When I started walking up the narrow, dusty stairs, I had no idea the emotional experience I was about to endeavor upon. I walk into a small second story workshop surrounded by 23 smiling women. They prepared a welcoming ceremony for me, in which I lit a small candle that was surrounded by brightly hued flower petals. The leader of the workshop dips her finger in a pink powder and pushes her finger on to my forehead. It is a gesture meant for visitors, to invite them into a new space.
I sit down at the head of the group and begin to listen as the women introduce themselves. Sunita, Sushila, Eram, Punisha, the names go on and on. But before they share their names, each woman bows gently and says “Namaste” as they softly touch my hands. I immediately feel the warmth and openness of this group. Although some of them are shy, they are all so interested in my visit and want to share it with me.
After the introductions, the leader of the group, Ansara, explains about their workshop and history. She was passionate about supporting women in her community, and learned how to embroider from her mother at a young age. She learned about MarketPlace: Handwork of India from a friend and was immediately intrigued by the group’s work. She approached them about opening a workshop in her slum, and they agreed to help her get started. Since then, she has brought on over 20 women and trained them up, so they are able to make a living wage.
As she continues, I can see all the other artisans are listening just as intently as I am. We must work through a translator since many of the women don’t know English, and I know no Hindi. But it is no concern because as she shares her story, I realize quickly how close group of women this truly is. They all look on attentively and nod, because they already know what she is going to say. They know her story. They know her. They are friends with her. They respect her.
Ansara asks me if I have any questions for the women. Immediately, I ask if they can share some of their own stories about their lives. I was curious to learn about how Marketplace and fair trade have changed their lives. Right after I ask the question, I can see them all looking around the room to see who will answer first. They are all excited to share their stories, because they all have one. First comes Sanija, who states that prior to Marketplace she could never leave the home for work because she had too many chores to do. But because Marketplace has a flexible schedule she can work from home and pick up her embroidery work when she has free time.
Next comes a young woman who says that Marketplace allowed her to move from the village to Mumbai. “Without Marketplace, I never could have moved. They helped me start a new life in the city. In the village, life was too hard. No one could find work. Marketplace gave me a chance. “
Next came Kanika, who said economic empowerment was the biggest change that came from working at Marketplace. “I can support myself. I can buy my own food, my own clothes. Economic empowerment allows me to be independent.”
My favorite response however was from a proud woman of about 50 named Sasha. She spoke about the feeling of community and the deep connection she felt towards the other artisans in her group. “Other sewing groups could give me work, but they don’t care about improving my life. At Marketplace, I have a community of women who I can talk to and learn from. Marketplace offers us trainings and support on issues that we face.”
I could keep going on like this, because every woman had something to say. Even the shy ones. The bolder women would point at them and urge them to share their story. You could feel what a tight knit bunch they were, and how much each woman knew about the woman sitting next to year. They weren’t simply coworkers, they were a community. Their smiles and warmth made me feel as though I had been a member of their group for years. I felt so empowered about myself as a woman just from sitting among these women and hearing how they were able to change their lives.
After listening to everyone’s response, I let them ask me questions. And guess what, the first one was “How can we get more orders?” I am not even kidding. All the women nodded along as the bold Sanija told me, “We want more orders. We like to work and there are more women in the community we would like to join us. But we need more orders.” Another woman chimed in, “I like to make all of SERRV’s headbands. They are a fun design to embroider!”
In the final moments of my time at this workshop, the women decided to dedicate a song to me. They all began to sing in harmony, smiling at me and holding my hand. I was almost brought to tears by the sweet gesture, because I had known these women for less than an hour; yet, I already felt as though I was a member of their community. When I got up to walk out, they all thanked me, hugged me, told me to return again. It was truly inspiring. I was touched by their hospitality, generosity and willingness to share their stories. Being surrounded by such strong, newly independent women will forever hold a special place in my heart. And it reminded me that this is what fair trade is all about