Last year I was invited to be part of a group of bloggers traveling to Haiti with Willa Shalit, the woman behind Macy’s Heart of Haiti and Rwanda Path to Peace, to meet with women and artisans whose lives — but not their spirits, I would soon learn — had been devastated by the earthquake that hit the country in 2010. The trip wasn’t a sponsored one; we were just being offered a small percentage of the funds needed to make it there and we had to come up with the rest ourselves. Something inside me knew I had to invest in seeing and living this for myself and as a way to get back in touch with “reality,” as I call it.
So I started out this year with a trip to Haiti that was to change my whole perception in regard to the way we as a society choose to 1) aid in disaster relief efforts, and 2) consume and purchase.
The first lesson learned in Haiti, as soon as we started driving the streets out of the airport, was that most of the clothes, shoes, equipment, etc. we hurry to send out when a disaster strikes a region ends up in the black market. This means that all along the streets there are pop up vendors selling all those goods we send out; selling them to the same people we are trying to “help.”
The second lesson we learned while visiting tent cities like Sean Penn’s J/P Hatian Relief Organization and communities where women were teaming up to create work and learning opportunities for themselves, was that Haitian people, like most people suffering from any type of devastation, really want to be taught how to survive on their own and not be given hand outs or donations. The proverbial “don’t give me fish, teach me how to fish.”
And that’s exactly what Willa Shalit, whom Oprah calls “The woman who makes shopping meaningful,” is doing in Haiti and other parts of the world through her Fair Winds Trading, where 100% of the profits are reinvested in artisan enterprise, and, most recently, with Maiden Nation to support women-owned businesses and empower women through ethical fashion.
The launch of Maiden Nation just a few months ago felt very personal since I had been witness to Willa’s enduring passion for aiding and empowering women during our trip to Haiti. Through her I learned that where we decide to put our dollars does make a difference and can directly impact a woman’s life, and we know that improving a woman’s life benefits her family and her community.
I also got to meet the Haitian women living in the dirt-floor tents (nearly 400,000 Haitians still live in tents almost three years after the earthquake) in J/P HRO that had gotten together to create the most beautiful beads made out of cereal boxes. Willa Shalit took designer Chan Luu to meet these women, members of the Hands Together Cooperative, and out of it came a partnership with Glamour’s Women of the Year Fund Initiative and the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative to create and sell the gorgeous “Kiss Kiss Bracelet” on Maiden Nation.
Chan Luu and members of the Maiden Nation team traveled to Sean Penn’s J/P HRO to work with refugees as they learned how to craft the bracelets now known as the “Kiss Kiss Bracelet.” Every purchase of this bracelet will help women in Haiti sustain their new business, and thus themselves and their families. Also, more than $6 of the purchase of the bracelet will be donated to J/P Haitian Relief Organization to support community development in Haiti. Additionally, to support victims in the U.S. and Haiti coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Maiden Nation will also donate $2 to the American Red Cross.
I had a chance to ask Willa Shalit a bit more about Maiden Nation.
Can one bracelet really change a woman’s life? How?
The purchase of one bracelet provides enough income for a woman to live for a day: to buy food, pay for shelter, water and all basic needs.
Purchases by many add up to a life with stability and a community getting back on its feet.
Women have moved from unsafe, unclean tents to secure, tidy houses with the revenue earned from the bracelet project.
Why has Haiti, in particular, been so inspiring and motivating in both your life and career?
The people of Haiti inspire me by their indomitable spirits, overcoming disaster after disaster and rising above with great creativity, spiritual connectedness and hard work. It is a country of artist entrepreneurs so I feel a TOTAL kinship with them!
Who is the Maiden woman?
The Maiden woman loves beauty, fashion and family … and also cares deeply about the world so wants to use her hard-earned money in a way that helps others.
I became a Maiden Citizen and many of my close friends and clients will be getting a meaningful and beautiful bracelet this holiday season. Imagine the pride and joy of seeing on your wrist a purchase that changed a woman’s life?
Click through to see my 7 top favorite Maiden Nation bracelets under $50.