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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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.