Improving Handmade Jewelry Production is the Maine Goal

Improving Handmade Jewelry Production is the Maine Goal

One of things I find so rewarding about working with Made By Survivors is the opportunity to witness the many wonderful attributes of the human spirit.  Not only do I see unbelievable changes in the exploited women who create our handmade jewelry, but I get to see incredible acts of generosity from people who support our fair trade jewelry programs.

Examples of cut metal from the blanking dies.

Recently, I just returned from Jayne Redman’s beautiful new studio in Portland, Maine. A few months back, she put forward an amazing opportunity for me to come to Maine and learn a jewelry technique that will help drastically improve our production of artisan jewelry in India.  Jayne put forth this amazing offer immediately upon hearing about our programs, I’m talking somewhere around minute two; a truly selfless act as the offer was a donation not only of her time and precious knowledge but also materials.

This low-tech technique, making blanking dies from tool steel, is one of Jayne’s teaching specialties and the cornerstone of her current line.  For Made By Survivors, the technique will allow us to hand cut a pattern and punch the design rather than hand saw each, individual design which is laborious. Making blanking dies requires only basic hand tools and no electricity, a major boon for working effectively in India with the constant power outages that can last for hours at a time. This is a huge improvement when making multiples of same jewelry component. Another upside is the jewelry remains completely handmade because the pattern is hand sawed and hand punched using a vise.

For survivors of human trafficking and slavery in our programs, the implications of this new technique are vast. The survivors will be able to move through orders much more rapidly and punching the designs is simple enough for a newbie to do while really feeling they are making contribution. The time-saving aspect will not only allow our metalsmiths to practice new techniques, but most importantly, it will have a direct, positive affect on their salaries as our metalsmiths can produce our handcrafted jewelry more quickly.

I can’t wait to teach the women in our studios how to make dies so we can implement them immediately. Through the generosity, support and love of others, we can continue to improve the lives and empower the survivors we work with, even if it is just a little bit at a time.

Jayne giving me a demonstration

Jayne’s site: for her current line and workshop schedule

Reunited with Kolkata and Boisar: Milestones

I can only attempt describe how wonderful it is to be reunited with the survivors in our jewelry programs in both, Kolkata and Boisar, India. There is inspirational evolution with both the survivors, and, the program itself, and there are milestones being reached at both studio locations. It’s always such a pleasure for me to be a witness to such things and these are the things I will treasure forever, even the one’s that deliver a bit of backhanded emotional slap to the face.

In our Kolkata Studio at Women’s Interlink Foundation (WIF), everyone is thriving, even the timid and shiest of the shy have come into their own. It’s kind of cool to see the survivor who was having the most trouble making the jewelry and had a lot of household responsibilities at the shelter home, shed those responsibilities because she is doing so well; now she is bossing around the new girls and letting them know what is what. Two survivors are thriving in their personal lives as they are married and we happily and anxiously wait for two pregnancies to come full term. Another survivor has accomplished the “India Impossible” and is actually earning more money than her husband with her supervisor role at the Kolkata Studio. Also exciting was our celebrity visit from Belinda Carlisle, and although the girls don’t know she is a female artisan pioneer herself, we could see her visit gave them (who am I kidding, and us) a big confidence boost. The survivors are also into their second holiday production and are definitely feeling the groove.

Our Boisar Studio at Rescue Foundation is also doing very well. So many girls have really come into their own with jewelry making skills and their creativity is always surprising. They are just that good at envisioning a concept and creating it with the limited resources they have there. There are many more challenges at this studio for multiple reasons: by and large the girls have all been rescued from brothels as sex slaves (one of our survivor students was trafficked from a textile sweatshop of all places, and then spent six demoralizing years in a brothel) and the mental and physical trauma experienced was/is extremely severe. Also, the location of this studio is in a rural place so access to supplies, technology, mail, and even energy are limited. Many of the survivors are still in the process of negotiating the Indian legal system for many reasons and some are in transit going back to their homes in other countries, namely Bangladesh and Nepal. This means they are still living in the past to some degree which must be so difficult. All these factors affect the speed of progression, but the survivors always push forward in spite of it all. That is probably the most amazing part.

The Boisar Studio is exactly month away from their One Year Anniversary, and you can bet there will be cake. This is their first season in production and although we are having some growing pains, it is full speed ahead. All they want to do is perform well and improve skills and their dedication is the proof. Another milestone, we have our first survivor being transferred to her home City of Kolkata, and we have successfully arranged for her transfer to WIF where she will be able to utilize her jewelry skills immediately at our studio there, and start to earn to support her extremely poor family.

Now, for that backhanded emotional slap, which is still a milestone; about 6 Bangladeshi survivors from our program (and about 100 overall from Rescue Foundation) are being transferred to a shelter home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This transfer releases these girls from the horror that happened to them in India and brings the survivors one step closer to being repatriated with their families if they want to be. Selfishly, I fear I will never see my girls again. That is probably the reality, and I haven’t even processed that yet and totally avoiding it, really. Rather, I am letting myself get caught up in the happy buzz as the girls are hard at work in the studio and then hear their name called from the office (literally, “DEEPA! OH, DEEPA! HEY, DEEPA!) and watch them drop everything, and sprint barefooted with tears in their eyes to the one phone in the office to field calls from their respective mothers, fathers, aunts and brothers. Our program here is losing a lot of talent, but we’ll figure it out, we always do. And, now the girls have a marketable skill they can bank on, no matter where they go. Another milestone.

Living in India: Working with Made By Survivors

Living in India: Working with Made By Survivors

In February 2009, my life changed forever.  After opening my small jewelry business,  I received an email from a old friend saying a not-for-profit organization whose work she followed on Facebook, was looking for a metalsmith to teach a metalsmithing class to survivors of human trafficking in Kolkata, India.  I contacted the organization, Made By Survivors (MBS), to learn more about the opportunity and in a month shipped out to Kolkata, India, for two weeks in April to teach survivors at a shelter named Child Care Home operated by our partner Women’s Interlink Foundation.

Although April 2009 was the hottest April on record (and not a dry heat), the survivors and the MBS Team in India persevered through blackouts, labor strikes, stifling pollution, the survivors’ own psychological (and sometimes physical) trauma, to teach the survivors basic metalsmithing skills. My originally scheduled two weeks, quickly turned into a month long stay. The survivor girls were so incredibly inspirational and dedicated, I felt I couldn’t leave until I was done instructing through a certain level of metalsmithing.

Upon my return to the USA, I constantly stayed involved with MBS consulting on everything jewelry and managing jewelry tool drives. Then, I decided to return to India to get a new jewelry studio open and ready for production at a new partner shelter home at Rescue Foundation (RF) near Mumbai. This trip included check-ins with the Kolkata program which was wonderful because you could see the progress, the love, the happiness and the positive evolution of attitude in just a couple of months.

While at RF I lived at the shelter home and really had an opportunity to spend quality time with the survivors: teach volleyball,  learn some Hindi, Bengali and Gujrati, explore Mumbai’s jewelry district (which recently was the location of a horrible terrorist attack) and purchase tools for the program, as well as get to know the Rescue Foundation staff and learn about the amazing work they do rescuing and providing shelter for young women freed from brothels all over India.

By the end of the trip, over 50 survivors were trained in classical metalsmithing techniques. When I wasn’t teaching metalsmithing, I taught beading to another five survivors suffering from HIV/AIDS in the hospital Rescue Foundation location on-site. About ten percent of the girls rescued by Rescue Foundation suffer from HIV/AIDS. In the evenings, I couldn’t resist coaching volleyball on the rocky court out during the athletics program. I played in high school and a little in college and never really thought it would come in handy but it truly did. It taught teamwork, healthy competition (something the girls really never experienced) amongst other things.

Ultimately, the most amazing part of the whole experience is to watch a teenage girl in survival mode, firing on all primal notions for shelter, for food, completely transform into a hopeful girl playing in the garden and picking flowers.  It is inspirational to see how learning to metalsmith plays a part in their therapy, in addition to, being their employment, the key to their future.  Lastly, it feels great being a part of a compassionate organization that helps offset the heinous wrong that is “human trafficking“, and the name for it doesn’t come close to saying enough about this tragic human rights violation.

MBS’ philosophy is to overcome slavery and empower slavery survivors through education, opportunity, employment and compassion.  Their programs are located in such places like Cambodia, India and Nepal and are very successful. All proceeds from the products made by the survivors go right back to supporting the survivors. MBS also sponsors children for school, helps improve conditions for the survivors at the homes and organizes bi-annual trips for volunteers to spend two weeks in Kolkata paying visits to WIF’s homes and hosting activities for the survivors.

We conduct Tool Drives annually for jewelers, teaching institutions and metalsmiths to get involved and donate. If you’d like to like to donate jewelry tools to the drive there is more information located here.  We hope to supply the tools for our third studio, opening within the next six months to train survivors at a shelter home in northern West Bengal.

At this point, I can’t wait to go back and see the survivors from the CCH and RF Studios (amongst other great girls at the shelter, not in our program AND the great staff in India working for Made By Survivors whom I adore). I also look forward to meeting and training the new survivors and getting more young women in to the therapeutic fold. Lastly, I find it comforting that every survivor trained chips away at the global blight of slavery.

Teenagers are people, too.

The start of the Made By Survivors jewelry program at the Women’s Interlink Foundation’s Child Care Home (CCH), brought a small degree of anxiety for me with regards to teaching. I was a little concerned about the fragility of the slavery survivors and if they would like learning to metalsmith. After a week of being with the average 17 year old (there were a smattering of ages from 15 to 24 years old and all the girls ages are just a guess), I was very pleased with their interest, kindness and vibrancy.

When we came to the end of the first project: a brass domed, initial or name-stamped, circle pendant, the room was really starting to have the happy buzz of busyness. As added incentive, I thought it would be cool for the girls to stamp their names, and then, to keep their first piece of jewelry, hopefully, connecting them with the art of metalsmithing. The girls were sanding, sawing, doing layout work, using stamps, using doming blocks, polishing, and, even learning some basic metallurgy. Upon completion of the project, the pendants were lined up to take photos, and as promised, returned to the girls.

After a week, I knew everyone’s name and looking at the survivors’ pendants, I couldn’t match an initialed pendant with the right girl. This occurred to much giggling at my struggle to find some of the pendant’s rightful owners, and, one pendant had gone totally unclaimed. Had I made a mistake and really had everyone’s name wrong? CCH’s House Mother came at the end of the day and told me I couldn’t figure out the initials because almost all the girls stamped their boyfriends’ initials! The unclaimed one was already dated as it had an ex-boyfriend’s initials on it. Right…I am not only teaching survivors of slavery and human trafficking, but, it’s good to remember I am also teaching the garden-variety teenage girl. So, I suppose it is time to invoke my inner teenager and revisit angst, crushes and primping.