience, Jessica said, “was the beginning of a passion that has turned into a calling to educate, empower and attend women during this transformative life event.”

Jessica Connolly, Co-Founder of Ember Arts

Jessica set her sights on becoming a midwife. She sees it as not just a personal calling, but a global one. “Training skilled midwives to attend women in places of conflict and poverty, where women don’t have a voice or access to care, is one of the most powerful social development tools we have today,” said Jessica.

Now with two daughters and another on the way, freeing up the time and resources for the necessary schooling is a challenge. Jessica started by becoming a doula here in San Diego, and offers physical, emotional, and informational support to women throughout their pregnancies and births. “The challenge is balancing a calling with the current season of life,” she told me. “My priority now is to invest the better part of my time in my kids while they are young and maintain my role at Ember while stewarding my dream.”

It’s strange to think that my nieces never knew a time before Ember Arts. And that so many of the dreams of my family trace their way back to that same year that Jessica’s oldest was born. It probably doesn’t surprise Jessica, though. “Birth is one of the few raw, wild moments in life,” she told me, “when, in a day, we are transformed and empowered and changed.”

Nominate Our Next Ember Hero

Nominate an Ember HeroTwice every year we choose a new Ember Hero, a young woman chasing a beautiful dream to make the world a better place. We share her story with the world and donate 50% of our online sales to her dream for one month. Past Heroes are empowering sex trafficking survivors, creating jobs in the developing world, and working to end conflict in central Africa. Learn more about each of them on our Ember Heroes page.

Now we want your help to find our next Ember Hero. Use the form below to nominate a woman you think should have her dream featured and supported by the Ember community. We’ll narrow down the nominations and then open it to our community to vote for the winner.

Update, May 3, 2013: Nominations are closed. Voting begins soon!

Dreamer: Rebecca Snavely, Co-Founder
of Action Kivu

Follow Rebecca’s work with Action Kivu on Facebook.
Rebecca Snavely, Ember Dreamer, in Mumosho, Democratic Republic of Congo
On the television show Project Runway, aspiring fashion designers sew for a chance at sudden fame and success. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a small group of women sew in hopes of feeding and educating their children. These two realities, still so distant on our small planet, are connected by one woman: Rebecca Snavely.

Rebecca grew up a bookworm and followed her fascination with story into entertainment and journalism, and to countries like Ethiopia and Kosovo. Her most recent job is casting for Project Runway, where she explores the fashion blogging world in search of the next potential star. “My favorite part of the job is interviewing people to find out the quirks of their personal stories,” Rebecca told me by email.

A few years ago she and her friend Cate Haight, a film editor in Los Angeles, read Half the Sky, Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn’s treatise on global injustice against women. When they reached the section about Congo, about rape being used as a weapon of war and the courage of women in the face of such violence, they decided together to do something. Through a friend, they connected with Amani Matabaro, a Congolese man who founded his own non-profit to serve women and children in eastern Congo. “I have never met anyone like Amani,” Rebecca told me. “Cate and I are inspired by his never-ending dedication to making a difference in his community, his persistence, his joy, his intelligence, his empathy and love for those he works and lives with.”

She and Cate founded Action Kivu to help Amani fund his work, and to support positive change in Congo through the “powerful, purposeful people of its local communities.” The work they support tackles practical challenges like education, income generation, and stopping domestic violence. And it’s all driven by the needs of the Congolese communities where it’s accomplished. In a land where women are often scorned and abused, Ernata, a woman who learned tailoring in Amani’s program, sums up the benefits: “I am very proud of myself today, and my husband is proud of me and he’s happy to have me as a wife, especially as I help make an income for the family.”

Rebecca Snavely with Amani Matabaro.Rebecca, Cate, and Amani plan to start a fair trade program to sell the products created in Congo in the American market, and to create a ‘Peace School’ to provide education for the vulnerable children of Amani’s home community, many of whom are orphaned by war and disease. Rebecca dreams of working full time on Action Kivu, connecting with funders and other partners to magnify their impact. The work of Action Kivu, she told me, “is what makes my heart break with anguish and joy, what wakes me up, what makes me come alive.”

In the meantime, she will keep splitting her life across two worlds. “It’s an odd and beautiful balance of realities: women who are trying to sew their way into the world of fashion, and women who trying to sew their way out of poverty and into empowerment.” She is helping bring those stories a little closer together, and as she put it so well, “as we all grow closer and share our stories, helping each other find our talents and our voices, as we create places of peace, peace that is crucial for hope to take hold, we can learn from watching each other begin live life to the fullest, without fear.” A worthy dream indeed.

Rebecca told me you can support her and her dreams by connecting with Action Kivu on Facebook and Twitter, and by sharing the stories of the women, men and children of eastern Congo. You are, of course, encouraged to donate on their site. And introductions to foundations that might invest in their work would be a tremendous help.

Dreamer: Poet Ciona Rouse, Founder of Do The Crazy Thing

Visit our Facebook page and enter to win a Do The Crazy Thing poster!
Poet Ciona Rouse, Founder of Do The Crazy Thing
At a writer’s workshop in Nashville, poet Ciona Rouse was prompted to write a postcard to herself from someone she had lost. She thought of her late friend and mentor, Teri. And when she saw a postcard with a picture of a busker balancing a sword on his chin, she knew it was the one. She flipped the card over and began to write, ‘Do the crazy thing…’

“This is exactly the way she lived and what she would say to me,” Ciona told me by email, “take risks, do the thing on your heart!” The resultant poem, Do The Crazy Thing, spoke to Ciona like an old friend at a time when she needed one. “I also remember it feeling so different from anything I usually write,” she said, “which made it feel even more like a special message from Teri just to me.”

Do The Crazy Thing Poster

The digital storyteller for lululemon athletica, the women’s athletic company where Ciona works, designed a poster to illustrate the poem and posted it on the company’s blog. The poster was pinned, tumbled and tweeted across the interwebs, and people started sharing stories of their ‘crazy things’ with Ciona, and telling her how her poem inspired them.

Now, two years later, Ciona just launched thecrazything.com, a place to inspire people to find and do the crazy things on their hearts. “I see that the world will be made more wonderful by people discovering their passions and living fully into their wild and crazy dreams,” said Ciona.

Ciona told me over Skype that Do The Crazy Thing feels like it belongs as much to her mentor as to herself. When Teri passed away, even people who had never met her sent cards, because everyone in the community knew someone she had touched. Ciona hopes that through thecrazything.com, people she has never met will be touched by the same simple, profound words that Teri inspired in her: “Do the crazy thing.”

Ember Dreamers are members of the Ember community who are chasing inspiring dreams. Know someone we should feature? Write us at dream@emberarts.com.

Back to School, Uganda Style

Back to school, Uganda style
Photo courtesy of Emily Goodrich

School in Uganda isn’t like school in America. The kids actually want to go. It’s a privilege.

And it’s expensive. Many Ugandan families can’t afford to send their children to school, or might be able to educate only one of their children, especially at the high school and college levels.

This month Ugandan schools will reopen for a new term, and the 28 women we partner with there will see over 100 children off to their first day of classes. Many are entering new grades. Some are starting school for the first time. All of them are on an educational path that opens into a world of opportunity.

Our partners have long dreamed of educating their children. We are proud to run alongside them as they make this dream come true.

Down from the door where it began.

Hi There, I’m James

James A. Pearson Ember Arts

Hi there, I’m James (I’m the one in the front). Starting right now, anytime you hear from Ember through Facebook, emails, or on the Twitter, it’s me you’re hearing from.

A little about me:

  • I’m farsighted. My glasses will hurt your eyes.
  • I’ve been in and out of Uganda for about seven years, and I still haven’t seen the gorillas.
  • I thrive on ridiculously long and involved email chains, so be careful what you write me.
  • If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s supporting the best dreams of the people around me.

Ember started when some Ugandan friends sent me home to America with a box of jewelry for my mom. She fell in love. Little did we know that five years later we’d be sending jewelry to stores all over the US! A lot of you know that Ember is a family business. It’s me, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and a bunch friends who have become like family: Joey, Emily, Anne, Cheryl, Karina, Max… this list goes on. And of course our partners, 28 women in Uganda and their families.

And then there’s you. We wouldn’t be here with out you. You’re like our very extended family. Thanks for being a part of this adventure. I’m looking forward to sharing with and hearing from you!

Get Excited in 2013

Belief + Love = Passion

Click for Macbook Pro sized wallpaper

A few weeks ago I realized I was boring. Not boring to other people (or not more than usual), but boring to myself.

A friend asked me as I rode shotgun in his car through Kampala if I was excited about my upcoming travels—from Uganda to the USA and back. I told him that I was glad to make them, but not excited, really. This answer, honest as it was, unsettled me.

Later that day, still unsettled, I thought back over the last year. Often when someone asked me, “What are you up to lately?” or “What’s going on with you these days?”, I had nothing to tell them that I was excited about. My life wasn’t exciting to me.

Which is stupid.

There are things I’ve believed deeply in that, when I started actually working on them, just weren’t exciting to me. 

 

I don’t much care if my life is exciting to other people. But to spend my hours on things that aren’t even exciting to me is a waste.

The next day, on a layover in transit to the US, I sat in Ethiopia’s international airport and started writing. What would 2013 look like if I filled it with things that I was excited about? 

Excitement and passion are closely tied. We’re excited to do the things we’re passionate about. Everything else eventually becomes tedium. Being a pretty cerebral person I had long thought that passion just meant really strong belief. Like if I just really believed in an idea or a cause then I would, de facto, be passionate about it, and so would be excited to spend my hours, days, and years on it.

But this hasn’t turned out to be true. There are things I’ve believed deeply in that, when I started actually working on them, just weren’t exciting to me.

There in the airport in Addis Abababa I realized that belief wasn’t enough, that there is something more to passion. That missing piece, I think, is best called Love.

We just like them because we like them; we can’t give our reasons. Our love of them is defenselessly true, down to the bones.

 

Love in this sense is that deep, reasonless affinity we feel for certain things and activities and people, and not for others. Like preferring tennis over golf, or liking one friend’s sense of humor more than most, or the joy I find in writing that I don’t find in 100 other types of work.

We don’t like these things because we believe in them or have reasoned them out. We just like them because we like them; we can’t give our reasons. Our love of them is defenselessly true, down to the bones.

This sort of reasonless love mixed with deep belief makes passion. Or for the mathematically minded: Passion = Belief + Love. The overlap of belief and love, I think, is where we find the sort of sustaining passion that will keep us excited about our lives day after week after month after year.

At least that’s what I’m hoping. I hope that in 2013 every time someone asks me what’s happening in my life I have something exciting to tell them. Not exciting to them, necessarily. Exciting to me.

Ember Partner: Tukula

Tukula Workshop

Jinja, the source of the Nile, is a major tourist destination in Uganda. With whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, and beautiful views of the river to occupy your time, you might overlook the town itself and the growing textile industry found there, which is turning out some of the most spectacular weaving and tailoring I’ve seen in Uganda. Through the windows of one small shop along a main road, you’ll often see Sally, a tailor, hard at work behind her pedal-operated sewing machine; the word “Tukula” painted on the wall behind her.

In the local language, Tukula means “we grow,” and that is precisely what Sally and her co-workers are doing as they refine their tailoring skills and learn to believe in a better future for themselves. Sally, who is newly married and does not yet have children of her own, dreams of one day opening her own tailoring shop in her home village. For now, she is happy to be able to help her father pay school fees for her younger siblings, to make sure they will have opportunities to succeed. Founder Melissa Terranova has worked tirelessly to promote the talents of these women, and makes sure they are provided with fair salaries, medical care, and access to savings programs.

This year, Ember Arts has partnered with Tukula to make colorful kitinge headwraps, which you can find in our shop online. We believe that Tukula’s mission lines up perfectly with our vision, and have been excited about this opportunity to work with them. In their words, “There is so much potential for people if you just give them a chance to dream. We’ve seen first-hand how quickly circumstances can change for young women by giving them that chance. After getting to know the ladies of Tukula, we realized they have dreams beyond their sewing machines. Whether they want to buy livestock or teach others how to sew, Tukula is dedicated to giving these ladies the opportunity to reach their goals.”

Tukula Logo

Do More Than Just Shop

[Thanks to Caava Design for the beautiful posters. See below for the full collection.]

Getting gifts is good. Giving is better. But best of all is investing in the people you care about.

Today, Black Friday, is a blemish on America. After a day of family and gratefulness we trample each other in pursuit of stuff we don’t need.

We do need gifts from each other. And buying something thoughtful for another person can be a wonderful gesture of relationship. But the gifts we really need can’t be bought.

We need each other’s presence. We need encouraging words and warm hugs. We need forgiveness and generosity and understanding and the assurance that, no matter what, I’ll be there for you.

We need the sometimes difficult recognition of our equal humanity regardless of which continent we were born in, what color our skin takes, how much money we do or don’t have, or any other factor that tends to separate us.

If you are going to buy gifts, it’s better to invest in products that make a positive difference. A few companies we recommend: Krochet KidsSseko, Mend, Plywood, and of course Ember.

Buying from these companies makes the world a little better, but it’s just a start. Do more than just shop. Give the things you can’t buy: your time, your attention, your heart. You have so much more to give.

Do More Than Just Shop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do More Than Just Shop gif

Stella’s Long Dream

[As you browse our online store this season you'll see a beautiful Ugandan woman modeling our jewelry. This is Stella. She is one of 28 Ugandan women who handcraft every piece of jewelry we sell. This is her story. Thanks for helping her write it.]

Stella with her Family

Stella’s beautiful daughter Susan just started ‘baby class,’ Uganda’s version of kindergarten. But it would be hard to understand how much this means to Stella without first knowing about Internally Displaced Person’s camps.

Stella was raised in northern Uganda at the height of Joseph Kony’s terrible rebellion. His soldiers, many of them abducted as children themselves, killed three of her brothers. That’s when her family moved into a nearby IDP camp.

 

‘The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.’

 

These camps were ostensibly planned for the protection of families like Stella’s, but were often more deadly than the rebels. Thousands of poor farming families were crammed into close quarters with no education, healthcare, opportunity. For food people relied on the UN to delivers sacks of corn flour and beans. Malnourishment and disease ruled people’s lives. The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.

But Stella made it out. She met her future husband in the camp and he decided to make his way to Kampala, Uganda’s peaceful capital city, to look for work. Four years later she followed him. Life in Kampala was better, said Stella. There were no gunshots at night and people weren’t sick all the time.

But still there was poverty. She worked hard in a local rock quarry, pounding stones into gravel to scrape out rent and put food on the table. Then suddenly she was pregnant, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to provide her baby with food, healthcare, the education that Stella herself never had.

At this moment of great hope and fear, we met Stella near the rock quarry and she joined Ember Arts.

With her new income from making jewelry she quickly organized a proper wedding with her husband. Soon little Susan was born into a family brimming with new hope. Stella and her husband helped pay school fees for six relatives as Susan grew and their son Jonathan was born. Today Stella has goals of building her family a house back in the north, now that it’s peaceful, and of opening a produce business.

But her greatest dream is to educate her children, to provide Susan and Jonathan with the sort of opportunity that did not exist back in the IDP camps. And now, seven years after leaving the camp, that dream is coming true.