Today in the prison was an exciting one! The women are nearly done with the embroidered jewelry order and the products look incredible. Since this is the second time the women have made the embroidered jewelry, they are able to focus more on the design of the product rather than the technique- and it shows!
Also, the women picked out the photos of themselves that we will use as product insert cards. I printed out a contact sheet with 3 options for each woman and each one selected the photo that they liked the best. I loved giving the women control over how they are viewed by people in the U.S. and they got a kick out of helping each other choose the best photo.
Halfway through the day, a group of sewing women asked me to come into their sewing area to talk a bit. The women explained to me that they wanted to be part of Ruraq Maki’s production group but weren’t sure what to do next. I was thrilled that they wanted to involved and invited them to participate in the May workshops with Kani.
The 2-week workshop series with Kani will go over how the women can create a sustainable production groups, each part of the production chain, and quality control requirements for export.
The coolest part of the workshops series is that it will involve 3 different organizations coming together to help the women.
Ruraq Maki is sponsoring the workshop and organized all the logistics of the prison permissions. Kani, who works with artisans all over Peru, will be delivering the training, and Maki, who also work with the women in the prison, will be lending us the use of their space and helping with the day of logistics.
Let’s hear it for collaboration!
Because there are 3 organization involved in this workshops series, we are focused on having as many women as possible join in. This is a great opportunity for women from different production groups to work together and learn each other’s strengths.
Our goal is to create cohesion within the production groups so that it is easier for all of us to send order to the women- and easier for the women to fill them.
The prospect of having new women join Ruraq Maki’s group is exciting. One of our long term goals is to start a wholesale program but in order to do that, we need to be able to produce in large quantities, which means we need more women on board. Connecting with a new group, who will also benefit from the work, is a win-win for all!

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Today was a slow day in the prison as the women worked on their products for the order. The embroidery looks stunning (no surprise there) and the pieces that are done are beautiful. I’m already eyeing a few pieces- they may not even make it out of the prison before I snatch them up (being the founder does have its benefits).

While the women worked on their products, we talked about racism in Peru. The women shared with me the types of misconceptions people in Lima (the capital of Peru and where the majority of the country’s money is) have of those from Ayacucho.

Ayacucho is a city in the Central Andes of Peru. Most of the people in Ayacucho are Quechua and are bilingual Quechua/Spanish speakers. While Quechua people aren’t the only indigenous people of the Peru, they are the vast majority of the people in the Andes (which spans throughout South America).

Like many indigenous peoples throughout the world, the history of Quechua people in Peru is wrought with struggles for land rights and racism. In modern history, during Peru’s civil war in the 1980’s, 75% of the victims were Quechua people, the vast majority from the department of Ayacucho. In the late 90’s Peru’s president, Alberto Fujimori, forced sterilized thousands of women (and pressured hundred of thousands more into sterilization), most of whom were Quechua and Aymaran (another indigenous group in Peru).

Today the women shared how people from Lima react to those from Ayacucho. One woman said, “Someone said to my daughter, ‘Where are you from?’ and she said Ayacucho. And he couldn’t believe it because she has light skin and has a job.”

They said that the assumption is that people from Ayacucho (read- indigenous people) look “almost black” and are illiterate, uneducated, and are unable to hold down a job. While there is certainly a degree of poverty in the countryside, Ayacucho is full of universities and educated professionals.

The women are extremely aware of the news and global politics (more than I am) and very shrewd business women. While there are women who haven’t finished high school, formal education is not the end all be all in intelligence.

The conversation got me thinking about what these women are up against. Not only are they incarcerated, and spending 10-15 years of their life in prison, but, as indigenous women, they also face racism and sexism.

Yet, they still GO FOR IT every single time. Despite being told on so many levels that they shouldn’t. They are so determined to earn money, take care of their kids, and have something when they are released.

When they told me about the racism in Lima they laughed because, as they explained me, “Everyone here knows that isn’t true. It’s ridiculous.” And they’re proving that every single day.


At long last, we were able to start classes! Well, not classes exactly. Today, instead of learning new techniques, we reviewed the embroidered jewelry techniques and construction process that the women will be doing to fulfill the jewelry order.

The goal of this week’s “class” is to have the women fulfill an order themselves, start to finish. I am available to offer general help, in case they get stuck, but much of the decisions are made by them.

Today we started working on the order and the women began the process of (truly) working together in a production group. There were many questions about the construction and process of the jewelry piece and the group problem solved the finer details together. While I did answer some questions, most of the questions were answered collectively, amongst themselves.

One of my favorite parts of the day was when Lia showed me the embroidery she did over the weekend for the earrings and said, “I don’t like this one. It isn’t as good as the others. I’m going to do something else instead.”

Self-accountability for the win!

Embroidered Floral bracelet by Lia

Embroidered Floral bracelet by Lia

Also, as Lia worked on completing a pair of manta earrings and when her first earring was done, all the other women examined it. Lia is a very detailed orientated artist, so there wasn’t anything wrong with the quality, but it was great to see the women stepping into their role as quality control monitors and producers.

Lia is someone who I absolutely adore. Not only is she a terrific artist, she is SO enthusiastic about everything she does. She was the only woman who had all of her earring embroidery finished today and that’s because she worked on it over the weekend. If there’s work- Lia will take it and do it well.

Lia’s in her early 20’s, with one small daughter outside of the prison (she is incarcerated with her husband). Lia was a child of the streets and doesn’t have relatives to help her financially or to sell her mantas. That means Lia has to work twice as hard to get and sell orders. And she does.

She is an incredibly pro-active person. She takes on work, completes it on time, and does an amazing job. There’s no wallowing or “This is hard”. Instead, her attitude is, “How do I do it?” and then she does.

Lia is the youngest woman in the production group and a bit of a goof. She’s always laughing, making jokes, and taking gentle teasing in stride. But she’s also always working- doing what she can for her daughter and to create opportunities for herself and excel.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth (whose story is shared here), a young woman who has been in our programs since 2011 and is a real mover and shaker. She’s incarcerated for drug trafficking and is serving a 13 year sentence.

Elizabeth is hard not to like. Her exuberant personality, paired with her bright smile and optimistic outlook on just about everything, make her someone you just want to get to know. Over the years we have developed a special connection and I consider her a friend above all else.

I found Elizabeth yesterday in the women’s workshop with a group of artisans who are working with another NGO to create products for the local market. I had heard through the grapevine that she was elected the delegate of the the group and was in a leadership position.

When I heard this, I instantly knew that Elizabeth would be fantastic in this position. She’s a really genuine person and everything she says comes from a place of care and authenticity. From the get go she has pushed to improve herself while in prison. She is such a motivated person that it is difficult not be inspired by just being near her. Not to mention she is a stellar artist.

 

Embroidered butterfly bracelet by Elizabeth

Embroidered butterfly bracelet by Elizabeth

 

Entering the workshop area, I was thrilled to see Elizabeth in her element. She invited me to sit and we chatted about export production and the challenges we, as an organization, face.

Instantly, she was abuzz with solutions to our challenges and explained how the local production chain worked and the ways Ruraq Maki could replicate it. As soon as started talking, the other women in the room perked up and began adding their thoughts until they told me firmly, “Don’t worry, Amanda. We can work all of it out. We can do it.”

Here’s the thing about leadership- most of the time it isn’t about knowing the solution, it’s about inspiring others to seek it and act on it. In the short 20 minutes of our chat Elizabeth did just that, without even trying!

Just her enthusiasm and proactive attitude inspired the others to follow suit. We went from a room of women quietly working on their products to women throwing out ideas, smiling, and nodding and how they could definitely figure out how to produce for export. 100 bags? That’s nothing!

Watching Elizabeth, who is brimming with possibility and whose future gets brighter by the day, I have no words. She is a living example of what it means to persevere and to take every single opportunity to learn more, try something new, and test your boundaries.

I know that she deeply misses her daughter, and if she was someone else, maybe she would wallow in that despair. But she doesn’t. She keeps moving. She keeps growing. She leads.

P.S. There was no prison today as the women were participating in the annual Carnavales celebration within the prison.

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Today at the prison I presented the women with a large order for embroidered jewelry and discussed how they were going to fill it. One of our goals this trip is to walk the women through the order fulfillment process so that they can receive, produce, and send an order without a Ruraq Maki representative being present.

This is important because, if the women are able to handle the entire order process themselves, then we can send them orders year round instead of just twice a year.
The goal today was to talk about some of the issues that come up in order fulfillment and discuss how to solve them.

First, we talked about the division of labor. The women decided that they wanted to split the order evenly amongst themselves so that everyone was paid the same amount.

Next, we discussed quality control and who would be in charge of reviewing the products. First, they said, “The rule is everyone has to embroider really well,” and I reminded them that well to one person is different than well to another. They agreed that “well” wasn’t really a standard and came up with some concrete standard for the products.

The next issue to discuss was accountability and how they would hold each other accountable for the quality of the product. They decided that they would review each other’s work and made an agreement that if someone said the quality wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t a personal attack on that person, just an opportunity to improve their work. (How amazing is this?)

The topic of order fulfillment came up. I asked what would happen if they reviewed the products and some weren’t good enough- how would they be able to fill the order on time if they need to make more product?

Their solution was that each person had to make at least 3 extra pieces so that they were guaranteed enough products for the order, even if some were not up to standard.
All of these decisions came from the women, not me, and I was so proud of the way that they thought through each of my questions and came up with a group solution. Not only was every single one of their solutions easy to implement, it actually did solve the problems we are facing.

Watching them make decisions amongst themselves reminded me that these women are budding leaders and the more control their have over their production, the more they embrace that role and become leaders within the prison and, hopefully, beyond.

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