Today was my last day in the prison and it was quick! When I arrived, I met Alberto who had forgotten his glasses in the prison. Once inside, we split up and he went to the workshop area to look for his glasses and I went to the women's cell block to pay them for the jewelry. While I was in the cell block, the guard informed me that the women couldn't find his glasses and that they were freaking out. For the women, the worst thing that someone can think of them is that they are thieves. They are always very careful with the materials and count everything before and after class. I joined the women in the workshop and we took all the materials out of their bags and searched and searched for his glasses. Alberto noticed how worried and anxious the women had become and told them that it was okay. He didn't want them to be upset or get in trouble with the guard. Of course, at this point everything had already escalated, and the women were going one by one asking everyone if they had seen the glasses. And then the guard found the glasses! They were on our work table which had been brought inside the day before. Everyone was relieved! But most of all the women. Alberto told me later that he had already accepted losing the glasses and just didn't want to women to worry more. Fortunately, they were found, which I assumed would happen eventually. One thing I know about the women in our programs is that they don't steal things from the workshops and work very hard to ensure all materials are accounted for. In case you missed what we made this trip, here's a review! We started with mandala stamped pendants:Moved on to stamped metal cuffs: Took it up a notch with riveted pendants: Then it was time for leather work! First sandals: Then leather and metal stamped jewelry: Keep an eye out on our Facebook Page and online store- in September our metal stamped jewelry will be on sale!
Today ALL the women finished their sandals- which is a big win considering it’s often difficult to get the women to follow one timeline. But, by the end of class today, everyone had sandals and there was even a pair for me! The women surprised me with a pair of sandals that they had secretly made for me (I’m wearing them right now). While the women worked on their sandals, I sat a spoke with Jessica, who is the director of an NGO that works in the prison. Her organization helps the women produce products for the local market and has a workshop within the prison that we use for our classes. Jessica asked if, in the future, we could hold our jewelry making classes in their workshop so the women in her program can learn jewelry making too. Since our goal is to reach more women in the prison, I was in full agreement with this idea. When we first started classes in prison everything had to be done in the women’s main cell block. These were in the days when getting permission to enter the prison was complicated and unreliable. There wasn’t a second place to work or even a table. Some of our early classes were held on the ground, sitting in a circle! Now, things have changed dramatically. The cuna, once reserved for children, now has three separate workshops- a sewing workshop, a cosmetology workshop, and an artisan workshop. This is where we hold the leather working and quality control classes. Most of the women who go to the cuna overlap in multiple programs. These women are focused on learning new skills and working in artisan, Almost all of the women in our programs participate in other programs in this area. To have a jewelry class within this workshop area would enable us to serve more women AND give our current program participants a more focused learning environment. After the prison, on the bus ride home, Alberto spoke with me about some ideas he has for future leather working classes. He noted that the women are highly skilled artisans but they need to produce products that are sellable in the local market. Alberto is very familiar with the Peruvian artisan market as he attends trade shows all over Peru and South America. He suggested that we pick one product that will be popular in the local market and that he teach a class on how to produce it efficiently. He even offered to help connect the women to the market and buyers. Alberto is connected with many international buyers. He receives multiple international invitations a year to sell his goods at expositions because his work is so well known. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to the artisan market! He told me, “Some of these women are so young. They are 20 or 22 years old and they remind me of my daughter. It gives me pain to see them here, so young, and I want to help them earn more money more consistently.” I love the idea of a class that teaches the women HOW to produce large quantities of one product. Especially if we have a connection to the local market, the women could generate sustainable work within this market. Having someone like Alberto, who knows what sells best for artisans, also increases our chances of success. Instead of having to go through a lengthy process of trial and error, Alberto can tell us exactly what buyers are buying. Today was a big day for future collaborations which will make our programs more impactful and help the women earn even more money!
We started leather working today with our now most popular project- sandals! Alberto, the leather teacher, met me at the prison this morning at 9am on the dot and we breezed through security thanks to our permission papers. Finally, no pleading and negotiating with the guards. The women are enamored with sandals. They have requested this project in the past, but the old leather worker who used to teach our classes was not an expert in sandal making. Fortunately, Alberto is and the women finally get to do this long awaited project. We bought materials for 10 women and, of course, more wanted to join. In total we have 12 with two women agreeing to provide their own foot bases since we don’t have enough. Half of the women in the class are new to Ruraq Maki’s programs. Two of them are interested in making shoes so they were thrilled to learn how to make leather sandals. Sandal making began with each woman tracing the base pattern on leather and then carefully cutting out the leather. Alberto scolded a few women about their cutting technique, which he told them was dangerous and put them at risk for losing control of the knife and slicing into their belly. I agreed that we should try to avoid blood in the prison! After the bases were cut the women stamped designs on the base and made the holes for the straps. Then they cut out long strips of soft leather and created an intricate knot-braid design and hammered the design to keep it in place. Next, they pulled the straps through the holes and glued the straps to the base of the sandal. It doesn’t sound like a lot of steps, but cutting and stamping leather is slow going because you have to be careful and detailed. Tomorrow the women will finish their sandals with two base layers. On the bus ride home, Alberto told me that the prison contacted him last year to teach and class to the men and he turned them down. He told me he will only teach classes in the prison through Ruraq Maki because the experience is better. I’m really pleased to hear that he thinks this highly of us. Our values are based on fair wages and ethical work conditions and while we obviously promote this with the women, we also promote this in all aspects of the organization. Hearing that our trainers are also enjoying working with us and that we are fostering a positive work experience with them means that we are aligned with our core values beyond the work we do with the women.
Today started off with a whole lot of bad luck. First, on my way to the prison, I found out there’s a transportation strike tomorrow which means I can’t go to the prison since it’ll be too difficult to get back. Then, when I went to get the leather class permission for Thursday, I found out Dr. Castro is out for half the week! After waiting 30 minutes to get this information I talked to his assistant who was able to help me. In March my 2017 education plan was approved which meant I already had authorization to run the leather working class. All I needed was the actual paper authorization for the materials and the leather worker. Since Dr. Castro’s assistant has known me for many years, he spoke to the new director, wrote up my papers, and got the appropriate signatures for me. He was a lifesaver! After an hour of dealing with all that nonsense I was finally able to go to the women’s cell block where I found my student waiting eagerly for me. Today’s project was an introduction to riveting. For this project we layered multiple stamped pieces and connected them via rivets. This project unleashed so much creativity in the women! Not only did I bring stamping blanks in different shapes and sizes, I also brought three different metals so they could really play with design in shape, color, and form. The result? The women were fascinated with riveting! They loved playing with how the metal blanks could be stacked and what types of designs can be made using 3 shapes. I’ve never seen them so engaged in a project before! As I was leaving the prison I ran into Jessica, who works for another NGO that supports the women in the prison. We use their workshop to store our work table and to hold our workshops. She shared some very exciting news with me! The national Peruvian penitentiary system is so impressed by the work programs in the Ayacucho prison that they want to create a similar programs in the rest of the prisons. Even more exciting is that they want to create a system that makes it easier for businesses and buyers to buy products from the prisoners. Apparently the Yanamilla prison is the only prison that has workshops that operate at the level they do and INPE (the prison system) wants to recreate the success of the Yanamilla Prison all over the country. Sadly, I’m not able to attend the planning committee meeting that is happening on the 18th because I’ll be leaving, but Jessica hopes to make a video of the women in the Yanamilla Prison, and me, sharing our successes. The idea is that I will talk about how there is a foreign market for the products and that these items can be successfully sold in the U.S. She will present this video to the group at the meeting to show them why creating a nationwide program is important for the women. After 9 years of doing this work, it’s incredible to think that our work along with others who have worked tirelessly in the prison system, may impact the way the Peruvian prison system creates opportunities for women. This could be a major step for the prison system here and could lead to BIG opportunities for the women now and in the future.
Today started out with the best surprise! Right as I was walking into the prison I heard my name called and turned around to see Gladys, one of our program participants who was released last year! After a big hug, we chatted for a few moments and agreed that I would visit her workshop next Monday to catch up (and I’m going to take lots of photos this time!). Seeing Gladys filled me with so much joy that I knew the rest of the day was going to be stellar. And I wasn’t wrong. After having *every single item* in my bag reviewed (they opened every box, container, and checked under every letter stamp), I arrived at the women’s cell block and we started metal stamping. Since the last metal stamping class was such a hit, I knew this one would be too. We started with mandala pendants and design stamps to give the women a chance to practice the feel of stamping metal. A few of those initial strikes were a bit shaky (you really have to get into the flow of stamping), but eventually the women found their groove. The class is a mix of our regular program participants and several new women who were watching. I gave them blanks and told them they should try it out. Sure enough, a few of them fell in love and are now stamping pros. After the mandala pendants we moved on to the stamped cuff which is FAR more complex and requires careful measurement, planning, and focus when stamping. One of the most fun parts of the cuff is are the words the women choose to put in the middle. The first round was all in Quechua and included Qorisonco, which means heart of gold, Sumaq Wuarmi (beautiful women- this one is going to make an amazing gift!), and Rikchari, which means to awaken. Here’s the story behind Rikchari and why the phrase is so important to the Elizabeth: “Rikchari is Quechua for ‘awaken’ and it is a word full of life and hope. It encourages us to continue to live each day with courage and to never give up until the last breath of our lives.” Elizabeth, who LOVES creating everything and anything, finished her Rikchari cuff first. As she admired it, she turned to me and said, “I’m so happy about learning this technique. I look at what I made and I feel proud of myself.” For those of you who donated to our Sponsor a Woman campaign- this is the impact your donations make. Without you we couldn’t have purchased the materials for this class and Elizabeth, who won’t be released from the prison for another 9 years, wouldn’t have this moment of pride. Imagine facing 9 more years in prison, being separated from your daughter, and abandoned by your partner and his family. Then imagine creating something that is so beautiful you cannot stop admiring it or reminding yourself that you MADE that. That you are a talented individual that can learn and create. That’s the impact of your support.