PEACE CORPS REJECT
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
—THE DALAI LAMA
As I watched my twelve-year-old son, Dakota, and his best friend, Robert, standing across from me in the back of an open pickup truck, I could hardly believe we were together in Guatemala. Dakota and Robert had accompanied their mothers, me and Mary-Mike, on a product development trip to work with women weavers and jewelry makers in the Lake Atitlán area. Mary-Mike, my longtime neighbor and dear friend, had been my right hand at Global Girlfriend since early on. Formerly a foreign currency trader at US Bank, she started helping me in my then fledgling basement business when she left corporate America to spend more time at home with her sons. After eighteen years in banking, she didn’t mind the change of scenery and never complained about having to climb over my dirty laundry to get to the office. We had come a long way together over the last few years, and this latest journey was Mary-Mike’s first to work directly with the women we support.
Global Girlfriend started on my dining room table in 2003 based on a big idea to help women in need, but on a very low budget. I convinced my husband, Brad, to let me use our 2002 tax refund of $2,000 to import products made by women living in poverty. I knew nothing at the time about importing and not much more about fair trade (a market-based approach to solving poverty that aims to help producers in developing countries obtain fair trading conditions and achieve sustainable incomes), a concept that would become the cornerstone of my company. What I did know was that women in need deserved other women to advocate for them. As a social worker, I had worked for ten years with women and children in the child welfare and social service system. I had come to learn that even in America, the land of opportunity, women are the hardest hit by poverty. Of the 37 million Americans living below the U.S. poverty line, over half are women. But women in the rest of the world fair far worse. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor.
This statistic came to life for me in January 2000 when my mother-in-law, Brenda Edgar, traveled to Africa with the United Nations World Food Programme. Brenda returned from her journey with stories of hunger, thirst, illness, and lack. But I was more struck by her stories of tenacious women, women who walked miles each day to set out blankets or small tables of handmade goods and sat all day in the hot sun in hopes that just a few foreign aid workers or travelers might want to buy some souvenirs. The necklaces and scarves she brought me as gifts were more than just trinkets from Brenda’s travels. These small treasures were proof of the true talent and entrepreneurship of the women she had met—women who needed a larger market and a broader opportunity than aid workers at the Addis Ababa Hilton could offer.
I didn’t start Global Girlfriend immediately after Brenda came home. The idea for a business helping women rise out of poverty brewed slowly for a few years, and was always stifled by my own doubts about how to connect with women so far away. In early 2003 I decided to forget about what I didn’t know and just jump in, starting a fair-trade business focused specifically on helping women, with all that my good intentions and $2,000 could buy. The investment went much further than I could have dreamed.
In the beginning, Global Girlfriend customers were my girlfriends, my neighbors, and the moms at my kids’ schools. As my company grew from home parties to an e-commerce Web site, then added a mail-order catalog and a wholesale business, our customer base expanded to twenty thousand women around the country who eagerly used their purchasing power to help their girlfriends around the world gain economic security. In five years, our initial work with seven women’s groups had grown into a bona fide women’s fair-trade company supporting over fifty women’s economic development projects globally.
I had wanted Dakota to come with me to Guatemala to see for himself why I am so passionate about working with women in poverty. He had watched me start and grow my business from our home in Colorado, and I wanted him to observe firsthand the impact we were making on people. I also needed his seven years of Spanish classes to help me communicate. Mary-Mike had the same goals for Robert, but when our transportation pulled up we started having second thoughts. She and I exchanged fretful glances when our guides directed us to hop up into the back of the truck. We never let our boys ride bicycles without helmets, and yet here we were letting them ride in the back of an open pickup, brimming with people, traversing a steep gravel road. As this was the only transportation to the government housing resettlement for victims of Hurricane Stan, we climbed in. Celestina was waiting for us.
We turned off the main road onto the drive of the resettlement housing. The resettlement was simple and sufficient, but it felt cold and impersonal when compared to the colorful people and places we’d seen in other parts of Guatemala. The cement-block rectangles of government-issued houses were evenly aligned into tidy rows resembling a military barracks. The gray houses stood in bold contrast to the natural setting that surrounded the development. Lush green expanses of palms and pines were dotted with fields cleared for subsistence farming. On the horizon were beautiful hills and valleys that seemed to stretch on forever. Million-dollar views and a survival instinct were the community’s greatest assets.
I knew that each inhabitant had moved here because of the devastating mud slides brought on by Hurricane Stan in 2005. In the weeks preceding the hurricane, torrential rainstorms had soaked the area with over twenty inches of precipitation. When Stan blew in from the coast, the already saturated ground couldn’t absorb the new rains, and flash flooding and mud slides resulted. Whole mountainsides collapsed and engulfed the villages below. An estimated two thousand people lost their lives. Others lost their homes, which three years later were still buried under immovable mounds of earth. Many survivors now lived in this community of cookie-cutter shelters, missing their gardens, their animals, their personal things, and the homes many had built with their own two hands. It made me sad thinking of all they had lost. I couldn’t help considering how I would feel if my home was washed away and I was given a lesser space in a new, unfamiliar place. Ducking under a line of hanging laundry, Celestina greeted us warmly just outside the door to her home. She stood less than five feet tall, and was dressed in brilliantly colorful traditional Mayan wear, a huipil blouse and skirt she had woven herself. Her wide smile revealed a lifetime without dental work, and she looked much older than her thirty-six years. Celestina’s home had been destroyed in the mud slides that followed Hurricane Stan, and she was trying to rebuild her family’s life. Her village of Panabaj had been one of the hardest hit. There, she and her husband had proudly built the only two-story home on their street with their own hands. Their home had been brightly decorated with Celestina’s weavings, and the backyard was a large garden, where she grew food for her family and at times had extra produce to sell for a profit in the local market. Her new government-issued house was a twelve-by-twenty-foot cement-block rectangle with a tin roof, a metal door, and no yard.
Celestina invited us in, and as we entered, I peered around, carefully trying to make room for our group of five adults and two preteenagers in the confined space. The stark home was separated into two rooms, a small living room and an even smaller bedroom with one tiny bed. There were no carpets, paint, or wall hangings and seemingly few possessions other than some mats under the bed, which were rolled out for the children to sleep on at night, and a few cement blocks stacked in one corner, which were offered to us as seats. But Celestina’s prize possessions were clearly visible, taking up much of the minuscule living space: a long wooden thread separator that looked like a bench with spikes; a thread winder; long thin shuttles wrapped with weft strings; and a backstrap loom attached to the top of the doorjamb. These are the essential tools of a master Mayan weaver. The backstrap loom weaver literally becomes part of her loom. One end of the loom’s warp strings are attached to a door frame or somewhere with a higher elevation. The weaver then sits on the floor and straps the loom around her back, causing the warp to become taught and firm, able to accept the crisscross of the weft strings that are woven in and out to make a pattern.
We each took a seat on our low cement blocks, forming a semicircle around the loom. Celestina settled in the center of the cement floor on a small woven mat she had made herself. Her hands began to weave together the once loose and meaningless threads that found structure woven into harmony on her loom. Stripes of sky blue and purple made up the warp that would become the base for the fabric, and Celestina combined a rainbow of blue, green, yellow, and purple in the weft, skillfully forming shapes that looked like small flowers. Each shuttle held a different color weft string that she passed through the warp with speed and accuracy until a pattern took shape before our eyes. Each thread was suddenly part of something much larger and lovelier than what it had been alone. Celestina’s hands never stopped moving as she wove and at the same time recounted the events of the mud slides, which our interpreter, Maria, translated from their native Kathiquel language. The mud slides that had overwhelmed parts of the peaceful Lake Atitlán area had taken her home, her neighbors’ homes, and many of her neighbors’ lives. She and her children had escaped death only because her house had two levels and they were all upstairs when the thundering rush of earth and water overtook the homes all around her.
Watching the movement of Celestina’s skillful hands on the loom, I thought about the threads of experience that make up the tapestry of each of our lives, and about the path in life that had led me to her home. I thought of how blessed I was to be here now, with my son, showing him why this work was so important to me. Working with women internationally is what I had always longed to do, but it had taken years to get here.
* * *
I went to college at Western Illinois University as a journalism major. I hoped to be a reporter who covered meaningful stories—stories about injustices or, better yet, good being accomplished in the world. I dreamed that maybe someday I would report internationally. The problem was that I didn’t love the many required English classes. We were reading novels that didn’t move me when I wanted real-life stories. (I also was, and still am, a horrid speller, which seemed the kiss of death in an English class before the age of computers and spell-check.) But everything changed second semester sophomore year when I took an introduction to social work class as an elective.
My instructor, Mike Finmen, was a short man with a goatee who almost always wore jeans to class. Mike was open, comfortable, and casual and treated us like smart colleagues he was mentoring rather than like students he was grading. Mike had a long history in the field of social work, doing direct practice even after he earned his PhD. He had worked in rural poverty in Arkansas and had strong opinions on building opportunities and social safety nets, but also on fostering personal responsibility. His favorite career advice was “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” and he suggested we take the time to learn where each person in a situation sits before we judge from our personal throne. His other favorite pearl of wisdom was “CYA,” or Cover Your Ass. He advised us to do so by keeping thorough and copious practice notes about our social work clients. I loved his candidness. I loved that he believed in doing; not just teaching or researching, but getting his hands dirty in human affairs. It was what I wanted to do—not just observe and report, but get messy in people’s lives in order to help them. I switched majors immediately.
By my junior year in college, I had decided I would commit my short-term future to the Peace Corps. Something inside me drew me to the larger world. I wanted to understand what life was like in other lands. I wanted to learn about other cultures and traditions. Part of that curiosity came from hearing about both my grandfather’s and my father’s time at war. My paternal grandfather, G. Clark Nehring, had served in the army along the northern border of India during World War II. He spent over two years guarding bridges and roads in India and fixing tires at an army facility located in a tropical area north of Calcutta where rubber was plentiful. On the rare occasions when he talked about his time in India, I marveled as the details of the land and the people poured out from my mostly stoic grandfather. He had lived in a tent camp surrounded by tea fields, small villages, and wild animals. Once, he and some friends helped the local villagers kill a twenty-foot python that was pursuing the locals’ goats. The villagers thanked the soldiers with traditional food and tea, and with friendship that reached past their language barrier. I could just picture how foreign Indian food and culture, and India itself, must have been to him as a young soldier.
My dad had followed my grandpa in service to our country as a naval officer in the Vietnam War. My father wasn’t drafted like many young men from his generation but instead enlisted as a Seabee—a member of the navy construction unit that built the air force runways and other infrastructure the United States needed inside Vietnam. Like my grandfather, my father didn’t talk much about his time in the military. Sometimes, out of the blue, he’d mention something random about the temperature in Vietnam or the bugs, or in the 1980s when the TV show China Beach aired, he’d say something like, “I helped build the real airstrip at China Beach.” These casual comments over the years made me curious about other places. When my grandfather and father talked about India and Vietnam, they always talked about their love of the people. Even during war, people were friendly and eager to learn about them, to learn about America, and to share their own culture. I daydreamed about places I might go and friends I might meet. When I was a kid, it was hard to believe that Grandpa and Dad had both been halfway around the world and the farthest I had been from my small Illinois farm town was Florida—twice.
My family traveled rarely when I was a child. As part of our family business, Hinckley Concrete Products, we did go to the annual Midwestern Pre-Cast Concrete Convention in gripping locations like Peoria and Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. My paternal grandparents, Clark and Irene, were much more worldly, traveling to Wisconsin and Florida every year and even journeying to Portugal when I was about six. It was my grandparents who took me on my first airline flight, when I was in the third grade. We went to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and I remember how anxious I was about flying. (I still perspire, pray, and find myself unable to talk to my fellow passengers until I hear the ding of the bell that represents our arrival at ten thousand feet.) My mom cried as I left the gate to board the plane, which didn’t help. But my first pair of airline wings and a thick blueberry compote on delicious pancakes quelled my nervousness.
Growing up in Hinckley, Illinois, a small town with a population of twelve hundred people, the only other person I knew who had traveled to other places in the world (besides my family war veterans) was my town’s retired history teacher Charlie Hillman. He taught history to decades of Hinckley–Big Rock High school students, including both my grandma in the 1930s and my dad in the 1960s. One night when I was nine or ten, dozens of us poured into the community center’s basement to watch Mr. Hillman’s slides from his trip to China. The most vivid memory I have from his show is of two slides of toddlers with the back cut out of their pants. One child had just a slip of plastic covering his otherwise bare behind, and Mr. Hillman had captured the other child squatting to poop right in front of him on the sidewalk. We all gasped and giggled. We examined each slide as if it were a new moon rock or a specimen of bacteria from Mars. Mr. Hillman had gone far away; the people were different there, and he had come back to tell us just how wonderfully interesting and kind they were. Mr. Hillman might as well have been an astronaut.
But it was Cry Freedom, a movie my mom recorded from cable reruns, that made me want to help right injustices around the world. As I watched Denzel Washington play anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, murdered by the police for his work to secure equal rights for black citizens of South Africa, I felt angry that this level of blatant discrimination could still exist in modern times. With his bold escape from South Africa to take the story of Biko’s murder and apartheid’s oppression to the larger world, Biko’s friend Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) inspired me to think about how each of us is personally responsible to take action against injustice. If you are not directly affected, it is too easy to accept that bad things happen to other people in other places. It is easy to sit quietly by the sidelines, inactive. As a white journalist, Donald Woods did not have to risk his own life or endanger the lives of his family to stand up against apartheid, but he did stand up for his friend Steven Biko and for all black South Africans, and in acting, he became an agent for change. So a year later when a Peace Corps recruiter held an informational session on my college campus, I was there with bells on. I wanted, even if it was in a small way, to be an agent for change in the world. The Peace Corps seemed like a great place to start.
While typically supportive, my friends and family thought my Peace Corps bid was a bit harebrained. After all, who bases her career choice on her favorite movie? My best friend, Ann, was especially skeptical. No one is more loyal, funny, self-deprecating, and just plain fun than Ann. (She is also stunningly beautiful. Standing six feet tall, she made the rest of our group of friends somewhat easy to overlook when she was around.) Ann has always loved to plot her future in her head and had already reserved a place for me in the future of her mind. We would graduate college, move to Chicago, meet the men of our dreams, become wildly successful at whatever we attempted, and live happily ever after.
Naively, I assumed the Peace Corps would take me simply because I wanted to go. I dedicated my junior and senior years of college to the single-minded pursuit of getting accepted to the Peace Corps (okay, I was also a bartender and a sorority girl, so single-minded may be a bit of an overstatement). But after jumping through every hoop my Peace Corps recruiter held up for me—tutoring a chain-smoking Korean exchange student in English, meeting monthly with a returned Peace Corps volunteer bent on shocking me with his tales of bug-kabob dinners, and being grilled in interviews on what a social work undergrad had to offer in concrete skills—I never got the call.
It seemed that the Peace Corps considered my bachelor of social work degree a generic brand in the grocery store of degrees. While I knew that social work meant understanding people, seeing the world from other perspectives, and advocating for those with little voice in the system or in the world, after several conversations with my recruiter I felt like the Peace Corps saw social workers as people with big hearts and few skills. I wasn’t a teacher, an engineer, a watershed management or public health expert. I couldn’t speak a different language. I was as generic a worker as existed. I was a Peace Corps reject. Devastated, and tailing my roommates in the race to jump on the career path, I took the first child welfare job offer that came along.
The job was at Edison Park Home in Park Ridge, Illinois. Edison Park was a child welfare treatment center for “juvenile delinquents” in the foster care system. Teenage boys and girls who had been abused or neglected and who were found to be too troubled for placement in a family foster care setting ended up living in the stark cement-block confines of Edison Park Home. I was assigned the 2:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. shift on the adolescent boys’ unit, keeping the boys under control from the time they got off the school bus until bedtime. Some of the guys were charming and likable, some were sad, others, like James, were smart. James (not his real name) read Malcom X and lectured the staff about the importance of not allowing kids to become institutionalized, while sliding under the radar at school, doing just enough work to get by and staying out of trouble. The simple activities I brought in to pass our weekends, like making taffy apples and coloring Easter eggs, amazed the boys. I was shocked at the level of abuse they had suffered, and more shocked at the discrimination we all felt every time we ventured out into the community as a group. I remember the uncomfortable feeling of being closely watched by store clerks when we went school-supply shopping, as if the guys were there to steal instead of to shop. And I knew that the next time I shopped at the same store, by myself, the experience would be completely different. I hated when the staff at the community center where we swam gave our boys a lecture about appropriate behavior I had not seen given to any paying customer in line ahead of us. And even the school debated letting one of our boys play on the high school football team, fearing his gang background. But how could he or any of the other guys grow without opportunities, coaching, and new teammates for sports as well as for life?
The big problems of their childhoods—which included physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, poverty, and witnessing extreme violence—at times seemed too overwhelming to ever solve, so I learned to tackle the small stuff first. I worked with the kids to find simple, doable solutions to the problems they could control. They couldn’t change their families, they couldn’t change discriminatory attitudes toward young black men, but they could make new positive choices every day to create the lives they wanted. They could study for a spelling test, do their daily chores without debate, offer to help a friend, and take pride in their own small accomplishments. They could choose how they behaved in school, they could choose how they treated one another, they could take advantage of the education opportunities now available to them, and they could seek help from the adults around them who wanted them to grow into successful young men. Isolated from the abuse, gangs, drugs, and violence that many of them came from, the boys could have their daily needs met, leaving them time to choose who they wanted to become. Sometimes they found success with this approach, and other times, well, not so much.
On a Saturday afternoon four years after leaving Edison Park, while shopping at a Gap outlet store on Chicago’s northwest side with my baby son in tow, I noticed the store’s security guard watching me. There were several customers browsing the racks, but his eyes followed me everywhere I wandered. I was offended briefly at the thought of being suspected of shoplifting, until the stoic guard smiled and said, “Stacey, is that your baby?” It was James. He was not only gainfully employed but was weeks from graduating with an associate’s degree from community college and had also recently enlisted in the army. He shared stories of other guys who were on similar successful paths. But he also told me that one of the guys had gone to prison and another was a drug dealer.
In the end, my job at Edison Park Home was the best thing that could have happened to me at the start of my career. I had thought understanding people meant I needed to leave the country and see the world, but in reality there was a lot of world I still needed to see just sixty or so miles from where I grew up. The boys had been good tour guides, teaching me about discrimination but also about resiliency.
I met my husband, Brad, the summer after I left Edison Park Home to go to grad school. If the Peace Corps had worked out, I’d have been somewhere in Africa digging clean latrines, instead of drinking beer with Brad at a famous Chicago church street festival (I usually just say we met at church, which is technically true).
Brad and I met at Old St. Pat’s World’s Largest Block Party in 1993. Old St. Patrick’s Church is one of the oldest public buildings in Chicago, and one of the few downtown buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. When Father Jack Wall took over the parish in 1983, the church was in danger of closing, with only four registered members on its roster. Undaunted, Father Wall concocted an innovative marketing plan for Old St. Pat’s to host an annual “World’s Largest Block Party,” fostering fellowship by bringing people together with beer and bands. Father Wall’s block party drew over five thousand people in the first year, and as the allure of the block party grew, so did Old St. Patrick’s membership. The church eventually boasted a family of over five thousand parishioners.
Neither Brad nor I knew at the time that Father Wall’s block party was famous for much more than resurrecting an almost dead congregation. As of our meeting in 1993, over sixty couples had married after meeting at Old St. Pat’s World’s Largest Block Party. The magic certainly worked on us. Brad proposed to me six months after our block party introduction, and we were married the following summer. Our ceremony at Central Baptist Church in Springfield, Illinois, was followed by a grand reception at Brad’s parents’ home—the Illinois governor’s mansion.
I married into a very dynamic family. My father-in-law, Jim Edgar, had served for ten years as Illinois secretary of state and four years as the state’s governor when I entered the family. Our wedding happened in the middle of his 1994 reelection bid for the governor’s office, which he won handily. But it was the work my mother-in-law was doing as First Lady of Illinois that impressed me most. Brenda Edgar had supported her husband’s political career as a stay-at-home mother for the first twenty years of their marriage. Now, with her two children grown, Brenda had focused her energy on the women and children of Illinois. She pioneered several innovative statewide programs for families, including a statewide reading initiative; a women’s health resource called “Friend to Friend”; CHAD tags, which were identification tags for child safety seats used to identify children in car accidents; and her most powerful and wide-reaching program, “Help Me Grow”: a statewide partnership with the Ronald McDonald Foundation to provide childhood immunizations and health care to low-income children in Illinois. But Brenda’s favorite project was the stuffed animal she designed named P.J. Hugabee. Brenda and her amazing assistant, Tom Faulkner, created a partnership with Marshall Field’s (since merged with Macy’s) to sell P.J. in the downtown Chicago flagship store. P.J. was more than your average teddy bear. For every P.J. Hugabee bear sold to the public, Marshall Field’s donated one to a child entering the Illinois foster care system. This was Brenda’s way of sending a warm motherly hug to the state’s loneliest children and giving them something of their own to hold on to.
When it was time for Jim to leave the governor’s office in January 1999, he and Brenda were each asked to be on separate boards for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Brenda’s friend Catherine Bertini was the head of the WFP and had a clever idea to form a new women’s auxiliary board with a group of like-minded, influential women in order to round up new interest and, of course, financial support for the work of the program. Brenda was quickly recruited.
Catherine Bertini was visionary in implementing strategies to help the World Food Programme achieve better results worldwide. Too often, poor infrastructure or government corruption impeded distribution in the developing countries the WFP was targeting. Corruption unfortunately goes hand in hand with power, and in places where food is scarce, controlling large quantities of consumable commodities is power. The WFP had ways of investigating and restricting government misuse of food aid, but the personal corruption of too many men who controlled the actual distribution seemed incomprehensible. Instead of distributing the food aid that was supposed to be free to people in need, those in power often sold the food at a profit. Catherine was good at analyzing all of the social motivators that could help food distribution enhance not only basic nutrition but also social goals like keeping kids in school, teaching better farming techniques for better crop yields that can help combat local hunger, and helping promote employment opportunities so families can afford the food they need. I admired her for her commonsense approaches. While she headed the WFP at the policy level, she seemed to be most committed to the simple actions that resulted in real changes for people’s lives.
One example was a cooking oil program her staff implemented in Afghanistan. The World Food Programme found that, as in many places in the world, Afghan families often kept their daughters home to do household work instead of allowing them to attend school. Catherine’s team had an idea to use weekly free cooking oil distributions to qualifying families as an incentive to get girls back into the classroom. If a girl attended school all week, she would be given her family’s ration of cooking oil to take home with her at the end of the week. If the family did not send their daughters to school, they would not have access to the free cooking oil. Opportunities for the family were tied to opportunities for girls. Attendance for girls spiked in the areas where the Food Programme’s cooking oil education incentive was introduced.
In January 2000 Brenda made her first trip with the World Food Programme, to Ethiopia. While Brenda felt prepared for her trip because she was well-traveled and had done so much work in Illinois with low-income women and families, she was stunned at the conditions in Ethiopia. A struggle for resources, food, water, and fuel was affecting every aspect of daily life. Brenda had always been impressed by the beauty of the handsome, statuesque Ethiopian men and women she had met in America. In Ethiopia, the lack of proper nutrition had stunted the growth of many children, leaving twelve- and thirteen-year-olds looking physically closer to five or six. Twins were very common, but the group was told that it was automatic to let one die because a mother could not feed two babies. The landscape looked barren because most of the trees had been cut down for firewood. Women seemed to do most of the wood gathering and hauling. It was common to see little women bent in half with enormous bundles of firewood on their backs. There was very little infrastructure throughout the country, even in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Brenda was shocked to see women rebuilding a main road by hand. The women did all of the heavy lifting, carrying, and setting heavy stones to form the pavement, while men stood around watching. It was damp, and the huge stones were slippery, as was the mud beneath the women’s feet. The women were poorly clad, and their feet were bare or shod with shoes that offered no protection for carrying stones on slippery surfaces. But if the city seemed underdeveloped, the countryside was utterly primitive.
A UN Jeep jostled Brenda and her travel mates along a rustic dirt road for four hours deep into the vast countryside. As they approached the community they had come so far to visit, she saw very few huts or buildings, only a large hill where a group of women and men were working. The hillside was expansive and barren, but they were diligently attempting to terrace it into leveled fields for agricultural planning. Women carried and piled stones to make walls, while men with simple hoes broke away at the hardened ground. There was no water source to be seen. “Everyone was dressed in dirty rags,” Brenda told me on the phone after her trip. “They had nothing. They weren’t just poor like we think of poor in America; they had nothing, nothing, nothing.”
She told me that seeing the people working so hard at what looked like such a futile effort made her want to cry. “I wished for a moment that they would have just shown me a photo or a film of this place,” Brenda confessed, “but no picture would have communicated to me the scope and reality of these people’s lives.”
Brenda’s experiences ignited an ongoing dialogue between the two of us that seemed to last a few years. Early on, I gave her a laundry list of my own ideas on how the auxiliary board might ignite new excitement around the World Food Programme. How they might enlist women around the country who were just like me, not former First Ladies or high-powered corporate executive women, but stay-at-home moms, teachers, hairdressers, and the rest of us who care but don’t know how to get involved or what to do to help. One auxiliary board member was a VP at Tiffany & Co. I thought she should arrange a special sale at a Tiffany store in New York or Chicago where the jewelry the women made in Ethiopia might sit on a Tiffany counter with honor—even if it was only for one night. I thought they should start an awareness program in schools to help involve kids to take action against hunger. I thought they should buy some of the products these women were making and sell them at events or home parties to raise awareness but also funds for the cause. They could at least organize a fund-raiser for the WFP. But none of these things happened.
I admired Brenda’s deep concern for the fate of the women she had met. I respected her personal commitment to pray for them daily. But I also felt frustrated by this powerful group. So many important women with amazing connections that could be leveraged, and yet they seemed instead almost paralyzed by what they had seen. People were too poor. Governments too corrupt. Problems insurmountable. The group seemed to feel small steps might be too inconsequential, so, it seemed to me, they stood still.
Revisiting the topic on the phone one afternoon, Brenda confided, “The voice of the woman council member who came out to meet our Jeep still haunts me. I don’t remember what all she said, as she was talking so fast and with such urgency I don’t know if the translator was truly keeping up. But what I remember vividly is when she begged me, ‘Please, please don’t forget us!’” There was a long pause on the phone. “And I never have. I never will forget her, but what can I do?” Brenda and Jim were people who made things happen. In their service to Illinois I saw time and again how they recognized the problems of the citizens in their state and promptly worked to try to find solutions. Still, the poverty Brenda had witnessed left even someone as capable and connected as she is feeling helpless to make a difference.
“We should do something,” I stated boldly. “We could do something.”
“We should,” Brenda agreed.
Then a waking toddler shrieked from upstairs at my house. “Cali Ann is up from her nap,” I said.
“I’ll let you go, and we’ll talk later,” Brenda replied.
Like the spark of so many brilliant ideas, the flame of our vision for women in poverty was doused by everyday life. Brenda went back to racing around the country with my type A, semiretired father-in-law, Jim, and I went back to tending to my young family. Dreams for the women Brenda had met took a backseat to the diapers and dinners of my daily life.
Copyright © 2011 by Stacey Edgar