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Our wonderful artisans

Over the past twelve plus years we have grown to truly respect the Maya artisans we work with—their talents, their skills, their drive to do quality work. We have been enriched by a deep understanding of their culture…and we have also experienced the differences between our two cultures that sometimes lead to misunderstandings! We have learned a lot about how to handle that, too!

6-1_artisans-about_08_mother-and-childIn many cases the artisans’ families have become our extended family. We have celebrated weddings and births and have grieved together at the loss of a co-worker or one of their family members. These are good, caring people who sadly have been held back by the reins of poverty and sometimes prejudice.

Helping with income and obstacles

We value our Maya artisans as employees, and also as people. With MayaBags we have provided them opportunity to earn an income as artisans, but at the same time we seek to help them overcome some of the obstacles they face in life. This has been accomplished in part by recognizing the richness of their culture and the talents they have to offer, and in part by putting in place some rules that respect their lives and intelligence while reflecting our guiding principles.

Learning to thrive as teams

6-1_artisans-about_09_toucan-embroderyAs a whole the Maya are bright and ambitious people. They are willing to work hard and take pride in the work they do. At the same time, the years have taught us that poverty—never having enough food, money, or work to go around—can breed jealousy between neighbors and within teams. This is inherent in almost any community where poverty rules, so we have our share. Jealousy, gossip, and mistrust (all designed to undermine competition) can crop up and cause difficulties. It is so important for our artisans to learn how to overcome this. Teamwork is key for our tasks, as it is for any reasonable paying job.

6-1_artisans-about_10_blue-jay-hoopWhen we formed our first team of six embroiderers, debate about who could and could not join began to eat up time when the women worked together or with Judy Bergsma. Early on, Judy realized she had to encourage the women to see each other as “sisters” who faced similar issues in life. Judy saw a real opportunity for them to learn that empathy for each other’s circumstance would be far more productive than gossip.

Our first village, our first family

“When we formed our first village embroidery team, it was dominated by sisters and brothers, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters of one family. Then, another family wanted to join the team and that caused hurtful gossip and some anger,” Judy recalled.

Trying out for the team

6-1_artisans-about_11_pink-howler-monkeyTo make joining the team a process that was more objective than subjective and emotional, Judy put steps into place for how new artisans could join the team. First, she reviewed the artisan’s “portfolio” of work and included the other team members in the review. If the work showed creativity and skill, Judy encouraged the team to let the artisan try out by producing a sample embroidery. The applicant was given detailed instructions on how to execute the sample. If the artisan truly had the skills and desire, she embroidered the sample beautifully.

6-1_artisans-about_12_checking embroideryHowever, in several cases, the artisan would drop out before the sample was completed. “In those cases, I just had the feeling the applicant was trying to stir up the pot and break down the team,” Judy says. Once the more objective process was in place, it was easier to expand the teams and the community trusted our approach.

From one village to four

6-1_artisans-about_13_serene-sewingAs time went on and the work grew, we expanded from one village to two, then to three and four. These were all embroidery villages because in our first six years, we just focused on embroidered bags.

Then in 2009 we expanded into weaving and began working in two additional villages. “It was predictable to watch some of the same scenarios we had experienced in the embroidery villages play out in each of the weaving villages. Plus, we encountered a new twist…inter-village competition. Happily our remedies used before worked well here too.

The Maya “business lunch!”

Judy tells a humorous anecdote to illustrate what they encountered in the new weaving locales. “One day one of the villages prepared a surprise, an extensive lunch for me, for our local manager Desiree Arnold, and for my family who happened to be in Belize. It was a much appreciated and delightful expression of the artisans’ good feelings about the opportunity we had created for them.”

6-1_artisans-about_15_tamalesBut the other village heard about the lunch and the artisans were upset that they hadn’t prepared a lunch for us as well, Judy explained. “From that point on, each village wanted us to have lunch with them every time we visited. So literally, we had to eat two robust lunches each time to keep everyone happy.”

The one lunch rule!

6-1_artisans-about_16_feastNow when we go to the villages, Judy says, we rotate villages for lunch, so each village gets us an equal amount of time. We also always leave money behind to pay for our food because we really want the women to spend their money feeding their families, not us.

This is all part of learning how to do productive teamwork, and our Maya artisans have really gotten the reason and rhythm of it. We believe and trust that not only is this key for MayaBags and the making of our goods, but that it will also serve them well in any other future projects some of them might have.

School first, work later: The 18 or over rule

MayaBags won’t knowingly let anyone under the age of 18 join a team (despite the fact that the legal working age in Belize is 16.) MayaBags wants to encourage young women and men go to school, to get as much education as they can before starting to work. If a girl or boy wants to start apprenticing with a mother or father or uncle or aunt, they can. But they cannot work with us until they are 18.

Work-family balance—the universal challenge

6-1_artisans-about_17_otoot-house-glyphSince most of our artisans are women, they have a huge advantage with our “cottage industry” (working at home) model. It allows them to maintain the traditional role that is expected of them in a Maya household. This big job includes preparing the food, washing the dishes and laundry in the river, bathing the children in the river, and getting the kids to and from school.

These “rites” are an important part of Maya cultural tradition and we don’t see it as our role to try to change them. Perhaps what is most challenging and at the same time helpful for the Maya women is that they often are now earning more than their husbands. While this gives them a stronger6-1_artisans-about_18_grain-pounder and more independent voice in their households and in their communities, it can challenge their relationships with traditional Maya men.

One thing we’ve been careful to do is to involve the men in MayaBags as often as possible. Beyond working with us as vine-basket makers and carvers, they help with office maintenance, driving, and translation during our board meetings. We want them to see MayaBags as a source of opportunity for men as well.

Developing empathy vs. gossip

6-1_artisans-about_19_embroiderer-with-scissorsLike the inter-village jealousy mentioned earlier, we also sometimes experience typical “small town” jealousy and hurtful gossip among our village team members. So MayaBags has put some firm rules in place for the women when they are in our office or working in one of the village teams.

For example, no gossip is allowed or tolerated in the office. As Judy points out, “We talk to the women about how important it is to recognize each other as sisters and that we need to support each other, as opposed to undermining a team or village member. We’ve even role modeled what good gossip is: ‘Maria is going to have a baby!’ versus ‘Maria is always running around…who knows whose baby she is going to have.’”

6-1_artisans-about_20_maya-peacock-embroideryWhen gossip comes up, we deal with it head on. We have occasionally found ourselves in the middle of a dispute that is occurring within a team and threatening a breakup of community-based relationships. “We talk through the gossip with the whole team in the room,” says Judy. “We explore its source, who has spread it, how it has affected the various team members, and let each member express her or his feelings,” Judy says. “Just getting the whole event out in the open is often the best antidote. Generally things move forward from that on a better note.”

Artisans with bank accounts

When poverty has long been a part of someone’s life, he or she tends to think about short term survival—about how to get money now and spend it immediately on pressing needs.

Now that our artisans work on a more consistent basis, more basic needs are being met. So we are helping them think about saving money for longer-term goals, like putting their children into schools. At one point, we even had a Yale graduate student come down and work with the women on how to use a bank for both a checking account and saving money.

6-1_artisans-about_21_maya-sewingJudy observes, “When I first started working with the women, they wouldn’t even go into a bank with me. They didn’t feel welcome. At one point, I asked the bank branch manager if he would go with me to the villages and do a short workshop on banking with the women. He said no. I think he made a big mistake. Now, almost all of the women who work with us have opened banking and savings accounts at a different place—the Teacher’s Credit Union—who welcomed their money.”

And artisans as shareholders

Beyond teaching banking, we have made each of the active MayaBags artisans shareholders in the business. The women now own 42% of the business. Each year they attend our board meeting and are included in the review of all of our financials. We show them the cost to produce each product, how many products have been sold, how much money each village has earned in the past year, what our profit and losses look like…and discuss our competitive challenges. They also are encouraged to bring up any questions or issues they might have, whether for themselves or for the group.


Caring about other Maya social issues

Judy also actively talks with the women about the issue of abuse. “We are open about it, talking about it in the context of a worldwide problem. We talk to the women about what they can do about it. We’ve experienced some real progress in this area, some real turnaround situations in families,” Judy says, “and this feels good.”

Wonderful people, moving forward

6-1_artisans-about_23_artisans-with-judyThe Maya take real joy and pride in making beautiful MayaBags products, and so do we. Together we have a real commitment to the long-term goals and guiding principles we’ve set for the MayaBags. Our deep sense that we are also making a difference in the lives of the Maya people gives us a huge additional reward.

Like the importance of maintaining biodiversity, a commitment to keeping Maya traditional artisanal skills alive and in use—actively making beautiful things for our customers—is, we believe, a contribution to the preservation and enrichment of worldwide creativity.