The Selfish Truth about Kakaw Designs

Last week we received some extra attention as our video with our partner weavers was featured on Facebook by Perhaps you need a little Guatemala.  With over 43K followers, all lovers of Guatemala, the video reached 20K views (and counting!) and was shared over a thousand times.

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With all this new attention, I’ve also received so many messages from people I’ve never met, such nice messages saying that they believe in what we are doing as Kakaw Designs, that we have beautiful products, where can they buy them, etc. It is so encouraging to hear those things, and I am so thankful for the out pour of support from strangers.

But there are also comments that lead to me to believe that the writer believes we are doing “good,” as in charity… by helping artisans, I suppose.  Yes, we are helping artisans by giving them work.  But this is not a do-good project by nature, because the understanding there is that the project is going out of their way to help people, people who may or may not “deserve” the help.  I want to confess that Kakaw Designs is a pretty selfish project.  I make no claim of doing “good” in this sense above.  Let me explain myself:

I’ve had a pretty diverse array of jobs over the years (boy, does that make me sound old): farmer, preschool teacher, cook, bartender, scuba dive master, doggy daycare van driver, restaurant manager, model.  I’ve worked with big organizations like UNICEF, to small NGOs, to private businesses, and both private and public schools.  With each opportunity, I’ve clearly grown, but I also encountered many ethical dilemmas, especially in Guatemala.

Guatemala is a country flooded with non-profit organizations, most of them funded in the US.  While they may do great work in important areas like education, construction, and medicine, I’ve grown to wonder if this short-term relief provided by these groups contributed to the general attitude of waiting for help rather than striving for more meaningful and lasting change from within the country.  Long story short, I have some personal reservations about this type of “do-good” model of work in Guatemala.  I have a hard time taking seriously any project that describes itself as “charity”.

Back to my life, now (this post is about how selfish I am, right?).  I wanted something where I didn’t struggle with any sort of ethical issues.  While I was a dive master, I helped divers fall in love with the underwater world and appreciate nature, but at the same time I was contributing to the destruction of the coral reef by taking silly inexperienced divers out there in the first place.  While I was teaching English at a public Guatemalan school, I was showing the kids that their role models should not be someone of their own culture, but a westerner (me), and that learning our language was the most important thing, as we were the best-equipped department (with outside funding, of course).  I was indirectly encouraging families already struggling to support their children to keep growing their family, because there would be some NGO to help them feed and educate the kids.  Improved education is always great, don’t get me wrong, but without family planning and more of a holistic approach, I think it’s one-sided and simply not enough for meaningful change.

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I got tired of this constant personal ethical struggle.  My solution?  My own project, my own rules.  This is not a give-away project; I am proud to work with the most talented artisans, and I am so fortunate to have a trusting relationship with both the weavers and the leathersmiths.  They do great work, they get paid well, and the end product is something different, beautiful, and high-quality.  We promote fair wages (our pay is higher than that of Fair Trade standards), creative design, good work ethics, and attention to detail.  On the consumer side of things, we educate people about the traditional art of weaving, and encourage appreciation for slow fashion.  Less is better.  We love that we can involve the consumer in the design process for our Original Boots, because we believe that the involvement will help the buyer appreciate the product that much more, and enjoy it for longer.  That is the movement that I want to be part of, dilemma-free, happily, in good conscience.

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So, readers, I just wanted to come clean.  Kakaw Designs is my personal journey, and yes, it involves wonderful artisans, but this is not in any way only about them, I am not doing this to “help them” per se, this is a movement that I believe in: for the producers, for the consumers, and for me personally.  It’s just the right kind of circle, this win-win-win for all.  I’m not doing anyone “favors” – I really do believe in the artisans I work with, and it would be disrespectful to consider Kakaw Designs a charity.  I support the producers because they are great, and I hope that is why you support us, too.

xoxo,

Mari

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2 thoughts on “The Selfish Truth about Kakaw Designs

  1. “But there are also comments that lead me to believe that the writer believes we are doing “good,” as in charity… by helping artisans, I suppose…But this is not a do-good project by nature, because the understanding there is that the project is going out of their way to help people, people who may or may not “deserve” the help”

    I have so many thoughts swirling around in my head about this and most will probably stay there for now (I’m by no means an expert either). Anyway, I really hope this isn’t the sentiment of most of the folks that commented. I do find this way of thinking fascinating…mostly because I wonder where it comes from. My guess for now is that they see the weavers as people deserving pity/help first and maybe artisans second (also, I don’t look down on the people with this point of view…I’m just curious about it 🙂 Before going to Guatemala and while I was there, I just thought these women were incredible masters of their craft. I wish they had all of the tools and freedom in the world to create, collaborate, and do whatever they want with their abilities and amazing creations on their own terms. I only caught a glimpse of how the artisan/business woman + designer/business owner + consumer interacts while I was there. I would definitely like to learn more. I’m pretty sure I would see some really good things happening to not so good. It’s definitely business to me and not charity.

    • Hi Amber,

      I’m so glad you find it interesting… It’s just a different way of thinking about artisan work, and traditional crafts. I don’t think that most people think that way, that artisans are in need of help… well, I don’t know. It’s just the feeling I got from some of the comments I received.

      And I don’t claim to be in any way an expert, either. These are just my humble opinions, just me, formed over years of experience working with different NGOs, and basically my whole life being involved in some way with Guatemala.

      When I was a teenager, I took part in those groups of kids going by the busful to do community work. In my case, to Mexico, with my friends, having a good time. I may frown upon that type of aid now, but I am a product of that myself, and who knows the effects that those trips have on each of the participants. That’s how I felt with diving, too, how I justified what I did: isn’t it worth a little bit of wear and tear in the ocean, if the divers grew to appreciate and protect the waters and the natural world as a whole? There are lots of immeasurable variables here, and again, I am not an expert….

      But thank you for you comment. It means a lot to me that you have many thoughts swirling around your head. 🙂

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