Originally published here in October 2008.
For the past year, I’ve served on the NYC board of Nest. When Rebecca Kousky, the Nest founder, invited the board members from all eight cities to go on a trip to Guatemala and visit the women who have benefited from our loans, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.
Our group of five board members, traveling from Chicago, St. Louis and New York, arrived in Guatemala City and met up with our facilitator, Ian. An exporter of Guatemalan crafts, Ian has connected Nest to various artisan communities throughout the country, and we were fortunate enough to visit these communities throughout our trip.
The first community we visited, located in San Antonio Palopos, was run by a man named Andres. We spent hours in Andres’ community, looking through his workshop at the beautiful scarves his community had woven in a collaborative spirit. We met with Andres’ family, as his workshop is also his home. Nest had connected Andres’ community with domestic designers Proud Mary to create a line of tote bags, and while we were there, we choose a few collections of Andres’ hand-woven scarves to sell at our upcoming Kate Spade event in New York.
After saying goodbye to Andres and his family, the group headed to the Morales community, located outside the city of Panachel. The Morales community was a group of inspiring women who had the motivation and desire to work and produce their woven textiles for sale, but didn’t have the means to purchase enough raw materials to make any profit. It was clear that these women and their families lived in extreme poverty. They spoke an ancient Mayan dialect, and we had to have two rounds of translation to communicate with them, from Mayan to Spanish and then Spanish to English. In our brief meeting with them, we explained what Nest was and how we could help by providing them with a loan so they could purchase the raw materials needed to weave more fabrics to sell. We also suggested they take an organic dying class at the weaving school Nest had set up in Antigua, as this technique allows textiles to be sold at a much higher price. Once we had answered all their questions, the group of about 20 women made a democratic decision amongst themselves within minutes, deciding that they would send two representatives to take the class, spending the rest of the loan on the raw materials. Our group was fascinated with the way in which they came to this decision and couldn’t believe how so many women could come to agreement so quickly. As a symbol of their appreciation, they insisted on serving us food, which consisted of cinnamon spiced coffee and delicious jam made from local fruits.
The next day was spent at the weaving school Nest helped set up in the town of Antigua. The director of the school, Olga, is a Guatemalan who has traveled the world to find all different weaving techniques and has trained many people on the traditional craft. The school was set up this past June, and its goal is to mix tourists, Guatemalan students and indigenous women to create a sense of community and teach everyone the skill and business sense necessary to create and sell this ancient craft in today’s marketplace. While we toured the beautiful grounds of the school, we saw an indigenous woman teaching a tourist how to weave on a hand loom. Displayed throughout the school were completed crafts given back to the school by its students, rooms with intricately threaded foot looms, dormitories that are still in the process of being set up, and the space used to make the organic dyes used to create these vibrant, hand-woven textiles. While we were there, Olga suggested she pay Nest back for their loan (since the school didn’t produce goods for sale, they were going to pay us back in actual money), but Rebecca refused her payment, suggesting that she take the money and re-invest it in the dormitories they were in the process of setting up. This gesture was a true sign of how the non-profit world vastly differs from the corporate world.
Our trip went by in a whirlwind, and some of what I saw there is still settling in. The spirit of the people we met and the determination they showed will probably stay with all of us for a lifetime.