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Ten Thousand Villages: combines global justice and entrepreneurship

by Jordan Green

In the summer of 2002 I traveled with other activists from the United States, Western Europe and Japan to the West Bank to engage in a creative, non-violent disruption of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian communities.

Before we took a van into the occupied territories under the false pretenses of being Lutheran missionaries delivering medical supplies, we received training from a Mennonite woman in methods of defusing confrontations and staying alive. The basic drill when you encountered military violence was to hold up your passport, let soldiers know they were being observed and avoid getting drawn into a shouting match.

Up to then, my only perception of Mennonites was that they were conservative, rural folks who shunned modernity, but I soon learned to admire their fearlessness.

When we got to Hebron, we visited a group of Mennonites in an apartment situated in the warren of stone passageways that make up the old city. The district was divided willy-nilly between heavily fortified Jewish settlements and densely populated Palestinian apartment buildings. Concertina wire and Israeli soldiers on patrol were common sites. I remarked to the young Mennonite woman who showed us around the city how my perception of Mennonites was being turned upside down.

‘“We have this joke,’” she responded, ‘“that Mennonites are like manure: they work better spread around.’”

So it was; they had also made themselves a pain in the ass in shooting wars in Chechnya and Haiti. But sticking their noses in other people’s disputes is not the Mennonites’ only form of outreach.

Since 1946, the Mennonite Central Council, the church’s relief and development agency, has been buying handicrafts from Third World artisans, retailing them in the United States and Canada, and then plowing the revenue back into more contracts with local artisans. It’s not exactly civil disobedience, but it’s another example of Mennonites spreading themselves around the world to uphold the principles of social justice and human dignity.

The Mennonites’ Ten Thousand Villages non-profit program started opening stores to retail the goods in the 1970s. The program operates on the ‘fair trade’ principle, which means that Ten Thousand Villages consults with the artisans and with local economists to determine a fair price instead of negotiating suppliers down to the cheapest price, says Betty Hilliard, volunteer coordinator for the Greensboro store.

In Greensboro, the Ten Thousand Villages program was spearheaded by Presbyterians. The Greensboro store crossed the one-year anniversary threshold on Aug. 27, and has exceeded a 12-month sales goal of $305,000 set by the home office in Akron, Pa., says the store’s vice chairwoman, Nancy Coble. Store sales for the year totaled $380,000.

Coble said a group of ladies, many of them members of First Presbyterian Church, began fundraising in January 2004, holding luncheons at the Taste of Thai restaurant. They needed to raise $35,000 to open the store. Soon benefactors were writing checks for amounts ranging from $30 to $20,0000. The effort quickly expanded beyond the small group of Presbyterians, as Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and yes, Mennonites, joined the effort.

The Ten Thousand Villages store on Battleground Road has benefits from the customer spillover effect of sharing the same shopping center with a Starbucks coffeehouse, Coble says.

The store is stocked with goods from far-flung locales such as Vietnam, Nepal, Cameroon and Peru: a large flying frog kite, olivewood carvings ‘— mostly small crucifixes ‘— from the West Bank, onyx elephant figurines, silk scarves, djembe drums, Putumayo world music CDs and coffee, among other items.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Barbara Jones, a reading teacher at Vandalia Elementary, runs a light wooden baton around the lip of a metal bowl, testing its tone against the others on display. The singing bowls, made in Nepal, create a low hum that seems to charge the air with a vibration that saturates the room while creating a sound at a scarcely discernible volume.

‘“I want to get one for a teaching colleague to use to calm the children down and center them for reading,’” she says. ‘“I’ve been using mine for awhile. They’re intrigued by it. It’s a way to get their attention without talking over the conversation. It pierces the air.’”

Coble and Hilliard, who are planning for an upcoming rug sale in the store’s back office, share some of the humanitarian instincts of the Mennonite group I met in the West Bank. As they talk, a desire to get up close to the world’s injustices and forego some personal comfort to demonstrate good faith with the poor emerges from their stories.

Both retired and giving their days to the program without pay, they take pride in meeting artisans who have told them how they were able to put children through school with the income from the goods sold in Ten Thousand Villages stores. Their vivid experiences of poverty in travels to the Caribbean and Central America animate the women’s sense of mission as they handle paperwork for inventory and volunteer shifts.

In 1997, Coble visited a cooperative farm in Nicaragua where women raised yucca.

‘“They were blessed with scorpions,’” she says. ‘“At the end of the day we went up the hill. There was no house. It was a two-room barn. They made a bed out of tobacco sticks and sack cloths. There were dogs and chickens running around. They were sleeping in hammocks in the trees so we could sleep in their beds. They eat everything on the chicken, including the feet, and they only eat it once a month.

‘“I’m not a tourist,’” she adds. ‘“I always stay with the people. I don’t think I’d even know how to be a tourist.’”

Hilliard got a taste of Third World poverty when her job as a corporate meeting planner took her to Haiti. As a reward for being good customers, corporate executives were given a vacation in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, and Hilliard had the job of handling logistics. She remembers how they ascended a hill on horseback to visit a centuries-old colonial fort.

‘“Here were one hundred wealthy Americans,’” she says, ‘“and there’s one Haitian in front leading the horse and one Haitian behind swishing the flies off the horse’s tail. Something is not right about that picture. The resort is great but outside it’s a different story. It’s a fictitious world that is created in this paradise.’”

The women know 150 Ten Thousand Villages stores aren’t likely to alter the economic balance of power between the affluent United States and the struggling Global South. Ten Thousand Village’s total sales for the fiscal year ending on March 31 came to $16.1 million. In comparison, the program’s for-profit competitor in handicraft imports, Pier 1, recorded total sales of $1.9 billion for the same period ‘— noted in the company’s annual report as ‘“a disappointment for our customers, our shareholders and especially our company.’”

And compared to Wal-Mart, whose economic clout sets the terms for Third World suppliers, Ten Thousand Villages sales come to three ten-thousandths of a percent of the behemoth from Bentonville’s sales. Wal-Mart reported $56 billion in sales for fiscal year 2005.

‘“Fair trade is such a tiny part of the picture of international commerce,’” Hilliard says. ‘“If Americans were more aware of the small amount of money that we’ve paid to these people in the Third World, I think we’d be willing to compensate them a lot better.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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