One Thousand Dreamers

Yesterday we hit 1,000 ‘likes’ on our Facebook page. To say thank you, our designer Emily Grace Goodrich created this hand-illustrated poster for you. Click on it for the hi-res printable version.
1,000 Dreamers

One thousand dreamers. One thousand people who believe, with us, that each person can dream a better future for herself, for her family, for her community and her world. One thousand people who support the hard work of making dreams come true.

Since we started, the women we partner with in Uganda have sent their children to school, built homes for their families, started businesses. They have realized dreams they once thought impossible.

Today they are envisioning bigger, brighter dreams. Not just escaping poverty, but building success, impact, and legacy. They are transforming their families and improving their communities.

We can all do this. We can all dream a better future and set about building it. And if, one thousand strong, we commit ourselves to building a better world, there is no telling how great a change we might make. Together, our dreams light the future.

Local Visionaries: The Past, Present, and Future of Development

In the summer of 2003 I found myself hiking with a small team through a leech-infested cloud forest in the Himalayas. In big woven baskets carried by Nepali friends were parabolic dish antennas, long-distance radios, solar panels, and a cornucopia of other electronics: strange cargo in a region with no power, no phones, not even roads connecting the scattered mountain villages. But we had a mission. Against all odds we were building the area’s first computer network.


Nepali men not only carried the equipment, they helped construct and continue to maintain the network. Click above for larger image.

This wasn’t my idea. It was the vision of a Nepali man named Mahabir. Hidden behind Mahabir’s quiet nonchalance is a brilliant mind and a tectonic dedication to the wellbeing of his people.

Mahabir is a what I call a local visionary, and I believe he is the key to global development. When I went to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, I had no idea what its people needed or what opportunities existed. But Mahabir knew. He knew because he was raised there. He absorbed all the various nuances of Nepalese culture and society like we absorb our first language. And with great personal sacrifice he pursued a vision for his people that far exceeded what any outsider thought possible. Working for Mahabir’s vision was by far the best thing I could do for Nepal.


Mahabir holding the beginnings of a delicious dinner, with JoAnn, an American volunteer. Click above for larger image.

I think this is true everywhere. The best thing that I can do for Nepal or India or Haiti or Uganda, or for that matter for America, is to find a local visionary and support the work she gives her life to.

This caliber of local visionary is rare. But just one can change her community, her country, even the world. Most great global visionaries are local visionaries. Gandhi, Mandela, King: all were deeply and primarily rooted in the challenges and potentials of their place and people, and by their dedication they each shaped the global story.

Mahabir is one of a small handful of such visionaries that I have been lucky to meet. Sister Rosemary in Uganda is another, working simultaneously to rehabilitate war-affected girls and to recycle Uganda’s waste into socially useful products. Another Ugandan visionary is Abramz Tekya, who inspires hope, direction, and social consciousness in the youth of his country through breakdancing and hip-hop, the same pursuits that, as a young man, saved him from the dangers of the slums. Amani Matabaro, a Congolese visionary, splits his time between working for international non-profits and investing his earnings in community development work for his home village and those surrounding.

Those that I haven’t yet met include Alastair McIntosh in Scotland and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (who today reportedly won a seat in Burmese parliament after decades of struggle), among thousands of others.

These remarkable people are the future of their communities and their countries. And they are part of a proud tradition. Local visionaries are not just the future of development, they are its best history, and its most impactful present. Collectively they are building a better world.

The White Bead: Our Dreams Light the Future

Many of our jewelry designs include a special new pure white bead. Here’s the story.Ember Arts White Bead

The women we partner with in Uganda are more than just poor women who need a hand out of poverty. We believe that they are dreamers in the best sense. Dreamers who will envision brighter futures for their families and communities and then do the hard work of making those dreams into realities.

Uganda, it seems to us, is best served by the dreams of Ugandans. So in our work with our Ugandan partners, supporting their best dreams is our mission.

Likewise, America is best served by the dreams of Americans. Just like in Uganda, our families and communities need our best dreams. It is up to us to dream up ways to improve our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities, even our country. And it is up to us to do the hard work of making those dreams into realities.

That is what the new white bead on many of our designs means. It represents your dreams. And it represents how you are connected to the women in Uganda who made your jewelry by hand. And it reminds us that, together, our dreams light the future.

Ugandan Women Respond to Kony 2012

Kony 2012 Banner

Today I showed our Ugandan partners ‘Kony 2012′. For any who don’t know, ‘Kony 2012′ is a 30-minute film by Invisible Children that became the most viral video of all time, getting over 100 million views in about one week. It aims to rally US support to stop Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that terrorized Uganda for two decades, and continues to terrorize three central African countries.

I wanted them to see the film because it impacts them more than it does me, and so their thoughts on the subject are valuable and can help guide my own.

During the 30-minute runtime their eyes were glued to the screen of my laptop. I have never seen them so attentive. At times they would whisper recognitions and explanations to each other. When Kony or LRA victims were shown they would often sound the unique tsk-tsk-tsk of Acholi displeasure.

When the film ended I asked them for their thoughts.

It was clear that the wounds of two decades of violence are still very tender. Women immediately started sharing stories of their own families – children lost to abductions, siblings lost to violence.

And this led to their first reaction to the film and its plan: it comes twenty years too late for Uganda. You can imagine the sting. America, the world’s great super power, finally awakens to your two decades of terror and loss, only after those decades are over, only after you have started the long, slow, painful work of healing and rebuilding. And finally now they want to stop Kony.

But beyond that reaction they saw that stopping Kony will save hundreds of thousands Congolese, Central African Republicers, and South Sudanese from the sort of pain that they and their families have been through.

The Ugandan government failed to stop Kony, they said. Indeed, it seemed unconcerned with stopping him. The local peace processes failed to bring an end to the violence. The only hope, they believe, is American support and military action. And at least one of them would rather Kony be killed on the spot than given the dignity of a trial.

But whether captured or killed, if Kony was stopped in 2012, they all agreed that there would be a deep collective sense of relief in northern Uganda. They still fear him. They are scared to this day that he and his terrorizing forces will return to Uganda. If Kony is stopped, they told me, all of northern Uganda will celebrate.

Reshape the Earth at Your Feet

This is a special collaboration between Ember co-founder James A. Pearson and our good friend Cody Small at Caava Design. James wrote the following words for our friends at Invisible Children. Cody was kind enough to incorporate them into the beautiful design below.

Have you ever walked up to the ocean, right where the waves are reaching up the sand, and just planted your feet? When a wave rushes back down the shore you can feel it trying to sweep you away. It tugs at your calves. It cuts grooves in the sand around your feet.

That wave is like history, and your life is a choice: either let yourself be swept away or take a stand. Being swept away is easy and fun, but eventually you will just disappear. Taking a stand is hard, but you will reshape the earth at your feet.

Reshape the Earth at Your Feet
Click the picture for the full-size, printable version.

Hope is Beautiful

Ember Arts - Hope is Beautiful

Hope is beautiful. Hope is courageous. Hope is what compels all of us to Dream.

We made this image for you. Use the click-thru link to download the full-size image.  Be reminded to be hopeful and courageous in your efforts to follow your dreams. Our dreams make the world a beautiful place.

The ‘Eighty Four’ Necklace, or Dreams as Development

Ember Arts Eighty Four Necklace

How do you help a poor country develop? Give them credit. Western-style education. More international trade.

This isn’t development, it’s duplication. When wealthy western donors envision a better Uganda or Haiti or Nicaragua, we see something that looks like America or Western Europe, just with a different ratio of skin-tones. It’s all we know.

Power imposes itself. The American lifestyle looks like paradise to most people. Can you imagine a small-plot farmer who wouldn’t like to trade his dirty, sun-baked, subsistence labor for the endless dance party he sees in American music videos? Or even the landcruiser-driving, bar-haunting life of the international development professional? It’s the best life he has ever seen.

I had a Ugandan friend in Gulu who worked with me for an American non-profit. When he got a promotion and a raise he invited me over to his apartment to show me his new satellite television, which flashed American action movies and music videos.

Development should not duplicate American prosperity. Development should fuel the unique prosperity of the people and place that seek to develop. This is a completely different process, and will have a very different outcome.

This sort of development takes a deep understanding of the culture, needs, and opportunities of a place, the sort of understanding usually found only in people who were born and raised there. When these people dream of a better home they aren’t envisioning a new America. They are dreaming of something totally unique, something that could only come from their people and their slice of earth.

Our partnership with the Ugandan women who make our jewelry is founded on them pursuing their dreams for their families and communities, rather than us pursuing our American version of a better Uganda.

Our new ‘Eighty Four’ necklace is symbolic of this commitment. Each of our 28 partners has shared 3 dreams they would like to accomplish. That’s 84 dreams in all. The necklace has 84 beads, one for each dream.

And we added one extra bead, a pure white one, to represent the dream of the woman who buys and wears the necklace, and how she is now connected to the women who made it.

Shop online by March 23 and 50% of your purchase will be donated to the non-profit Two Wings, in honor of Ember Hero Elena Bondar. Click here to shop.

Elena Bondar, Ember Hero

In Elena’s honor, we are donating 50% of our online sales for one month to her nonprofit program Two Wings. Click to shop our Spring Collection.Elena Bondar, Ember Hero

Elena Bondar downplays her big move. About six months ago she quit her comfortable job in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles, a city where she had never lived and knew almost no one, in order to chase her dream.

But she’s not trying to act or sing. Elena is building a program to launch survivors of sex trafficking towards their dream careers. She calls the program Two Wings. Sex trafficking, she told us, is not confined to the infamous red light districts of Thailand and India. It’s a frighteningly large and hidden criminal industry in America, too. And Los Angeles is one of its centers.

Elena was born in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Her family was persecuted by the communist regime because of their religion and they dreamed of escaping to America. Finally, in 1988, they got the chance.

“We packed one suitcase per person to journey to an unknown land,” she said. “I was five years old when we left our home and was not happy to leave the only life I knew.” Continue reading

Ember Featured by Darling Magazine

The good people at Darling Magazine published an article on Ember this weekend. Below is an excerpt. Read the rest on the Darling site.

When you hear “African refugee woman living in extreme poverty,” you probably don’t picture a woman who has big dreams for herself and her family. I certainly didn’t.

But for the last four years I’ve worked closely with a small group of Ugandan women who lived that story. My company Ember Arts partners with 28 Ugandan women to create beautiful handmade jewelry. All of these women fled their homes to save themselves and their families from a civil war. And all of them survived a depth of poverty that I didn’t even know existed until I left the US.

I’ve learned that not only do they have big dreams, they get after them.

Ugandan women working in the Acholi Quarters rock quarry.
Before partnering with Ember, the Ugandan women we partner with crushed rocks into gravel for $1 per day in this rock quarry.

When I first met the women who would become our partners I saw my relationship to them as a sort of math problem. Their needs exceeded their resources. If I could help them balance that equation, all would be well.

But then we started to become friends. I heard their stories. I got to know their kids. I started to hear their hopes and dreams for the future.

Agnes wanted to finish her education, Jackie wanted to start her own salon, Esther wanted to build a house in the same village that she once fled at the ends of rebel bayonets. All of them wanted to send their kids to good schools and see them achieve the sort of success that would transform their families and communities.

This was more than just math.

Read the rest over at Darling Magazine.

Visionary vs. Vision


[photo from michael_tischer]

Not everyone is a visionary, but everyone has vision.

A visionary, in the usual sense, envisions something huge and impactful, something that is an astounding leap from anything that came before it. Making that vision real takes enormous focus and dedication, and often enormous sacrifices in other parts of life. I’m struck by a passage in “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book about visionary doctor Paul Farmer, that highlights his shortcomings as a husband and father. His wholehearted pursuit of a beautiful vision left him with little time for family.

Not everyone is going to have the capacity or desire to be a visionary. But everyone has vision.

Having vision on the usual scale looks a lot like setting goals. In fact, it looks exactly like that. You envision something you want to accomplish, and you set about doing it. Even something as simple as making dinner benefits from our vision.

The great challenge of having vision is achieving clarity. Seeing the details of something that has not yet happened is difficult. But I’ve learned that it’s an important challenge to attempt. Clarity of vision will enliven many parts of your life, from tonight’s dinner to the impact you’d like to have on the world.

In smaller tasks, like dinner, clarity is often achieved by creative and emotional labor, envisioning something a certain way and then committing yourself to that vision. But in larger goals, like your life’s impact, clarity is harder to come by.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to seek clarity in the larger picture is by trying things. Choose a pursuit that promotes your deeper values and dive into it wholeheartedly.

For the most part you’ll find that you were right, that this pursuit satisfies and enlivens you in many ways. But inevitably there will be parts of it that rankle you, little friction points where you can feel that this is not the end point of your journey. So learn from those, and then try your next, better idea.

Ironically, when we lack clarity, trying things doesn’t feel like an option. After all, we’re not clear on what things we want to try. But in my experience doing things is the best way to figure out what it is you want to do.

Over time, by process of elimination and refinement, you’re vision will become clearer, you will be more satisfied with your life, and your impact on the world will grow and become more personal. This process is the work of a lifetime. And I can hardly think of a better way to live.