A few years ago I started walking around Bushwick with my camera, capturing some of the pretty amazing street art that is around the area. There are spots that are covered in murals and paintings and words, entire blocks and walls that are vibrant in colour and meaning, and then spots where you will find a small piece of artwork, hidden amongst the brick walls of a house or a warehouse. I love living in Bushwick (which is probably why I haven't moved anywhere else over the past 5 years), but I haven't spent much time walking around the neighbourhood recently, and didn't even go to any of the events that were taking place during the Bushwick Collective 1 year anniversary party this past weekend. My room mate has been much better at becoming part of the community here than I have and knows everything that is going on, where the cool bars are and what restaurants are better than others. When we moved here over 5 years ago there wasn't much around except for a few bodegas, the gas station and KFC. Now there is a great selection of restaurants on Seamlessweb alone and a bunch of cool places to hang out in.
In any case, yesterday I took a visitor from Europe for a walk around the neighbourhood and was amazed by all of the new murals and artwork that exists on my street and the streets surrounding it. I noticed a lot of new pieces, but also old pieces that have been covered up by new ones. HERE is the link to the full collection of photos I took yesterday, mainly along Troutman St and Starr St. Below you will find links to different street art sets that I put together in 2011 and 2012.
For more information on The Bushwick Collective, check out their Facebook page HERE.
From beauty to pain, via controversy and anger, artists such as Lina Bertucci, Nan Goldin, Nicole Eisenman, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Sean Landers, Gillian Wearing, Pepon Osorio and Larry Clark (among many others) are exhibited. Sculpture, paintings, photography, writing, quotes and collages: all forms of artwork are displayed on all of the floors of the museum. I walked through listening to Nine Inch Nails on my iPod, and felt how perfectly it all worked together, so much that I am still thinking about it today. I love going to museums alone and getting lost in the artwork and in all of the thoughts that it inspires in my own head, and thinking about it for days afterwards. This exhibition is only on until the end of the month, so if you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend it.
I've been inspired lately. Not only to compile some of my own poems (more about that another time), but to write poetry again, and especially, to read it. Around the time that all this started again I picked up Megan Falley's After the Witch Hunt at the book store I work at, after one of my colleagues had recommended it to me. I started reading it on the train home, and nearly missed my connection stop. You know that feeling of being punched in the stomach and completely elated at the same time? The feeling of all of your senses buzzing against and with each other, vertigo and stability at once? Yes, that. You can open the book on any page and will probably need to hold your breath while you live through the poem. Live, laugh, cry and breathe against until you start on the next one. Each poem inserts itself into your brain and your heart, melds with your own experiences and life and tells you how it is. Out loud, raw, beautiful, personal but universal all at once. A voice that could be anyone's, but has the talent to create lines of words that are so intensely woven together that it is difficult to pull yourself away and forget what you have just read. I know I sometimes overuse the hyperbole, but, honestly, I am not exaggerating here. Megan Falley is just brilliant. And so inspiring.
I want to post lines from all of the poems in here, but for that you can just head over to Megan's website and/or buy her book. I'll just post some lines from Rain, the ones that I felt touched me the most today.
Megan Falley's website
After the Witch Hunt
I actually wrote this for something else, in the hopes that it may be published there, but once I had sent it realised that I just wanted to post it on here too. So I waited a while and am just going to post here anyway, while I am sitting in my Mum's house in California on vacation, another spot in this world that I consider as slightly paradisaical in itself... Sunshine, palm trees, pure calm and relaxation, food directly picked from the garden and thrown into a salad or onto the barbeque... The theme I was writing for was Paradise, and this is what I was immediately inspired to write.
Every time I want to write about somebody who I find inspiring and amazing I am at a loss on where to start. I want to do these people justice and showcase why they are so inspiring to me but then I get stuck worrying that I won't find the right words. But I don't need to find the right words the work that these people do speaks for itself. Art is always personal - the artist creates a piece of work that comes from his or her heart; the person who comes in contact with this piece of art then interprets it in his or her own personal way.I can just tell you why someone inspires me, and let their work inspire you in the same way.
My mother's best friend from when she was a child (these ladies go back so far I don't even know if they remember when they actually met) put me in touch with Tony Shelley earlier this year. She thought that we would enjoy each others photography and also thought that we had a lot in common - and she was absolutely right! The first time I browsed through Tony's Flickr pages I was mesmerized by the depth of the images I saw; each photograph formed words in my mind that I wanted to develop into a story. Tony now focuses on Pinhole images, constructing his own cameras as well as converting others to create beautiful images. He has an exhibition coming up in a couple of weeks, one that I really wish I was able to go to, called "Needleworks", and will be held at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery. The exhibition will showcase some of Tony's pinhole portraits that he has taken since 1998. For me, many of his images have a dream-like atmosphere, hovering somewhere between photograph and painting.
Tony has spent time looking through my own work of photography over the past few months and has provided some wonderful feedback that inspired me to continue when I was a bit bored with my own work. I've been wanting to write a piece on him for a while and he graciously agreed to respond to some interview questions I put together. Not only is Tony Shelley a wonderful photographer and artist, he also happens to be a wonderful and kind human being too. Here are my questions and his answers, and some of my own comments in italics.
JAH: Tell me a little about yourself (where you were born, grew up, education, passions etc).
TS: I was born on October 17, 1953, the year that chocolate rationing ended in the UK after World War 2. I grew up on the notorious council estate called New Parks, which is situated in the west district of Leicester City, deep in the heart of England. I hated school from day one. I was in the peculiar position of being a bright kid, who wasn't interested in being educated. Being overweight, I was constantly bullied, so I escaped into books, writing, and in 1966, I acquired my first camera. Somewhere, I have six negatives from my first-ever shoot, aeroplanes in Nottingham.
I left school at 16, and went into the printing industry and was there for seven years. For the first time in my life I had money, so I quickly acquired a taste for booze, drugs, music and live gigs. It was the beginning of a twenty years addiction, and at the age of 36, the excess of all those years beat me into the ground and I hit rock bottom with two attempts at suicide. When that didn't work, I went into rehab, and never had a drink from that moment on.
(I think my own follow up question to this would be: did photography "save" you or did sobriety just make you more intent on creating more images? I know that's a tough one to answer because I can't answer it myself!).
JAH: How were you drawn to photography and/or was there an event that lead you to start taking your photography seriously, i.e. as more than just a pastime?
TS: Photography came into my life in a big way around 1980. In my sober times, I began to write freelance for small time music magazines, or 'fanzines' as they were known. I found out I could double my fee if I provided pictures, so I purchased my first serious SLR, a Canon, can't remember the model and two lenses, a 50mm and a 135mm. I used to develop the films in the family kitchen or bathroom. It was a bit hit and miss, but I began to enjoy the photography more than the writing. Back then it was very difficult to get a camera into a gig, so I devised various ways to smuggle my gear in. It was a lot of fun, and with the images, I got a unique souvenir of the night: my own pictures.
JAH: Tell me more about your specific type of photography and how you ended up focusing on pinhole. If you could explain what your work entails from beginning to end that would be great! Do you print your own photos?
TS: In 1997, having shot pictures of bands, landscapes and all kinds of subjects for many years, I found myself becoming bored with shooting pictures and was close to hanging up my camera altogether, when by accident I happened upon a BBC TV documentary called 'An Italian Dream' which showcased the work of Irish photographer David Gepp, and his project of photographing Venice with a 5 x 4 pinhole camera. That programme was my own personal road to Damascus. I was completely hooked, and the following morning, I constructed my own pinhole camera and I've never looked back. Sometime later I met David Gepp in person and we became great friends. At the moment I'm using three different pinhole formats: a 10 x 8 wide angle camera for paper negatives, a converted Russian Lubitel 6 x 6 for film, and also a pinhole bodycap on my Canon EOS 20D digital. The latter has been introducing some amazing results. By and large, I still develop my own film, but 95% of the printing is done at a local print shop.
TS: Not so much with pinhole, but I have traveled a little with my photography. In February 1990, a year into rehab, I gave up my day job at the printers, and traveled to Nicaragua, to photograph the elections over there. It was a fabulous trip, and when I returned to England about a month later, I had an exhibition at a local gallery. Prior to that I'd been to Leningrad, a couple of years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I've also photographed in Ireland, France, Spain, Rhodes, Samos, and Italy. In Rome, I was mooching around the Vatican when my girlfriend at the time pointed out some commotion going on, and it turned out to be the actress Bridget Bardot. I managed to get a few shots, that was a real treat.
(The Leningrad images are some of my favourite that Tony has on his Flickr pages. They evoke many different emotions in my opinion, and I adore the choice of black and white for the starkness. These are the type of images I aim to be able to produce one day).
JAH: Do you have any specific experiences while you were shooting where you felt moved/scared/upset?
TS: In the 1980's I photographed a lot of political demonstrations, many of which turned to violence, fueled by agitators spewing out flaming rhetoric. Seeing this mindless pest take hold scared the hell out of me, and more often than not, I walked or ran away. After a couple of years I couldn't take any more of this crap, and I gave up shooting demos altogether. Something which I have no regrets in doing. After this I concentrated on more gentle subjects like people, landscape, the great wide open... It was a wonderful healing process if you like, just me, the countryside and a couple of cameras: Heaven.
JAH: How did the upcoming exhibition come about, and what is the main focus?
TS:My latest exhibition, 'Needleworks' (pinhole portraits), is really a little bit of a retrospective of many of the face studies I've produced since 1998. It's being held at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery, which is a beautiful building, a converted library with lots of space and good lighting. The exhibition is also something of a healing process for me. It's being dedicated to a couple of close friends, a brother and sister who have died in the last few years, the former in 2007 and the latter just before last Christmas, however I don't want to elaborate on their deaths. It's been hard work putting it all together, and Cathy, my wife, has provided enormous encouragement and support.
JAH: How did you go about choosing the pieces for your exhibition? Was it an arduous task?
TS: It was a little difficult knowing what to put in and what to leave out. In the end, I concentrated on my 6 x 6 negatives, as most of the portraits were shot with the Lubitel. There's more black and white than colour, and there will be three large pinhole digital portraits. You have to step back to really appreciate these. However, the centrepiece will be a portrait of a baby elephant I photographed at Chester Zoo, about fifteen years ago. This image has to be printed 'big' to appreciate it.
JAH: Are there any places that you dream of going to just to photograph?
TS: The one place in the entire world I would like to photograph with a pinhole camera is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Firstly because I've seen the images Ansel Adams made in the 1930's when it was under construction, and I was knocked out by them. Secondly, Grace is the location where one of my favourite LP's was recorded (in part anyway) 'Gandharva' by Beaver & Krause in 1971. I still play that possibly more than anything else in my collection, and it would be great to stand in the structure where one side of this masterpiece was put down on tape. It's an ambition I really hope to fulfill.
JAH: What do you look for when you take a picture? I myself see an image in my head and it surrounds itself with words, and I try to recreate the same with my camera. I feel that every image has a story behind it, but a story that people can make their own.
TS: I'm always looking for images, every day when I walk to work, I see several possibilities, even though I take the same route three days a week, a change of light or sound; something is always there, and that's the same everywhere I go. The thing is I don't always shoot. It's the same with people, on my days off I usually go early into Leicester city centre, and have coffee and porridge at Cafe Nero, close to the market. I just sit and look at the faces coming and going, most of which I know I could make a great picture. You just have to be always looking, always.
JAH: Do you have any tips for photographers who are looking to move further with their work?
TS: The only advice I would give to any photographer is 'be true to yourself': find out what you like, and stick with it, work it to death and more. Don't buy photographic magazines, which are mostly padded out with futile crap, just take your camera and shoot.
(I think that's what I find the hardest to do: focus on what I like. I'm narrowing it down somewhat, but it's still hard to find something unique to focus on... Or maybe that's just me being lazy!).
You can see more of Tony's work on his Flickr account HERE, and you can also visit his photo blog HERE.
If you live in England you can visit his exhibition in Leicester at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery from June 18th. For more information on the gallery you can go to their Facebook page HERE.
For more information on Pinhole photography, check out the Wikipedia page on the subject HERE.
Someone who I consider a close friend hurt my feelings on Monday evening (just before the show), and I’m terrible at just saying out loud “that was really unkind of you and my feelings are hurt”. Instead, while I was watching the show I found I really wanted to drink. Specifically, I wanted to drink a Stoli on the rocks, my old favourite and a drink I haven’t touched in well over 3 years. I wanted to down one and then another. I could literally even taste it… That is, until I said it out loud, that I wanted a drink, and because I have the best friends in the world I just got a “No” in reply. Then that feeling was gone, and I went back to total music immersion, and forgot about it. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the only reason I actually really wanted to get drunk was because I wanted to piss off the person who had hurts my feelings earlier. Um… Trying to get back at someone by ultimately hurting oneself? Very mature approach to life! So stupid. I really think I need a holiday from everything right now. I’ve been dreaming of a week on a remote island where all I have is a notebook to write in, my iPod so I can listen to music and lots of sand, waves and sunshine. All of this with no people around me. Just a week away.
One of my pet peeves is someone telling me I’m doing something wrong (when I am actually not), in front of other people, with the ultimate aim to make me look like an idiot. It makes me feel like a child, and then I end up actually wanting to act like a child, you know, kick a few things over and scream, maybe punch someone. Thinking about it, I don’t think I ever acted like that when I was a child, so I guess I missed out on the tantrum phase and feel the need to have them at the age of 34. That said, I don’t actually do anything, just grit my death and mutter insults under my breath while carrying on with what I am doing. This happened last night and seeing as I am still annoyed (and embarrassed) by it I’m writing about it so I can forget about it (I think that may only make sense to me).
You know what else would be a really cool getaway? A road trip across the US. Chuck a few things in the back of the car and take off and see all these different places I have never been to before. I would love to go through Mississippi and Tennessee, all through the South, go to the Grand Canyon, drive through the desert… Pity I can’t actually drive. Maybe one day I will actually learn, or they will invent a car that you can just drive with your eyes or voice. The latter would probably be the best option. Learn how to drive so you can an escape holiday across unknown to you countryside. I was actually walking to dog this morning and realised that I really wish I could take him to Rutland so he could run around in the fields and go on a long walk through the country paths. It gets quite boring just walking along the streets of Bushwick sometimes.
Have to go to work again… I have a load of stories I have to write this weekend, all based on things I have seen over the past few weeks. I think the funniest one is going to be based on a bar we walked into before the show on Monday. I felt like we had walked into a different dimension. I need more time to write, I don’t want to lose all these ideas!
(Photo taken from Theresa's blog on the WORK+SHELTER website)
About a year and a half ago at my old job we had an opening for a junior position, with the idea that the person who would fill this position would work directly with me, and would eventually take on all of the day-to-day tasks on my biggest client, so I could move on towards something that would be a little more interesting to me. Managing people at that company was a nightmare, just because my workload was so intense that I didn’t have enough time to look after that and make sure my team were doing OK at the same time. In any case, Theresa VanderMeer was one of the candidates to apply for the position, and when I interviewed her I knew that I didn’t want anyone else to work with me. It wasn’t really the fact that she was obviously extremely resourceful and smart that pushed me to hire her (although they did help), but mainly because she brought up the fact that she was working with women in India to create a haven where they could live and learn how to become financially independent by learning a craft. The fact that Theresa not only had this vision in her mind, but that she also actually went out and accomplished it makes her one of the most inspiring people that I have had the chance to spend time with over the past few years. While Theresa was in India late last year putting the final touches to the first implementation of the WORK+SHELTER project she took some time out in her busy schedule to answer some of my questions (in her usual insanely meticulous and organized manner), so that I could write a piece about her on my blog. I’ve been sitting on this for a while but with all the talk about activism and Kony2012 going on in the world of social media right now, I really think it’s time to talk about one of those people who uses hard work and devotion to create something from the heart that not only REALLY helps but that is also economically beneficial to the country and the women she is helping. Women’s rights and human rights in general have come a long way over the past century, but they still have a long way to go, and it is thanks to people like Theresa that we can hope to see more changes in the future.
I was going to combine Theresa’s responses together and summarise for this piece on her, but after reading her responses several times I think they really speak for themselves, so I have posted our interview, including clickable links, below. Read through to see how Theresa is constantly working on making her dream come true, and how she is going about it. By trying to accomplish her dream she is also empowering others to do the same, and so on and so forth. I can’t repeat enough how inspiring this lady is and how inspiring she is to others. Once you have finished reading check out the WORK+SHELTER website for more information. I would love to be able to join Theresa on one of her next trips to India to volunteer in the shelter and help in other ways too.
Interview with Theresa from late 2011:
Jade: When did you first get the idea for WORK+SHELTER? What was the main trigger that made you know that you had to build this?
Theresa: When I went to India for the first time almost 5 years ago (in 2007) I desperately desired to be a positive force in the world. But before you can act you have to learn and understand. I was doing research (sponsored by the University of Michigan) on how economic empowerment impacts women’s lives in India, and an internship at a really great organization that supports craftsgroups’ access to markets (Dastkar). For me this basically meant I was spying on different women’s craftsgroups and livelihood creation projects, and meeting individual women trying to make their way in the world by producing some sort of garment, accessory, or handicraft. I interviewed women (with the help of a translator) who were raped by their husbands, widowed with no way to care for themselves or their children, or physically ravished by harsh living conditions at a very young age. I had never before faced this sort of suffering.
In 2008 to raise money to return to India I started selling hand-woven silk scarves from one of Dastkar’s craftsgroups to fellow UM students. It resulted in generating a pretty significant amount of income in a short period of time – so I decided to move forward with selling products from other eco/people friendly groups. Further, it felt good to be able to provide a market link to the craftgroup in India who struggle with finding buyers for their goods.
I then did an internship at Amnesty International New Delhi, but still felt like I wasn’t really making a positive impact in the world. So many women had shared their suffering with me, but still I wasn’t doing anything direct in return. It began to really bother me. The idea for WORK+SHELTER began to form. I hadn’t seen or heard of any organizations that offered women both shelter and a livelihood. Also, from my experience working with Dastkar and selling products abroad, I was fairly confident that we could create a product that people would be interested in buying abroad.
Jade: Tell me more about The Lotus Odyssey and what the inspiration was and what your goals are.
Theresa: The Lotus Odyssey is an eco/people friendly social enterprise (i.e. business) that exports products from various non-profits, women-owned business, fair-trade certified organizations, etc (including W+S). The goal is to positively impact producers in India who don’t have access to markets, and then use any profits to fund the operations of WORK+SHELTER.
My goals for The Lotus Odyssey as a brand are to sell super gorgeous high-quality products that people want to buy because they are attractive, not just because they are fair-trade. You get a lot of organizations that have the export arm and the social missions, but sell products that are very “Indian.” (e.g. http://www.rupalee.com/). That’s fine if the Western consumer wants to wear Indian-style clothes, but we’re not looking to sell just to that person. My goal is to produce beautiful pieces that stylish, beautiful women across the world will want to wear. I envision it being something of a marriage between Anthropologie and People Tree (Fair-trade British company http://www.peopletree.co.uk/).
We’re doing a super-big trade show at the Javits Center in August, so that will be a really big launch for us. It’s a significant investment, so my goal is to really take The Lotus Odyssey products lines to the next level, and maybe even collaborate with people in the fashion scene in NYC.
Jade: What are your current aims for W+S?
Theresa: My immediate goal for W+S is to make the Delhi branch sustainable. We have to. It’s critical. Within the next four to five months we need to be able to sell enough products to be able to support ourselves from now on, or we’re going to run out of money be forced to close. We need to sell about $2,500 a month worth of product to do that. So the basic goal is to make products that people love and want to purchase so that we can keep the women employed.
Also, as an organization we want to source raw materials that are good for the environment and be a positive influence in our community. And we want to expand capacity building and educational initiatives for the women – we’re always looking to improve their lives.
Jade: What are your future aims for W+S?
Theresa: The big dream is for W+S is to expand within India and eventually around the world. We’re in the preliminary process of brainstorming about where that would be. I really want to open another shelter in Fall 2012, and one every year for the next 5 years. That’s my goal.
Further, I want to really see the W+S scalable model be realized. See below:
The model above includes all of the key component of our operation:
W+S: That’s me and the management team
Markets: Whoever buys our products
Stakeholders: The women
NGO Partner: ???
So the NGO Partner may come as a surprise to you. Who are they? What do they have to do with us? Can’t we operate without them?
Here’s an example. Say that there is a need for HIV+ positive women to have shelter and work. But it’s a struggle for W+S to find these women, and to understand their specific health needs. We could team up with an NGO that is already working with HIV+ women, and ask them to identify candidates who would be a good fit for W+S. We could also rely on that NGO to provide us guidance on how to support the HIV+ population effectively.
Or, what if there is a need to support women with domestic abuse issues in South India? I barely speak Hindi, and most people I know are from North India. How can we expand if we don’t know anything about that region, or speak their local language, or have an expert on abuse issues on staff? The way we can do that is by teaming up with an NGO who is already working with that community, but doesn’t necessarily have the resources to provide them with work or a place to stay.
The thinking is that in order for us to be able to scale quickly and effectively, we need to team up with NGOs already doing work in India who don’t have the resources to do what we’re doing – which is offer a full-scale WORK+SHELTER program. In sum, benefits of teaming up with another NGO are as follows:
- increases our ability to quickly and effectively scale
- allows us to work with diverse populations all over India (and potentially someday outside) since different communities have different needs
- streamlines our process - we do what we do best, the W+S component
- allows/encourages buy-in from local stakeholders (local NGOs)
- means we don’t undermine or replicate existing organizations
- for organizations that are not full service we supplement what they’re already doing and strengthen their role within the community
- the model is adaptable and mobile, so we can get involved during times of disaster recovery
I would also like to see the additional shelters fit into an integrated supply chain system. So if, for example, we could source raw material from East India, and spin it into a usable thread in nearby Varanasi (on the way to Delhi), and then knit, weave, or finalize the thread into a finished product in Delhi, then we could create a series of micro-enterprises that efficiently work together.
That’s my hope anyway – does that make sense?
Jade: You recently left a stable corporate job in order to work fully on W+S. What are the positives and negatives of this move? Basically I want to be able to portray the human side of you too, so please don’t be afraid to tell your fears too!
Theresa: Positives – Definitely a sense of confidence and agency. Even more, freedom, which I cherish. My work is my life – I love my work, so I love my life - there is no separation (though that can be a negative as well). And of course the feeling that I really have made an impact in at least a few lives is the number one plus. There are so many positives – I would have to write a book. J
Negatives – To be honest, the number one thing that bothers me about the departure from my job is being alone. As I write this, my apartment is totally silent except for a creepy, howling wind. I largely live inside my head. I really miss the community that an office offers.
Also, you never forget that everything is on you. At a corporate job we may like to think that we’re needed or indispensable, but really we’re all replaceable. For W+S and The Lotus Odyssey, everything is on me. These projects will die if I can no longer forge ahead with them, and if I don’t act or push forward initiatives, nothing will get done. It can feel overwhelming.
The other negative of course is lack of income. It’s a sacrifice and a struggle.
Even more, since my previous job gave me exposure to the corporate world and technology, I was always learning – it was really good for me in a lot of ways. So stepping away from that can be a little scary – I no longer passively learn because a new project came my way that utilized X, Y, and X technologies. I have to actively pursue things on my own.
Jade: Your main focus is India, however, many countries would benefit from the same type of development for women. Do you have ideas for expansion, or maybe joining hands with other organizations?
Theresa: Right – I touched a little bit on this above. I really do think the W+S model is scalable on an international level – we just have to find the right partnerships, and be able to fund the ventures.
Jade: People probably call you an idealist (I get the same all the time), but without living with hope I feel that we cannot expect anything to change. Can you explain in more detail first why India, and then why you are so passionate about helping women in this way?
Theresa: First, I have a really deep-rooted feeling that I am taking up too much space in this world, and that the pleasures of my life and much of the developed world rest on the backs of the poor in the Global South. I think a lot of what I do/try to do is catalyzed by this feeling of debt. It also makes me feel like I’m never doing enough. The more I have, the more I owe. And really, any impact I’ve had so far is so miniscule that it doesn’t really relieve any of that indebted feeling. All the work I put into planning WORK+SHELTER was necessary, but planning doesn’t help anyone. It will only be helpful when we’re actually able to provide a sustainable route for women to be able take care of themselves and their community. That real impact part has just started.
Growing up in the mid-west my world was pretty small. At the time my home town had one red light. My father worked in a neighboring town, and we travelled a little bit (to Florida, to other places in the mid-west), but I was pretty sheltered, mostly because everyone else I knew was too. But I did have the opportunity to go to Peru with a small group of students while in middle school. I can’t really tell you why I was so motivated at that age, 13, but I saved my baby-sitting for over a year and participated in countless other fundraisers in order to pay my way. The 9 day trip to Peru, where I first saw poverty, really changed me. I suddenly understood that the world was infinitely bigger than I had imagined.
Back then everyone told me, “This week-long trip is a once-in-a-lifetime” experience for you. You are so lucky.” I knew I was lucky, but I didn’t want to accept that this would be the one big adventure of my life. So, I guess the other big thing that happened is that this deep wanderlust rooted and settled into the core of my being. I went anywhere I could afford, with anyone.
So now, why India? On a very practical level, it’s India because this is where I have experience, knowledge, resources. The reason I have those things is because a philanthropist couple funded a program at the University of Michigan for students like me to go to India. Like I said, I was desperate to go anywhere. They gave 5 undergraduate grants per year, totaling around $3,000 each. At the time there was no way I could afford a trip like that on my own. I largely supported myself in school with student loans and part time work, so I just didn’t have the money to go anywhere. Hearing about the grant opportunity I went crazy coming up with ideas, doing research, picking people’s brains. At this time I knew nothing about India. I was interested in women’s issues and microfinance was really on my mind at the time, having recently discovered Mohammad Yunus. So I wrote a grant proposal to study how economic empowerment changed women’s lives socially in India. I spent a lot of time refining my proposal, and ended up being one of the lucky few to get the grant. That’s how I first ended up in India.
But why women? I don’t know why I’m drawn to this work – being a woman, maybe I just am? I do think it’s interesting that there is no country in this entire world where women are equal with men. Think about it – if women were equal to men would rape exist? If women were equal to men, then why are reproductive choices still constrained everywhere? If women were equal to men then would the majority of the poorest people in this world belong to one gender? I’m also really interested in economics, and capitalism (to be kind of broad about it) so I really like looking at the intersections between poverty and inequality. My understanding is that men and women have equal capacities but because women give birth and tend to spend more time raising children they have less access to the public sphere, where income is generated and wealth is acquired. Thus, because they have less access to economic resources they have less power – men have more resources – men have more power. It’s pretty simple, and that’s why the core belief of W+S is economic empowerment (but it a way that makes sense for women).
We’re already seeing impact at the New Delhi shelter. One local woman found out that we had work available, and just started showing up to knit. We told her we weren’t sure if there was a position for her – she lived in a rental accommodation nearby and her husband was making enough to pay for the rent of their small one room apartment – I had been looking for women who didn’t have the support of family. She has a great personality and was really motivated so we decided to bring her on anyway. Only after we hired her and she had been working for many weeks did we find out that her husband actually regularly beats her, and now that she has an income she feels strong enough to tell him that if he tries to beat her again, she will leave him. That’s her choice, and I’m so happy that we can provide her with the work that allows her to make it.
Jade: Do you have investors? How have you gone about fundraising in the past? Tell some positive stories and some pitfalls about your experiences!
Theresa: We don’t have official investors for WORK+SHELTER. Start up $ for The Lotus Odyssey has thus far come from myself or from my partner and close friend Jorel VanOs. We are, however, trying to make ourselves investor-ready, though I am hesitant to give away any control of the company – we would need the right match to move forward with traditional investment opportunities.
A large portion of our fundraising for WORK+SHELTER has come through a Kickstarter campaign that we did last fall. We also did a benefit show, where bands played for free at The Pyramid Scheme, a venue in my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the cover charge was donated to us. Now that we’ve successfully launched our pilot project, W+S New Delhi, and been good stewards of the money that was given to us, I hope it will be easier for us to find funding in the future either via crowdsourcing, sales of our products, or grants or donations.
Pitfalls – We definitely had one really big “failure,” but I stand by my actions, and don’t regret what I did.
In the fall of 2009 I wanted to get a retail space to sell The Lotus Odyssey products. I was really enamored with the idea, and I still play around with the idea of having a brick and mortar retail space someday. I was familiar with a mall in Michigan, and had actually worked at a kiosk for a brief time in that mall, so I decided to move forward with renting a kiosk and selling the products there. We had sold the products at small boutiques in the area, and I had family and friends to help support the venture – my mother’s house was less than a mile away. It seemed like a really good idea. Nevertheless, the kiosk was a major bust (we didn’t make any $ and it was a HUGE time investment). Major reasons are as follows:
-Mall crowds DON’T CARE about fair trade. Customers frequently confused “fair trade” with “free trade.”
-Our price points were too expensive. Mall consumers were ultimately looking for the cheapest products. If our hand-made scarf was retailing at $30 - $50, that was just way beyond the $15 or so that Kohl’s was charging.
-I didn’t have enough stock (poor planning).
-I didn’t have enough $ to invest in stock and ship in advance. Thus, we had to ship everything by air, which was a lot more expensive.
-I wasn’t at the kiosk to manage it full time. I was in a graduate program in NYC at the time, so was commuting back and forth to Michigan to manage the space (what was I thinking?).
One week I worked over 80 hours without pay at the kiosk. I was exhausted and broke, and my husband, who hadn’t supported the kiosk idea from the very beginning, was really unhappy with me. To this day when I am thinking of taking big risks he reminds me of the kiosk failure. But in the end, even though the kiosk wasn’t financially successful, I really loved being able to see part of my dream come alive. Ultimately I can’t regret the experience since I gained so much from it. I’m very lucky to have been able to take a risk with my first business venture and escape relatively unscathed at such a young age - I was 23.
One more thing:
W+S ultimately relies on a model for existence that I think in some ways is fundamentally flawed. I know that I can be hard on myself, but really I think it’s true. Our model relies on the wealthy in developed countries buying products from poor people. The last thing wealthy people need is more stuff. The thing is, I really like stuff. Ultimately, I’d like to create another project that doesn’t rely on selling to the rich, but for now WORK+SHELTER is how I’m able to make my impact.
It's been quite an intense week or so. Actually it has been quite an intense month already and it's only half over, so I really don't know what the next few weeks will bring, but they can only be positive. January was filled with enough negative to last a whole year, so I'm just focusing on completing what I set out to do this year and maintaining some balance and calm in my brain. This means focusing on writing, creating and my family and friends and just removing myself from anything other than that... This city can be severely draining at times, but it can also be immensely rewarding too, have to keep that latter part in mind and just ride through the rest.
After being financially strapped for the past few months I am finally seeing the light AND got another part-time job that I started this week and am really excited about. I am working for an amazing independent book shop in Fort Greene called Greenlight Bookstore, and will mainly be working at their kiosk at the BAM during performances. It's pretty much perfect for me because I love books, I love theater and music and photography and opera and cinema. It's also the perfect balance with the bartending work I do during the week at 200 Orchard. This is all making me super happy and also excited about the next few months.
I feel like I lost most of my inspiration in January but now I finally feel I am back on track with the novel again. I'm about 9 chapters into the second part now, which is both the easiest and hardest part to write. The easiest because I am pulling a lot of it from my own life and the hardest for exactly the same reason. I'm just writing as much as possible and will go back and edit once I am done. I feel like it is going to be a lot more autobiographical than I initially planned it to be, but I'm not going to worry about that part just yet, I really just need to get it written. Once Part 2 is finished I can continue with Part 1 and Part 3. I know it all seems a little backwards, but Part 2 is going to be the main chunk of the novel and the first and last parts will follow from that. I'm still worried about actually showing it to anyone, but I got some good feedback from my little sister, so it can't be that bad, even in it's first draft format... I hope.
There is a lot of music in my head when I am writing and a lot of this is transferred into the words... So this morning I made a playlist to go with it. It really relates to Part 2, music that I listened to between the ages of 10 and 25, some that I still listen to today, others that I had actually forgotten how much I loved. I limited myself to one song per artist, because otherwise there would probably be 260 Cure songs in it... I am sure I will update it as time goes by, but here is the first version:
Part 2 Playlist
I've been going through a lot of old photos and writing and journals and have found some things that I forgot I had written and done... I am naturally a nostalgic person, always a mix of melancholy and happiness, but finding all of this makes me feel like I have accomplished a lot but still have so much more to accomplish, to see, to live. I've stuck this pinboard up on the wall and it is already full of pictures and drawings and things to do and see and remember. I have all of these photos I have had printed recently to sort through and to frame. Letters to write to people and photos to send to them. Things to write about outside of the novel (the list just keeps getting longer and longer). I'll always be at my happiest when I have a million things to do, but only when those million things are what I want to do... And right now they are. I now need to start on the set of articles I will be writing on domestic violence; an article on women in music and about 20 other smaller articles on different things that pop into my head every day. And just keep my focus on what really matters.