Sister Maureen McGowan, Director of HandCrafting Justice, prepares to close the ministry.
HandCrafting Justice is now winding down. It was with bittersweet emotion that HandCrafting Justice, Inc. (HCJ) Board of Directors announced that HCJ would be closing on January 31, 2016. The fair trade ministry of Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the USA announced the news on January 14.
HandCrafting Justice began marketing women’s handmade crafts in 1995. It started under the name Global Women’s Exchange and was designed to help at-risk women served in Good Shepherd programs in the Global South lift themselves out of poverty through their handiwork.
From the beginning, HCJ has subscribed to Fair Trade principles which mirrored the code of conduct that HCJ and Sisters of the Good Shepherd had already adapted as a way forward with the producer partners. This would ensure that people who produce marketable goods are treated with dignity and respect, are paid and treated fairly and are never exploited.
HandCrafting Justice is a project of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd Provinces of Mid-North America and New York. Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, more commonly known as Sisters of the Good Shepherd, is an international religious congregation ministering in 73 countries on five continents. HCJ was headquartered in New York City. It was run as a nonprofit business, led by a professional board of directors with expertise in finance, retail, marketing and law. The professional commitment of the HCJ Board, staff and volunteers has given HCJ focus and clear direction in the many years.
The work that we proudly initiated 20 years ago has resulted in over 6,000 women earning a living wage each day.
In the early days of the HandCrafting Justice ministry Sisters organized events and set up markets that would show the work of women’s hands in Omaha, Columbus, Los Angeles, Silver Spring, Clark Summit, St. Paul, St. Louis and Baltimore. Sister Maureen was instrumental in incorporating HandCrafting Justice and having the nonprofit corporation certified as a Fair Trade organization.
Many Fair Trade organizations purchase their products from various certified sites based upon the desirability of their products. HandCrafting Justice has always purchased artisan crafts only from sites that are sponsored by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
“In this way, HandCrafting Justice has been able to provide economic empowerment and capacity building to accomplish positive changes in the lives of artisans associated with Good Shepherd,” said Sr. Maureen.
Providing economic opportunities to lift women out of poverty has been the mission of HandCrafting Justice since its inception. For 20 years HandCrafting Justice artisans have set prices for the goods themselves. HCJ has alway paid the artisans what they request, guaranteeing the amount for each item they make.
From toys and home décor to jewelry and handbags, 6,000 skilled artisans in 50 safe, clean worksites make more than 1,000 high-quality products for their local communities in 20 countries.
As things began to shift in the global economy over time, it became necessary for HandCrafting Justice to rethink its business plan. It was time to act when the cost of producing goods abroad and shipping them to the U.S. increased and the global economy spiraled downward.
HandCrafting Justice developing local markets
In 2013 HCJ and the Good Shepherd Mission Development Office had a meeting with producers from Asia, Africa and South America to help the producers develop local markets and assure a viability of products for production. The outgrowth was to find ways to decrease the dependency on the Good Shepherd international markets and help artisans toward greater independence.
HandCrafting Justice helped secure funds that engaged the artisans in a two-year business empowerment program. From 2013 to 2015 producers in South America learned design work and business skills that helped them create contemporary designs at competitive prices. They also learned how to market their goods to local communities. In short, the artisans began to strengthen their own production sites and pivot toward a more sustainable and independent business model. Today, with the continued support of Sisters of the Good Shepherd in each respective country, HandCrafting Justice can step back and allow artisans to help themselves out of poverty. “This has been our goal all along,” said Sr. Maureen.
“From its very beginning HandCrafting Justice has sought to empower women and give them more control over their lives through the works they produce. Since HCJ has stepped back women can step up and work together to market the work of their hands. The artisans are becoming more sustainable day-by-day,” Sr. Maureen said.
Wrapping up loose ends
HandCrafting Justice sold much of its remaining U.S. inventory in January through online discount sales. Buyers purchased what was left at cost and the remaining goods have been donated to charity. With the affirmation of the Good Shepherd Membership Board and the Board of Directors, the Attorney General will be asked to release any remaining funds to the Good Shepherd Mission Development Office in Rome to continue the work of capacity building for women.
The HandCrafting Justice website has closed and has a statement thanking all of the benefactors who have supported HCJ over the years. The website also carries a statement notifying visitors that HandCrafting Justice is closed and the office is closed.
In a final statement she made in her role as Director of HandCrafting Justice, Sr. Maureen said, “We are deeply grateful for the 20 years of support by so many dedicated individuals. HandCrafting Justice would not have been able to accomplish its mission without each of you!
“On behalf of all of the artisans in Asia, Africa and South America, we thank you. On behalf of the Board of Directors, we are grateful for all the support over the past 20 years to assist women in helping themselves step out of poverty.
“This has been empowerment at its best! Thank you for your continued support as HCJ staff, volunteers, representatives, artisans and producers move through this process of letting go.”
Shoppers purchased with a purpose
Sister Anne Kelley and the Sisters and volunteers at the Good Shepherd Shelter Los Angeles are renowned for the spectacular markets they have hosted for HandCrafting Justice over the past 20 years. Before the stock market decline in 2008, it wasn’t unusual for them to raise between $15,000 and $33,000 for HCJ in one weekend.
“Even with the financial decline, we still had very loyal customers, and the parishes were calling us to schedule the next sale for the following year,” Sr. Anne said. “We had a phenomenal team of Sisters and volunteers who pitched in to display the products beautifully and to create a market that was greatly rewarding for customers and highly successful for HCJ,” she said.
Sister Anne’s involvement in HandCrafting Justice began in 1995 when she was introduced to the products and became intrigued by the artisans who made them.
“It was either Sr. Elise Rausch or Sr. Elaine Basinger who brought some products to a meeting in St. Louis. I was immediately impressed by the quality, and most especially by the incredibly intricate cross-stitched tablecloths of the 12 days of Christmas from Madagascar. The quality of the work was unparalleled,” Sr. Anne said.
Before she knew it, Sr. Anne was ordering products from Madagascar, Thailand, the Philippines and other countries where Sisters had lived and worked. She learned much from Sr. Rose Kern, who was also selling products, initially from Ethiopia where she had served, as well as other countries.
Sr. Anne’s excitement for HandCrafting Justice was shared by the Sisters in the LA Community and soon involved committed and talented volunteers. The LA team hosted six large parish sales per year, along with some smaller sales, particularly around Christmas.
The purpose of the sales was to sell artisan products made by marginalized women in underdeveloped countries. The goal was to empower the women artisans through the money they earned from their crafts so they could lift themselves out of poverty and abusive situations.
The LA team named their endeavor “Working Wonders.” The name symbolized the wonders that the artisans are, and that the women are working. So this is not a handout but an affirmation of their determination and hard work. It also spoke to the issue of providing dignified and empowered employment. The title also addressed the products themselves as being wonders. The tag line for the LA markets was “Purchase with a purpose” because it assured customers that through their purchases, the projects themselves were working wonders in bettering the lives for these talented women and their families.
The concept of HandCrafting Justice has always gone beyond Fair Trade principles. “As Good Shepherd Sisters, we try to look at the whole picture for each individual and so in most of our projects the Sisters try to provide counseling, child care, health care, dignity and empowerment,” said Sr. Anne.
In 2006, Sisters Regina Do and Anne Kelley visited Thailand, Macau and Hong Kong. In the artisan programs that they visited, they met the women who were making products for HandCrafting Justice. Sr. Anne remembers each artisan as a beautiful, unique and gracious woman who was supportive and generous with visitors and, more importantly, with coworkers. During the visits Sisters Regina and Anne heard the women’s stories of bravery and determination that left them in awe.
Captivating stories enhanced HCJ markets
The LA team used the women’s stories to captivate parishioners and build a loyal customer base in Los Angeles. The stories brought many customers to the sales and inspired them to return each year. As the customer base grew, Sr. Anne asked for more stories from the HCJ office in New York and from Sisters who had visited or lived in countries served by Good Shepherd. She put stories on display boards and on tables with products. Customers often asked for copies of the stories when they bought something.
These sales and this precious mission were also a way to make people aware of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and our phenomenal worldwide ministry.
Eventually the LA team was asked to join efforts with the New York office in an attempt to centralize HandCrafting Justice. Although they understand the reasons for closing the Handcrafting Justice office in the United States, the Sisters and volunteers in LA are sad to see it happen.
“HandCrafting Justice has been an exciting, tangible way to bring people into the world of these courageous and creative artisans and have them leave with a beautifully crafted reminder of that encounter and the knowledge that they have contributed to the solution,” she said.
Replicating ideas paves way to future
Some of the older and more developed projects have a head start in creating alternative sources of income and empowerment. The LA team hopes that these ideas can be replicated or built upon in other locations. For example, Good Shepherd project locations in places such as Thailand, the Philippines and Kenya have been creating products for many years that can be sold domestically, as well as teaching cosmetology, computers, sewing and cooking.
In rural areas the programs provide agricultural training and help families start an agricultural business. In some cases, the women who make products for HCJ have also been able to earn enough money to buy a sewing machine or loom so they can work at home and create additional products that are in demand in their own countries.
“These sales and this precious mission were also a way to make people aware of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and our phenomenal worldwide ministry. We took vocation materials to every sale. Our Sisters and volunteers truly are Working Wonders and I am in awe of them and eternally grateful to each one!” said Sr. Anne.
Although the markets were hard work, the Sisters in Los Angeles say the work was born of love and has been life-giving for them and their staff, volunteers and customers.
One of the things they will miss most is hearing the customers say, “I’ve been waiting for you to come this year so I can buy my gifts from you first and purchase with a purpose.”
“Our thanks to all who have touched our hearts through HandCrafting Justice and taught us more than we can say. We now will sit back and watch God work some new wonders,” said Sr. Anne.