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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Ember Hero Giveaway!

We believe in heroes. Not the mutant, alien, superpower kind, but the real kind. The kind of people that make the world better, if only a little bit at a time. Like our Ugandan partners, women working their tails off to chase their dreams and build better futures for their families. And Becky Straw, who has made huge sacrifices to create good jobs in the developing world.

Who are the heroes in your life? Do you have a friend or sister or teacher or mom who has made all the difference? Is there someone you know who is chasing her dreams and inspiring you to do the same? Take a moment to tell them they are a hero, and through our Ember Hero Giveaway you could win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for you and a pair for your hero.

Just follow these quick steps:
1) Click on this photo to go to Facebook:

2) Tag your hero in a comment on the photo, and tell them what makes them a hero. Comment as many times as you want, and please only tag one friend per comment. (If you can’t comment, ‘like’ Ember Arts first.)
3) The winner, announced next week, will win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for your and a pair for your hero.

We all need heroes, and luckily they’re all around us. Take a minute to tag a hero, and good luck in the giveaway!

Becky Straw, Ember Hero

Becky Straw is our Fall 2012 Ember Hero. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to her organization, The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Do not start a nonprofit, says Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit. She makes a strong case. If you start a nonprofit you’ll be broke, stressed, and you’ll have to be boring while you work long hours with no money. You will be rejected a lot. And, by the odds, you’ll fail within a few years.

Becky has been through all of it except the failing. For the last two years she lived couch-to-couch, maxing out her credit cards and relying on gracious friends and family, and working with her co-founder Jody Landers to build the foundation of an enormous vision. They aim to create one million jobs in the developing world within a decade.

Sitting across the table from Becky in a cafe in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, she says she’s tired from flying across the world and spending three long days in the field catching up with a social business she partners with. Still she crackles with energy. I’ve been in the country three extra, less busy days and I’m fading with jet lag. She shares with me the grand vision she and her partner are building, lamenting that it’s hard to shrink it down to the elevator pitch that many would-be backers want.

Her vision sees good businesses in poor countries as the final solution to poverty, and to many other endemic problems, like access to clean water and affordable healthcare. The Adventure Project aims to focus international attention and money on these businesses, helping them scale and make the biggest positive impact.

And, in a way, it all started with swimming.

“As a kid I was terrible,” Becky told me later over email. “I’m not trying to be modest, I have multiple last place ribbons to prove it.” Then, when she was twelve, a swim coach took her aside and gave her this advice: “Everything in life is 90% hard work and only 10% talent, so just work harder than everyone else.”

“That stuck with me, and he was right,” said Becky. “I put my head down and never stopped trying.” Her hard work earned her a scholarship to swim collegiately on a team that won two conference titles. She still wasn’t the fastest on the team (“I was the worst of the best”) but, she recalls, “it didn’t really matter to me, because I learned that I love to work hard, and will go to great lengths to make something happen.”

 

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut, and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again.”

 

That sort of determination, ‘Grit’, as it’s often called, is being hailed by top researchers as one of the most important characteristics of successful people. And Becky clearly has large grit reserves. Which means that she could likely succeed at just about anything: movie making, real estate development, technology startups, fields that could win her fame or fortune or both. So why put all that determination towards stopping poverty?

“I think the main experience for me was volunteering in Romania after college,” she said. A couple from Ohio ran a group home for kids who had been orphaned and abused. Some of them had been confined to cribs for the first ten years of their lives and had to learn to walk starting at age eleven.

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut,” said Becky, “and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again. It made me horribly sad to see the vast disparity between the rich and poor. But it was also incredibly hopeful, because I witnessed resilience and love. And it gave me purpose.”

She earned a Master’s in International Social Welfare from Columbia before joining a fledgling non-profit called charity: water. Becky was employee number three, and helped launch one of the most innovative and successful non-profits in the world. She left charity: water during some challenging organizational growth pains and soon reconnected with a donor named Jody she had become fast friends with a year earlier during a trip to Liberia. Over dinner in Colorado they discovered their common passion for social enterprise and started a Google document titled, “Launch List,” filled with items like “Assemble a board” and “Get charitable status”.

They started in on the to do list in October 2010 and launched The Adventure Project a month later.

So far they have partnered with four social ventures in four developing countries, creating over 350 jobs. These businesses are helping solve the problems of hunger, water, environment, and healthcare, and are serving almost 900,000 people.

When I met her in Uganda she had been visiting one of these partners, a company called Living Goods that combines the Avon door-to-door sales model with the effectiveness of community driven healthcare. Women are trained as community health workers and visit the homes of their neighbors, checking on family health and offering advice and selling low-cost solutions where necessary.

On her organization’s blog Becky shares a story (with beautiful photos from Esther Havens) that epitomizes the impact she and Jody are having. A Ugandan woman named Gertrude, recently widowed and left with three young children, was hired and trained by Living Goods as they expanded to her village. When she started visiting homes she met a woman who had three children sick with malaria and no money for medication. Gertrude decided to trust the woman and paid for the medications herself before moving on to the next house. Two days later the children had recovered, the woman had repaid Gertrude for the medication, and the village was buzzing that Gertrude had saved these children’s lives. Now her new health business is booming and she can afford to send her kids to school. And all throughout the village she is known as “the Kind One.”

Becky’s dream, and the vision of The Adventure Project, is to take Gertrude’s story and multiply it by a million. One million new jobs. One million people solving their communities’ problems. One million families out of poverty. It’s the kind of goal that will take, more than anything, a lot of grit.

Learn more about Becky’s work here. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Behind the Scenes

Ember Arts is all about creating beautiful jewelry and helping our Ugandan partners fulfill their dreams; but with the fun parts comes a lot of behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t often make it into the limelight.

First and foremost is choosing the paper. Most of the recycled paper that we use comes from Owino, a bustling and crowded marketplace in the center of Uganda’s capital. After winding through a maze of temporary stalls, piles of used clothing, boda boda motorcycles, and giant loads of goods strapped to the backs of bicycles, there’s an aisle lined with booths of paper stacked ten to twelve feet high.

This paper comes from all over the city, in the form of outdated brochures and advertisement posters, mistakes from local printers, and pretty much any other source of used paper you can think of. This is Kampala’s version of a recycling program, where virtually no scrap goes to waste. The women scour the stacks of paper, looking for colors like rich reds, blues, and the elusive favorite turquoise. Gladies is an expert at negotiating and has a great eye for color, so she’s often one of the representatives sent to the market to choose paper. She’ll also pay a visit to one of many small jewelry supply shops in town to buy things like spacer beads, ear hooks, and string.

 

 

After the paper makes its way back to Acholi Quarters, the co-op has opened their office to paper cutters who come with their machines, a stapler, pen and a ruler to cut the paper down to size. Most beads start as long, skinny triangles. The paper cutter are experts at knowing how different weights and lengths of paper will affect bead size and shape.

 

 

Last but not least is quality control. The women have chosen a leadership team to direct their group, and that team is also responsible for counting and checking each order. They spend several days in the office measuring necklace lengths, sizing necklaces, and making note of how many pieces of jewelry each member of the co-op has made. Gladies (below left) and Alice (below right) are two of the women responsible for quality control.

 

 

Perhaps the most interesting part of this behind-the-scenes work is that it also creates employment for others in the community, like the expert paper-cutters or the entrepreneurial women of Owino market.

Each piece of jewelry represents many hard-working hands, and we hope you’ll be excited to carry all of these stories with you.

 

Back to School

Early on a Monday morning, all of Acholi Quarters is buzzing with children in freshly washed uniforms as mothers, fathers, or grandparents help them carry a term’s worth of school supplies to the first day of classes. There are notebooks, pens, crayons, and even some very practical classroom supplies like bundled grass brooms and toilet paper. Six year-old Tracy is ready with all of these, plus a completed packet of homework assignments.

She looks a little dazed as her mother pulls on her socks and shoes. The sun is barely up, after all, and it’s the first day back to school after a long break. Her older sister Margaret, four years ahead of her in P5 (primary school level 5), is a seasoned morning veteran. She is in and out of the room preparing the breakfast while she works on shirt buttons and shoe buckles. Both girls finish up a cup of tea and some bread before heading out the door to walk down the hill to their school.

Our partners here in Uganda are eager to show off their freshly washed and uniformed children on the first day of school, and throughout the day they drop by the office with children and a pile of school supplies to make sure their child is photographed too. Education of their children and grandchildren is one of the highest priorities and biggest dreams for their future.

School fees, though, are too often an obstacle in this community. As the sea of uniforms dies down and the students settle in to their first day of classes, the neighborhood is still surprisingly full of children playing games and sitting on front stoops, children whose families cannot afford to send them to school. Steady jobs with fair wages are a profoundly important way to bring about change in Uganda, allowing parents like our partners in Acholi quarters the opportunity to educate their children and provide them with everything they need to succeed.

Meet our jewelry designer, Emily Grace Goodrich

Making Jewelry

Designing beautifully elegant jewelry isn’t simple. Designing beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material adds even more complication to the process. 

Emily, our jewelry designer, designs beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material and then teaches a group of 28 Ugandan women how to make all of our designs ready for our American retail market. 

Emily Goodrich, spends a majority of her year living in San Diego fulfilling various roles at the Ember Arts office. However, her greatest contribution to our company is her tremendous ability to design paper bead jewelry. 

For the next four months, Emily, will be living in Uganda teaching all of our Ugandan partners how to make our 2013 collection, a collection we believe to be our best yet. 

To learn more about Emily and to understand how she continually pushes the limits of what is possible with paper jewelry, we asked her a few questions. Her answers, about the work she does, are fascinating and reveal a side of Ember Arts most people never get to see. Here is what she shared. Enjoy.

As a jewelry designer what exactly do you do for Ember Arts?

My job entails forecasting jewelry and color trends in the U.S., and using what I know about our own market and the available materials in Uganda to find a middle ground. I do a bit of resource research as well, I just finished a day of scouring the markets to see what sort of new materials we might be able to incorporate into our jewelry. I also spend time in Uganda teaching things like color theory. For an idea of what that looks like, check out the sway earring, which is a piece I’m very proud of the bead makers for mastering, as light tints and a dark shades of a central color were once new concepts for them. We are continually working to build a color vocabulary that makes sense across cultures.

What will you be focusing your attention on while you are in Uganda?

We’ve already had a touch-up training session to remember the new designs for Fall/Holiday 2012, and to learn about making a great multicolor piece. In the next weeks, I’m going to be working with a smaller group of women to experiment with new bead shapes and new materials, and potentially some entirely new products. Then, I’ll be narrowing down a group of designs to start the training for 2013. I’ll also be looking for new kinds of materials that we can incorporate into the jewelry. In the past we’ve used ‘cavera,’ which is the local word for plastic bags. There are lots of interesting materials in the market, but they’re often available only once. Part of the work is to determine which items will be available consistently.

How many times have you been to Uganda?

This is my fourth trip to Uganda.

What is it like to work with a group of 28 Ugandan women, some of which you can not communicate with because of the language barrier? 

It’s a little challenging at times, sometimes I have to work with a translator, and I’ve definitely had to get used to being laughed at. These women love to joke, and it doesn’t always translate! But they are also starting to feel more and more like old friends. I’ve learned about 30 words in the Acholi language, and they get a huge kick out of it. They are also quick learners, mostly they teach themselves by looking at the samples, which makes things a lot easier for me. And I’ve learned a lot from them as well, like how to get a fair price for fabric at the market. You should see the glaring look of disgust that our smiling Gladies can pull off, which usually drops the price by at least 10,000 shillings!

Continue reading

Pursuing the Work of Play

Recycled Playground in Uganda
The other day, I asked one of our bead makers if she’d seen the playground being built at the primary school on the hillside below Acholi Quarters.

“Yes, I’ve seen it!” she replied. “With the helicopter. It’s very funny.”

The ‘helicopter’ she’s referring to really is a bit funny; a whimsical, primary colored aircraft- made from plastic bottle caps. This curiosity, and the recycled swings, climbing toys, and life-sized board games that accompany it are the handiwork of Ruganzu Bruno Tusingwire, a Ugandan artist who has recently been awarded a TED City 2.0 prize for his creative approach to playground equipment.

With a few years of teaching experience under his belt and a background in fine art, Bruno is using what knowledge of education he has to design creative, imaginative spaces for children built largely out of recycled materials. The climbing structures are made from old tires, as will be the seats for the swings. Games such as ‘Snakes and Ladders,’ where kids will act as life-size space markers, are being build atop cement platforms that use plastic bottles as building blocks to give shape to the structure and cut down on the price of concrete. The game will also provide a fun opportunity to practice addition and subtraction.

 

The surrounding community has played a large role in building this structure, collecting bottles from trash heaps and roadsides for the construction and even donating time and efforts to the building. Bruno noted that he’d actually had to do very little of the work himself. He also shared the story of a local mother who thanked him for his work, saying that she no longer has to struggle to get her children off to school in the morning, they are eager to go. And studies show that they’ll be better behaved in the classroom because of the opportunity to play. One teacher at the school is grateful for this, but also the opportunity the children will have to imagine a better future for themselves. He believes they’ll look at things like the bottle-lined wall around the playground and the brightly colored airplane, and be inspired to create things like that themselves. “If someone can build and airplane like this, what can I do?” he mused, speaking as he imagines a student might speak. What’s clearest, though, is that the children themselves approve. Though construction is still underway, the functional parts of the playground are already crowded with children eager to try out the new equipment.

Bruno worked hard to pull himself out of very challenging childhood circumstances and moved on to study art at university, working toward a successful career as a gallery artist and portraitist. But what is perhaps most inspiring about his story is the shift in his personal goals toward providing creative play environments for children who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to them. He says he realized that as a fine artist, at the end of the day, his work would just be hanging on the wall of a rich person’s house, and that the story mostly stops there. Now, he plans to be part of building a better story, one that lives on in communities for years after the playground is finished, creating conversations about new topics like recycling, and the importance of imagination in childhood.

In this capacity to envision a better future for the children of Uganda, Bruno has much in common with our bead makers in Acholi Quarters. When asked about their own dreams, education for their children was at the top of nearly everyone’s priority list. When you support the dreams of the women of Ember Arts, you support the education of their children as well; and we agree that raising well educated children who know how to dream is a crucial step in moving Uganda toward its best possible future.

Summer of Dreams: Grace

In celebration of Grace’s story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection!

As a child Achiro Grace experienced some things that no one should have to experience. But somehow she has maintained a trajectory of peace and prosperity, now raising four wonderful children and working hard to pay for their education. She inspires us. We hope she inspires you, too.

In celebration of her story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection for a limited time. Shop here!