We are back in Peru and yesterday was our first day in the prison! As usual, getting in was a breeze, and even though I wasn’t able to present papers, I still go to see the women.

Since International Women’s Day is tomorrow, the prison is having a series of talks in the coming days around confidence and empowerment. Even though these talks often break down to, “You should be confident,” without giving the women any real strategies to do so, I’m still happy that the women are being recognized this week.

The first day in the prison is always a lot of catching up and giving the women the order and an idea of what is to come in the coming weeks.

This trip we will be working through a jewelry order together. The embroidered jewelry we made last summer was such a hit that we putting in a BIG order so we can add it to our online store.

Embroidered hummingbird bracelet by Marleny

Embroidered hummingbird bracelet by Marleny

As the women become more proficient at jewelry making, our workshops move from being solely skills based to actually helping the women put these skills into a business model. This trip’s workshop is doing just that.

I will be guiding the women through how to fill a big order, from how to delegate who does what to packaging the items so they are ready to sell when they reach the buyer- we will be working through each step of the way in real time.

Amanda_Smiles_RuraqMaki_Embroidered Cosmetic_5

We also have some of our most popular manta products in the order. Last year one of our main sewers was released and this order will be the first Ruraq Maki order made by both incarcerated women and formerly incarcerated women!

Yup! While the women in the prison will do the embroidery portion of the order, Gladys, who was released last year, will do the sewing. It’s so amazing to see how our program can evolve with the changes in the women’s lives as they leave the prison.

It’s a new time for us all and, as the founder of the organization, watching the vision and mission of the organization shift to mirror where the women are at NOW is an incredible experience.

On Thursday we start jewelry making and the women will come up with packaging ideas for their products!

 

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I was thrilled to arrive for class today to see that the women had finished their embroidery for their bracelets. We were all eager to get to start constructing the pieces when we discovered there was no electricity in the women’s area. Since the class project required a iron we were at a standstill for the first 1 1/2 hours of the class.

While we waited, the women continued to work on embroidery for various class projects they wanted to make again. At one point it was just me and Elizabeth at the table and she started to tell me about how she wanted to go the U.S. after she is released to teach embroidery to people. “But,” she said, “I don’t think they will give me a VISA because I am here.” Then she told me her story:

“I started working when I was 9 years old. I worked in a woman’s home. I cleaned, I learned to cook, and I took care of the household and the babies. I am the fifth of eight children. My mom didn’t have the money to pay for my school so I paid for my entire schooling myself. In the mornings I worked right up until I left for school. Then in the afternoons I went to school and studied. I finished secondary school.”

Elizabeth was arrested after being in a stopped car with her in-laws, who were trafficking drugs. She didn’t know there were drugs in the car and was getting a ride back to Ayacucho after visiting her in-laws. The in-laws claimed she was involved too, hoping it would reduce their sentence and she received a 13 year prison term.

“Now I want to study to be a lawyer. It’s because of my experience. I didn’t know anything about the drugs or make a single cent from drugs, but I’m here. The lawyers are in favor of the state. They don’t defend you, they just want you to get sentenced. You can get a lawyer to defend you, but you have to pay. The lawyers just care about money. I want to be a lawyer who fights for people.”

However, she also recognizes the reality of being incarcerated.

“Now, I have a mark on me. When I leave, no one will want to hire me because I’ve been here. For the rest of my life, I will have this on my record and people will judge me.”

Embroidered butterfly and hummingbird bracelet by Marleny

Embroidered butterfly and hummingbird bracelet by Marleny

I’ve noticed that this trip the women have been embroidering butterflies. As Elizabeth told me her story, and her dreams and hopes, the transformative power of the butterfly came to my mind. They begin as tiny creatures, so easily crushed, yet through their metamorphosis they become something even more beautiful that cannot be held back. They achieve freedom.

 
Everyday the women are working towards this freedom, not just from the prison, but from what society and the stigma of incarceration tells them they can be. Everyday they are building their cocoon, so that when they are released, they can fly.


Yesterday, some women outside the jewelry class came over to observe what the class was making and, as they talked about which pieces they liked and why, one woman looked up from her work and said, “These are works of art.”

I want to take a minute to talk about value. When I started Ruraq Maki in 2009 the women were undervaluing their work. In 2011 we did a formal cost analysis and discovered that they were pricing their items for less than the cost to make them. This was partially due to a knowledge gap about pricing, but also due to an undervaluing of the craft and skill that went into their products. Over the years, I had had the privilege of watching the women’s journey towards a genuine sense of value and pride in their work.

Embroidered pendant by Lucila

Embroidered pendant by Lucila

The woman’s words yesterday, “These are works of art,” is another step in that journey. Something is shifting and the women are seeing their goods as something larger than what they do day in and day out. As they push the boundaries of how they use their skills, they are seeing the art, the craft, and the expertise that they bring to their work.

 
Why is this important? Because this shift in viewpoint happens on a larger level. The deeper appreciation of their work leads to a deeper appreciation of themselves. They are no longer just women in prison, they are artists. Though the International Folk Art Market, they became global experts and technicians in the Ayacuchan embroidery. Through the jewelry making, they become creators of works of art. They are becoming something more than they thought, but what they have always been. Embracing their intrinsic value as artists, mothers, women, and humans paves the way for possibility, for the capacity to dream, and for their future.


I mentioned in yesterday’s post that during my meeting with the women we did some work envisioning their ideal production model. I used a group coaching model called GROW which is a very simple, yet effective process, where we go through various aspects of a single topic. My role was to present the questions and document the women’s answers. The discussion was very generative as it enabled the women to specifically envision their future and discuss their options.

Here are the result of the discussion, in the women’s own words:

Goals for a production group:

“Our goals for the production group are to learn new things, have more orders, and create products in distinct product categories like jewelry, leather, embroidered clothing, and knit headbands. If we meet this goal, we would be able to work in a group, improve our art, improve the quality of our products, and increase our quality of life. What is most appealing about this goal is that with more work, we will earn more money, which we can use to help our children and benefit our families. Also, we can learn new things that we cannot learn after we are released. We will value our products more. The most important thing about this goal is having money to provide for our family. When we can give money to them, we feel good about ourselves. A successful production group would make us feel proud and would enable us to start a business. Success would look like having 4 orders a year (every 3 months) and earning enough to provide for our children and save money for ourselves and our release.”

Reality (current situation):

“The current situation is there is no work in the prison. Right now, drug trafficking is down. This affects the Ayacuchan economy. When there is no money in the jungle, there is no money in Ayacucho and no work for us. When there is work, we received partial and delayed payments. The current situation makes us feel bad. We are worries and stressed about money. This stress causes us to feel sick. When we work, we forget about our problems and being here. What we need most is work, work that pays a good wage and work that provides us with capital to use. The resources we have available are manta and some of us have inventory capital so they are prepared for  an order. Our challenges is the market in Ayacuhco- it is too unstable.”

Options:

“Some options for us are to focus on our local market, focus on having more buyers, and produce smaller, lower cost items. As a production group, we want an equal pay model. Well, actually it depends. Not everyone does the same work, so payment will be different for group work or individual work. Some work, that is group work, everyone should be paid the same. For other work, like personal work (like the embroidery), the person should be paid individually. And we want to have different prices based on the quality of the embroidery- if you embroider really well, you are paid more. In forming our group, we need to have people with different skills, like women from the sewing workshop and women who embroider really well.”

Way Forward (what’s next):

“For future trainings we want to learn about quality control, how to administer money in a group model, and how to cost our products- for ourselves so we earn enough and for the market.”

 

Note: this is a narrative summary of my notes of the group discussion and the points they agreed upon


Today was my last day in the prison and it oscillated between wonderful and chaotic. On Tuesday the prison agreed to let me take photos of the women with one caveat- I had to use their camera. Today when I arrived I went to Dr. Castro’s office to get the camera but he wasn’t there. After waiting for 30 minutes I decided it was more important to see the women before they headed to mandatory therapy.

When I arrived at the women’s area, we immediately launched into addressing issues with the order. Apparently the men no longer want to weave the thicker, more simple manta because the thinner materials fetches a better price. This was fine, but it meant having to redo the order on the spot, without a calculator on hand (long division anyone?).

Me with two of my students and my very own Rikchari necklace!

Me with two of my students and my very own Rikchari necklace!

Halfway through redoing the order the women from the jewelry class let me know that they had to go to therapy so frantically we exchanged money and jewelry pieces and hugs and goodbyes, not knowing if we would see each other again. It was all very hectic, with a group of 10 women surrounding me, 100 more trying to leave to go to therapy, pens flying, money dropping, the guard telling all of us to hurry! What a rush!

Of course, once most of the women went to therapy, the cells were quiet because only a handful remained (those who opted out of therapy). The good news was there was then plenty of time to go over the order and do the calculations properly. I also heard some of the stories of the women who will be embroidering manta.

One woman (who is very young) was a street child and involved in drugs when she was younger. She is incarcerated with her husband and her daughter, who is now 3, lives in the North of Peru in a home. She really needs work and money, especially because she doesn’t have a family support system.

Another woman, also incarcerated with her husband, has 5 young children living with relatives. Both need as much work as possible to support their children. Fortunately, the woman’s husband is a weaver so the entire family will benefit from the order.

A delicious plate of pork and papas fritas

A delicious plate of pork and papas fritas

The woman who we have hired to arrange our order (she has been in our programs since before Ruraq Maki existed!) had a plate of food made for me and while I was eating told me, “I thank God for you every time you come. I’m always so worried about paying for my daughters’ university and what I am going to do to keep them in school. The market here is very low and there is so little work. Then you come and give us the work that we need. And I tell my daughters, she isn’t just helping me, she is helping you too.”

It brings tears to my eyes writing this because it is a testament to how a small non-profit like Ruraq Maki can have a big impact on individual lives. And the you isn’t me, it is the support network we have as an organization that creates this impact.

Tomorrow- part 2 of my last day in the prison- Dr. Castro arrives with the camera!! (and photos of the women with their final jewelry pieces).