This time last year, I was in the Peruvian highlands, in the little town of Chinchero. It was cold and wet, and we were working out of doors with the snow-capped Andes shining in the distance, taking notes and photographing weavers and spinners of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco as they plied their crafts. They had come from surrounding villages, some several hours away; you could tell who was who by their hats, mantas, skirt borders. They sat on the ground, or on a log, hands always busy. Babies napped on their mothers’ backs, toddlers chased each other and rolled on the ground. For morning breaks, the weavers would bring forth a huge basket of potatoes, which we all attacked and peeled and gobbled up with gusto.
I don’t know what the weavers talked about during their breaks, because most of the conversation was in Quechua, but I can guess some of what was on their minds. How to get their weavings—some of the finest textile work in the world—out into international markets that would appreciate and buy them? How could they increase their production while maintaining quality, if those markets were found? How could they provide income-producing work for their daughters so they could stay in their home communities if they so desired? Market access. Scalability. Sustainability.
This year, just last week, I was in Washington, D.C. at the Aspen Institute for a day-long seminar, “Handmade is Human,” hosted by the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. We were in a light and spacious room looking out onto DuPont Circle, with the United States capitol dome shining in the distance. For morning break there was hot coffee, lovely pastries, fresh fruit. Men in suits and ties, and women in business attire (with the occasional handcrafted scarf or shawl) networked the crowd or tapped their cell phones.
There were ambassadors from the U.S. Department of State, and representatives from big financial institutions such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Morgan Stanley. There were young social entrepreneurs from around the globe—Kenya, Jordan, Tibet, China, India, and more—doing artisan start-ups in remote villages and refugee camps.
What were they talking about? Market access. Scalability. Sustainability. How can artisans in underdeveloped countries connect with markets that will appreciate the value of goods made by hand? How can artisans in less-developed countries respond on time to an order for, say, 10,000 placemats for West Elm? What if they pull it off, but that’s the only order they ever get? What then? What will become of traditional artisan skills if all the young people in underdeveloped countries achieve their dream of an education and an office job? What would that mean for cultural diversity?
And what, for heaven’s sake, were all those bankers and politicians doing there? Well, artisan goods represent a $32 billion per year enterprise, second only to agriculture (though most of it exists outside of formal economic channels). But it wasn’t about money. The focus was about doing good in this world. It was a tribute to the concept of one world, and to the idea that helping lift the less fortunate, helping them gain access to good health and secure lives, and helping them preserve their traditional cultures, enriches all of us.
After all, it is the Christmas season, or the holiday season, or Hanukkah, or whatever you call it–a season to celebrate one world. Hope yours is a joyous one.