A powerful new traveling exhibition invites a group of women from across the world to tell their stories, in their own words, about being agents of economic and cultural change.
On a summer afternoon in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, LaKeisha Wolf sits outdoors threading wooden beads onto copper wire. It’s a hot and cloudless day, and Wolf keeps a mug of iced lemonade close by. Live gospel music thrums through nearby speakers as she sells her wares—gemstone jewelry and natural body care products. She’s one of about a dozen women who on this particular day make up the open-air marketplace of the Ujamaa Collective, an artisan cooperative that’s all about building and sustaining economic value and social interaction among black women in Pittsburgh.
“‘Ujamaa’ essentially means ‘cooperative economics’ in Swahili,” explains Wolf, who was among a handful of women to found the organization in 2008 and is now its vice president. The idea was powerful, but simple: If a group of women with similar goals gets together, they can accomplish more than any individual could on her own.
Textile artisans collaborate at the Self-Employed Women’s Association Trade Facilitation Center in western India.
Photograph courtesy of SEWA
The model isn’t new: “Farmers’ co-ops go back to day one,” says Sandra Olsen, an archaeologist and director of the Center for World Cultures at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “But the recent growth has been primarily with women.”
Starting October 6, the museum will host Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities, a traveling exhibition that explores how these grassroots collaborations kick-start change worldwide. The United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. Often these groups come about through microloans, small sums of $200 or so, that ripple through local economies. Today, the Internet is making such exchanges easier, enabling co-ops to reach new customers abroad.
“Women’s co-ops can and do a lot more than just make crafts,” says Olsen. “When women organize, they may start talking about, ‘Hey, we need clean water here.’ That’s the biggest problem in developing countries.”
Olsen likens this phenomenon to what happens in her mother’s sewing group (“My mother calls it ‘stitch and bitch,’” Olsen quips), but on a much more fundamental level. Cooperatives, as the exhibition highlights, help women not only cope with serious issues like spousal abuse, poor social status, and unhealthy living conditions, but aid in the development of skills and the can-do attitude needed to improve their situation. And when women’s lives improve, adds Olsen, so do the lives of their children.
Take, for example, Ique Etacore de Picanerai, who lives in a remote village in the Bolivian savannah. Without work, she didn’t have the money to buy food; the closest store was five miles away and required a pricey taxi ride to get there. To find employment, many villagers had to abandon their families for low-wage jobs in a city two hours away. So Etacore de Picanerai rallied the women in her community to sell woven bags, typically used in the home, to people outside the village. The 45 women in the co-op now account for more than 60 percent of the community’s income and have opened a collective bank account.
Etacore de Picanerai’s co-op is one of 10 from countries as diverse as Nepal, Morocco, Swaziland, and Kenya whose stories of hard work, determination, and ingenuity give life to Empowering Women. Through documentary-quality photographs and videos of the women at work, the exhibition shares their sometimes heartbreaking yet uplifting stories—such as the women in Swaziland who use the profits from the sale of their handwoven sisal baskets to feed and educate the hundreds of children in their village orphaned by AIDS. It also showcases the one-of-a-kind fruits of their labor: handmade items including baskets, embroidered art, and clothing. Co-ops, in fact, are what keep many of these long-held traditions alive, Olsen says.
In Peru, woven textiles are important markers of social and ethnic heritage. Nilda Callanaupa learned to weave from her grandmother, but soon noticed many young people in her town had foregone the practice. She now operates a co-op that’s galvanized nine regions of Peru and sustains a first-of-its-kind museum of Andean textiles.
A member of the Women’s Button Cooperative of Sefrou, Morrocco, knots buttons while children play.
Photo: Lisa Anaya
“Through the preservation of the textiles we can create an income for the weavers and their families,” Callanaupa says by phone from Santa Fe, N.M., where she recently exhibited and sold the co-op’s wares. “In my culture, man used to be always the one to bring money into the house and woman would stay home. Now it’s the opposite.”
This shift in status isn’t always a smooth one. “The men can suddenly feel unsettled,” says Olsen. “Sometimes, the physical abuse goes up initially.” But soon they start to see the education they can afford for their children, she adds, and the healthcare that’s now within reach.
“In much of the world, there’s this idea that girl children are a burden,” Olsen says, “but as women’s co-ops start elevating the position of women, and they start bringing in more money, maybe those girls aren’t so ‘useless’ after all.”
Near the Hill District marketplace, a banner flutters: “Ujamaa Collective: Creating a New Standard.” For these local women, it’s about bringing new money into the Hill District and keeping it there. The idea is to have the same dollar pass through several area businesses before leaving the neighborhood.
“Where you spend your money is where you create a job,” says Wolf, who studied co-op systems and became a community activist after graduating from Penn State University. But for people to spend money in the Hill, there needs to be strong locally owned businesses in place. Over the past year membership in Ujamaa has doubled. Thirty women now share collective pools of time and money so they can take on bigger projects without added costs.
Since 2011, at least four members have left their day jobs in order to pursue their creative businesses full time, Wolf says. “Ujamaa gave them the confidence and the foundation to feel like they could do it.”