Ten Thousand Villages, a Legion of Stories -Liesel Schmidt
Regardless of what you might be looking for, it’s hard not to fall for the charms of the quaint yet bustling Boutique District of Old Town—though there is one little shop that stands out from the rest, for ten thousand reasons more than just its uniqueness. True, the individuality one finds at Ten Thousand Villages is certainly a point in its favor, but that individuality and specialness comes from the fact that the store's eclectic selection of goods is both fair trade and 100 percent ethically sourced from all over the world. It’s a mission statement come to life in every item sold, and the people who work there live and breathe that ethos every day.
While the boutique on King Street has been there since 1994, it all began more than 70 years ago, when Edna Ruth Byler made the first purchase that later led to a movement: hand-embroidered textiles from women who didn’t have access to a market in which to sell them. Byler bought them at a fair price, took them home and sold them to friends and neighbors on the makers’ behalf. As she sold textiles from the trunk of her car, Byler told the stories of the artisans who made them, creating something that grew into lasting partnerships and ignited the spark of global fair trade. Over the decades, Byler’s relationships grew to include artisans in more than 30 developing countries. Growing awareness to inequity in international trade—especially in marginalized communities—served as the impetus for the founding of the World Fair Trade Organization. Byler’s work, joined by that of countless others, has changed lives across ten thousand villages—and those ten thousand villages were inspiration for Ten Thousand Villages US, an independent 501c(3) non-profit.
Employing a majority of female artisans from those ten thousand villages and beyond, the organization puts people and the planet first. To that end, the store carefully ensures that makers earn a fair and livable wage in safe working conditions while creating wares that come from recyclable, renewable materials in their environment. Having already celebrated 25 years in business and fast approaching the 30-year mark, the King Street location of Ten Thousand Villages has been part of the chain reaction, the butterfly wings that beat to start a monsoon. The impact that the store has made in nearly three decades is incalculable—and the store, like the corporate entity that is Ten Thousand Villages, has quite the story to tell. Veteran volunteer Julie Becker started as a shopper more than 20 years ago, but connected with the mission and wanted to get involved. “I love that we’re able to sustain our artisans instead of just offering a one-time sale,” Becker explains. “During the holidays, we get beautiful palm leaf garlands. There was a young mother of two named Ronnie Mani who was living in a mud hut on the side of the road, and she showed us that she could make these folded palm leaf garlands. Ten Thousand Villages arranged for her to build a workshop, and in time, Ronnie became the president of her village, her children went to college and she employed most of the town.” Stories like Ronnie’s abound at Ten Thousand Villages. “We’re providing vital income for people who can’t find it in their home countries,” explains Kate McMahon, director for the local Alexandria division. “We give them the dignity to say that they’re earning their own living. It’s not charity, it’s a relationship that we’re building with our artisans. I get excited about the creativity of the products that the artisans make, the resources that they use and the stories we get to share with our customers so that we can buy more.” In one such story, McMahon talks about Rosa, a Peruvian domestic violence survivor who moved just outside of Lima for work to support her nine children. In the process of trying to rebuild her life, an earthquake destroyed her home. Despite the challenges, Rosa stayed strong, taking her homemade vicuña dolls to the local market to sell. Ten Thousand Villages placed an order for 1,000 vicuñas, paying upfront. As a result, Rosa was able to rebuild her home in a safe area, send her children to school and begin her own storefront within the village. “Our founder, Edna Ruth Byler, is famously quoted as saying, ‘I'm just a woman trying to help other women.’ It was a simple idea, a single action that had the power to bring about monumental change, and we are still seeing that change today,” McMahon says. “I think people know that we’re a global maker-to-market [organization], but I don’t think people often know that we’re a non-profit,” she goes on. “We carry the name Ten Thousand Villages because we want to support our artisans. We’re a part of that network and incredibly proud to be part of it.” With an average buying relationship of 25 years, there’s little wonder as to why they’re proud to be part of that network. Artisans see enough time pass for their communities to develop and thrive when given the resources provided by Ten Thousand Villages, and in the time that Ten Thousand Villages Alexandria has been open, parents have seen their children grow up healthy and go to college, artisans have rebuilt homes and maker skills have been passed from one generation to another. As the website proudly boasts, “When women gain financial independence, their daughters, families and communities flourish, breaking the cycle of poverty.” It seems an incredible feat from such a simple concept, but the joined efforts of the makers’ hands and Ten Thousand Villages are indeed changing the world one product at a time. “Take our Essential Companion Tote, for example,” says McMahon. “The tote is created by Rishilpi Handicrafts Limited, a non-profit, non-governmental development organization in southwest Bangladesh that was founded to improve the lives of people of the Rishi caste, who have lived for centuries at the margins of Bengali society. Our store alone has sold well over 600 in the last 25 years, and the benefits that those sales bring to the artisans include education sponsorship, health care, microcredit savings programs and early marriage prevention support for their adolescent daughters. This is a tangible change—just one of many—and our store has been providing Old Town with sustainable and purposeful goods and gifts, crafted by hand, for home and life for 28 years.”