"When I create a painting, it always seems to turn out different than I had intended. And, I find that the most tragic mistakes, more often than not, make for the most beautiful paintings.
For me, undergoing trauma that could not be undone was a lot like working with a painting that someone had spilled their lunch on. Faced with an ugly painting and a hurting heart, the need at that moment for me was not to cast blame or discard the painting but, instead, work with what had happened.
Story by James Pearson
"Blythe is a real name," writes Blythe Hill on Instagram, captioning a series of photos in which her name is butchered on Starbucks cups. Blike, Blthy, Blive, the cups say. One of them, zen-like, says Life.
The photos are stylish, well-snapped. When Blythe is in them she's deadpan, enjoying the drink and a wry moment with her followers. She is fashionable in a way that makes you think of Pinterest glazed with mid-1900s New York. Her style sense even landed her a position with a leading trend forecasting firm in Los Angeles, advising corporate clients on what's just over the fashion horizon.
"I get a kick out of getting dressed," she told me. "It's a small opportunity to express myself, to be creative." And it was a silly experiment in creative fashion that ended up inspiring thousands of women around the world and raising over $150,000 last year to fight sex trafficking.
"Dressember started, honestly, out of boredom," said Blythe. She was in graduate school, and the way that classes rolled into classes and semesters into semesters was feeling stale. "I thought a style challenge would be an easy way to spice things up, to practice creativity with a limited schedule."
Near the end of 2009, she came up with the idea to wear a dress every day for a month. And since December was the next full month, she started calling the experiment Dressember. "I love puns," she said, "so the deal was pretty much sealed at that point."
She had no intention of turning Dressember into a campaign, or even an annual challenge. But when her friends saw her wearing dresses all month they wanted to try it, too. "It wasn't until friends wanted to join, and then their friends wanted to join, and I saw its organic growth, that I started seeing potential for something bigger."
Every year the Dressember community grew, even expanding internationally. Blythe soon took notice of Movember, the November mustache-growing campaign that raises money for men's health organizations. "Maybe I can use Dressember to raise money for an anti-trafficking organization," she thought.
Last year, Blythe aligned Dressember with International Justice Mission (IJM), a nonprofit that rescues victims of human trafficking, and set what she called "the huge, scary goal" of raising $25,000 for the organization. The 31-day Dressember campaign hit that goal on day three. "I realized I needed to start dreaming bigger," said Blythe.
By December 31 last year, 1,200 women in 32 countries had raised over $165,000 for IJM—more than six times the original goal.
Just as donations started to surge in last year, Blythe noticed some criticism of Dressember trickling onto Twitter. "There were some valid points made," she said. "Someone said we ought to be careful what brands we wear, and there'd be an unfortunate irony if our dresses were produced by slave labor. I appreciated that."
She also received some emails from transgender people who were concerned that Dressember promoted gender binaries. Blythe changed some of the campaign's language. "I was not trying to say that only women can wear dresses," she said.
But others were less constructive. One person took issue with participants posting selfies, calling it vain. "Instead of offering some sort of solution," said Blythe, "they started an Instagram account to mock Dressember, with boys in dresses in suggestive poses and borderline lewd captions. They also started harassing Dressember participants, which is what made me the most upset.
Another person, a friend of one of her friends, took the time to find Blythe on Facebook and send her a message calling Dressember "stupid."
If Dressember as a fashion challenge was born out of boredom, Dressember as activism came from something much deeper.
"I was molested as a little girl," said Blythe, "and for years I carried the weight of questions of worthiness, value, and guilt." When she learned that millions of girls and women all around the world are trafficked from their homes to endure sexual abuse, she said it lit a fire inside her. "It took years for me to heal, forgive, and move forward, but hearing about women and girls who experience horrific things still fires me up."
Blythe wanted to do something to help. "But I kept hitting a wall," she said. "I'm not a social worker, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a cop, I'm not a psychologist." The things she enjoyed and was good at—fashion, design, trend analysis, writing—felt like the wrong tools for pursuing what she was passionate about. While her heart strained towards human rights, her talents kept her working in Los Angeles. "My interests didn't seem to match up with making a difference," said Blythe.
Last year, when Blythe transformed Dressember into a fundraiser for IJM, she found a way to align her enjoyment of creative fashion with her passion to stop sex trafficking. And deeper still, she created a platform where femininity—the epicenter of some of her earliest, deepest wounds—is powerful, and supports the work of healing and wholeness for women around the world.
When critical voices began to attack Dressember, as they do with any successful venture, Blythe said that she mostly kept it to herself. "It was a lonely experience to process the negative feedback that came in," she said.
To fight through it she reminded herself that rescuing one person from trafficking was worth upsetting 1,000 people. And that for every Dressember critic there were probably 1,000 supporters. And she talked with her mentor about it. "I've learned a lot since then," said Blythe, "and feel more prepared to face the criticism that will likely come this year."
For one thing, she now has other people beside her. "Last year was pretty much a one-woman effort," she said. "My main strategy is to let others in on the journey, and try not to carry the weight of it again." Blythe is building a team to help her run the campaign. "I've learned how important it is to be a part of a team of people," she said.
And secondly, she said that she's learning to "guard the gate," to choose what feedback she believes is valuable. "I talked with my mentor a lot about deciphering between valid and useless feedback, and learning to put the feedback I'm not sure about on hold until I can take it to people I trust."
This year, the Dressember team set a huge goal. They hope to raise $500,000 for IJM—20 times last year's goal. "It's big, but I have a feeling the ripple effect growth that Dressember saw as a style challenge will carry over to the campaign," said Blythe.
Every person who joins the campaign ratifies the basic values Blythe brought to it: that personal creativity can make a difference, and that femininity is powerful."It's always really encouraging to see people get excited about Dressember," said Blythe, "to see their eyes light up with their own ideas within the campaign or beyond."
She said she got an email a couple weeks ago from the director of a safe house for women coming out of prostitution in the States. "She emailed to let me know some of her girls heard about Dressember and are thrilled about it, and can't wait to participate," said Blythe.
"That's the sort of feedback that puts the wind back in my sails."
Story by James Pearson
Amyie Kao was getting restless. It was late one night in 2012 and her husband Daniel was under the sink, installing a filtration system in their new coffee roasting facility. He kept fiddling and adjusting and testing, inching towards optimal water to brew their coffee, for hours.
They had recently founded Mariposa Coffee Roastery together and moved the business into their first dedicated roasting space in Norman, Oklahoma, near the University of Oklahoma. Daniel started roasting coffee in college at OU, a hobby that quickly escalated to an obsession. He built his own roasters, housing one in a rented storage space a few miles away because it wasn't allowed on campus.
As Amyie watched him tinker she thought about the importance of water in coffee—in brewing it and in growing it. In her mind, a restless and combinatorial mind, Amyie overlaid two maps. The first showed the global "coffee belt," the region straddling the equator where coffee is grown around the world. The second was a map she had seen of the global water crisis, which showed where billions of people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, didn't have access to clean drinking water. The two maps highlighted many of the same areas.
Amyie and Daniel knew that quality coffee requires attention and care from farmers, who grow and carefully handpick and process coffee cherries to produce great beans. "When we roast our coffee, our goal is to honor the hard work that's been poured into every single coffee bean," said Amyie. This sense of responsibility to the farmers behind their coffee is a core value of their business. Hence Daniel's hours under the sink.
When Amyie realized that many coffee farmers live in areas where clean drinking water is scarce, it was an affront to this sense of connection and responsibility to the farmers. To learn more she contacted Water4, an Oklahoma City nonprofit that drills wells in water-scarce communities around the world.
Water4 sent Amyie some photos from Rwanda, taken in a district called Nyaruguru (Nyah-roo-guh-roo). Amyie knew the region. It's beans won the Cup of Excellence in 2011, a competition known as the Oscars of the coffee world. She had seen a one pound bag of coffee from Nyaruguru selling for $30.
The photos showed the only water source for three villages in the district. It was a pool of brown water, an unprotected spring that surely held bacteria and parasites. "People had to hike 45 minutes down a mountain to a water source that could be contaminated," said Amyie, "and then haul heavy jerry cans full of water back up to their village."
The people growing $30-per-pound coffee, Amyie realized, didn't have clean water to drink.
A Dodgy Part of Town
Making this sort of connection—between her own pursuits and larger justice issues—isn't unusual for Amyie. After working for a U.S. Senator during college she led letter-writing campaigns for social justice, having learned that handwritten letters carry much more weight than form letters. When she was president of the Pre-Med Club at OU she gave a presentation about genocide because, to her, the connection between medicine and global justice was inescapable.
Amyie was born in Oklahoma City to Chinese parents who had owned grocery stores in Vietnam. The Vietnamese had seized nearly everything they owned during the war, and they had come to America as refugees.
She grew up in what she calls a "dodgy" part of town. Years later she watched a documentary about human trafficking and saw shots of her childhood street. She says she grew up playing in her backyard a lot because the front wasn't safe. But still she remembers it brightly. "I remember spending countless hours playing under our giant pecan tree, exploring my grandmother's garden, and romping in the dirt," she said.
Her parents had forgone education to work in their family business in Vietnam, so when they got to the U.S. they had few professional opportunities. They took low-wage jobs and went to night school to try to improve their situation. But "they didn't quite make it out of the low income bracket," Amyie said.
She remembers being six years old when her grandmother had a stroke. The family rushed to the emergency room. Amyie said the "doctors were incredible impatient with the language and cultural barriers." The hospital staff openly discussed the family's poverty and that they wouldn't be able to pay the bill, thinking that no one in the family could understand them. But Amyie understood. They told the family to seek treatment elsewhere.
"Most physicians try to be kind," she said. "And then there are some that aren't. I felt powerless to do anything about it."
As the family's best English speaker Amyie often played intermediary between her family and America. She said that most people at most times have been kind to her family. But some people at some times—often important times—treated them as inferior and unimportant. And young Amyie stood in the middle, relaying the messages.
Water Made from Coffee
More people die each year because they don't have access to clean water and sanitation than from all the violence in the world, including wars. And the women and children who usually walk long distances to fetch water miss out on time working or in school and are in danger of harassment and sexual assault.
"We had this realization that, while we're tinkering with our water system, the very people producing our coffee might not be alive to see the next harvest." To Amyie, the connection between coffee and water became inescapable. Honing their craft of roasting coffee wouldn't be enough to honor the farmers growing it. She and Daniel would have to do something about water.
They discussed it and decided to set aside a portion of their profits to build wells in coffee growing communities. "We're a small startup," she said, "so we had to set aside a little money each month." After nearly two years they were able to commission Water4 to build a well in Nyaruguru.
The people in those villages now spend less time collecting and hauling water, and when they do get it, it's clean and safe to drink. This means lower risk of disease, less vulnerability to violence, and more time spent at school or in the garden. In a place where clean water was nearly impossible to come by, a well is a small miracle.
Amyie and Daniel are setting aside money for a second well now. They want to put another well in the same area, so that if and when one needs maintenance, a common challenge, the people there still have clean water to drink.
And they're also saving up for a trip to Rwanda to visit this place where the coffee map and the water map intersect. They want to see where their treasured coffee beans come from. They want to shake the hands of the farmers who nurture them. And they want to know, directly, the importance of water in coffee.
To honor Amyie, we're donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a well in Rwanda. Shop here.
Earlier this year, in a small, green village in the hills of northern Thailand, a woman approached a 14-year-old girl and made her a simple offer. She could earn the equivalent of $1,000 dollars, the woman told her, for losing her virginity to a paying customer. This woman wasn't going to forcibly kidnap her. The girl had the choice to say yes or no.
Silicon Valley native Rachel Goble, through her organization The SOLD Project, is working to educate Thai girls on the real terms of offers like these—that they won't be paid $1,000, that they'll likely be confined to a brothel for years and forced to sleep with not just one, but thousands of paying customers, that accepting one of these offers will lead to new kinds of pain and poverty, the kinds that tear not just at the stomach, but at the soul.
Rachel's childhood was at the opposite end of nearly every spectrum from the poor, undereducated Thai girls most at risk of being trafficked. Her parents run Goble Properties, a San Jose commercial real estate company founded by her grandfather. The business afforded Rachel an idyllic childhood. "I lived down the street from some of my best friends," she told me, "and so evenings and weekends were spent riding bikes between each others' houses and getting into mischief."
Rachel's parents also had a unique passion that took her into a much larger world. "Some of my earliest memories are tromping through jungles looking for land while a Mayan man would swing a machete only inches from my head to clear a path," Rachel recalled. Her parents began exploring the connections between the environmental damage and poverty in the Central American country of Belize. Rachel took her first of many trips to Belize when she was only nine.
By Rachel's teenage years the Gobles had built Jaguar Creek, a sustainable center in the jungle to host teams from universities and churches around the world, who would come to learn how environmental degradation contributes to extreme poverty. Belize, Rachel said, was her second home. Her passport was completely filled with stamps by age fifteen. And she told me that her time there gave her a great and lasting gift: a sort of naivety in regards to cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, a comfort amidst difference.
It was this foundational comfort that allowed her to find one of the world's most uncomfortable places, a place whose desperation became her calling. While traveling in India as part of her postgraduate work at Fuller Theological Seminary, Rachel visited a brothel. "We walked up sets of stairs to a hallway lined with rooms," she recalled. "Each of these rooms was a waiting area that then had multiple doors that opened to bedrooms. This was where the women slept, as well as took customers."
She sat down with two of the women in a waiting room and asked them their stories. One of the them, still in her early twenties and already a brothel veteran, said that unlike Rachel she had no opportunity, no way out. Although there were no bars or chains, she was trapped.
Trafficking is, in economic terms, people with opportunity and resources preying on those without, or put more simply, the rich paying to sleep with the poor. And Rachel, who had grown up with so much opportunity, now faced a woman whose life was shaped by the absence of opportunity. The consequences were unbearable. "I realized then that prevention was my calling," said Rachel. "That no person should ever get to a place in their life where they've lost hope."
About that same time Rachel was introduced to another Rachel, filmmaker Rachel Sparks, who was producing a film about trafficking in Thailand. When they both returned to the States they connected over similar experiences, and very similar conclusions: that trafficking is enabled by poverty, lack of education, a fundamental devaluation of girls and women, and that preventing trafficking starts with empowering girls.
In northern Thailand many families can't afford much education, and by age 15 girls often have no choice but to drop out of school and start making an income for the family. But without the skills that a good education provides their chances to make money are extremely limited.
Rachel signed on to help produce the documentary, and to start a non-profit alongside the film to start doing the work of education and empowerment—the work of prevention—in Thailand. Today that non-profit, The SOLD Project, has 140 students on scholarship, giving them the education that might save them from the world of trafficking and prostitution. These students get mentored by staff and older students, and have access to a resource center that gives them a fun and encouraging place to spend their non-school hours. SOLD also teaches the communities where they work about the tricks and terrors of trafficking, helping bind them together in a sort of safety net of prevention.
The 14-year-old girl at the beginning of our story is one of these students. Her sister came to SOLD, scared, and told them about the trafficker. A thousand dollars is a near life-changing sum in the hills of northern Thailand, especially for a family in hard times, as theirs was. Many girls, too many, have been taken in by such shiny, empty promises.
But this 14-year-old girl said no. She told the SOLD staff later that she remembered the the anti-trafficking training she'd been given and she simply told the woman no. [pullquote back="2"]And the next morning, instead of going to a brothel, she went to school[/pullquote].
I don't think it's exaggerating to say that her life was saved.
This is what Rachel is after, that more girls, indeed all girls, have the education and opportunity to say no. "This is our message," she says, "that child prostitution and exploitation can be prevented, and we all have a roll to play in ensuring that prevention." And somehow her simple story about a girl in northern Thailand, more than a raft of statistics and annual reports, makes me think she must be right.
Do not start a nonprofit, says Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit. She makes a strong case. If you start a nonprofit you'll be broke, stressed, and you'll have to be boring while you work long hours with no money. You will be rejected a lot. And, by the odds, you'll fail within a few years.
Becky has been through all of it except the failing. For the last two years she lived couch-to-couch, maxing out her credit cards and relying on gracious friends and family, and working with her co-founder Jody Landers to build the foundation of an enormous vision. They aim to create one million jobs in the developing world within a decade.
Sitting across the table from Becky in a cafe in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, she says she's tired from flying across the world and spending three long days in the field catching up with a social business she partners with. Still she crackles with energy. I've been in the country three extra, less busy days and I'm fading with jet lag. She shares with me the grand vision she and her partner are building, lamenting that it's hard to shrink it down to the elevator pitch that many would-be backers want.
Her vision sees good businesses in poor countries as the final solution to poverty, and to many other endemic problems, like access to clean water and affordable healthcare. The Adventure Project aims to focus international attention and money on these businesses, helping them scale and make the biggest positive impact.
And, in a way, it all started with swimming.
"As a kid I was terrible," Becky told me later over email. "I'm not trying to be modest, I have multiple last place ribbons to prove it." Then, when she was twelve, a swim coach took her aside and gave her this advice: "Everything in life is 90% hard work and only 10% talent, so just work harder than everyone else."
"That stuck with me, and he was right," said Becky. "I put my head down and never stopped trying." Her hard work earned her a scholarship to swim collegiately on a team that won two conference titles. She still wasn't the fastest on the team ("I was the worst of the best") but, she recalls, "it didn't really matter to me, because I learned that I love to work hard, and will go to great lengths to make something happen."
"I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut, and you know you'll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again."
That sort of determination, 'Grit', as it's often called, is being hailed by top researchers as one of the most important characteristics of successful people. And Becky clearly has large grit reserves. Which means that she could likely succeed at just about anything: movie making, real estate development, technology startups, fields that could win her fame or fortune or both. So why put all that determination towards stopping poverty?
"I think the main experience for me was volunteering in Romania after college," she said. A couple from Ohio ran a group home for kids who had been orphaned and abused. Some of them had been confined to cribs for the first ten years of their lives and had to learn to walk starting at age eleven.
"I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut," said Becky, "and you know you'll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again. It made me horribly sad to see the vast disparity between the rich and poor. But it was also incredibly hopeful, because I witnessed resilience and love. And it gave me purpose."
She earned a Master's in International Social Welfare from Columbia before joining a fledgling non-profit called charity: water. Becky was employee number three, and helped launch one of the most innovative and successful non-profits in the world. She left charity: water during some challenging organizational growth pains and soon reconnected with a donor named Jody she had become fast friends with a year earlier during a trip to Liberia. Over dinner in Colorado they discovered their common passion for social enterprise and started a Google document titled, "Launch List," filled with items like "Assemble a board" and "Get charitable status".
They started in on the to do list in October 2010 and launched The Adventure Project a month later.
So far they have partnered with four social ventures in four developing countries, creating over 350 jobs. These businesses are helping solve the problems of hunger, water, environment, and healthcare, and are serving almost 900,000 people.
When I met her in Uganda she had been visiting one of these partners, a company called Living Goods that combines the Avon door-to-door sales model with the effectiveness of community driven healthcare. Women are trained as community health workers and visit the homes of their neighbors, checking on family health and offering advice and selling low-cost solutions where necessary.
On her organization's blog Becky shares a story (with beautiful photos from Esther Havens) that epitomizes the impact she and Jody are having. A Ugandan woman named Gertrude, recently widowed and left with three young children, was hired and trained by Living Goods as they expanded to her village. When she started visiting homes she met a woman who had three children sick with malaria and no money for medication. Gertrude decided to trust the woman and paid for the medications herself before moving on to the next house. Two days later the children had recovered, the woman had repaid Gertrude for the medication, and the village was buzzing that Gertrude had saved these children's lives. Now her new health business is booming and she can afford to send her kids to school. And all throughout the village she is known as "the Kind One."
Becky's dream, and the vision of The Adventure Project, is to take Gertrude's story and multiply it by a million. One million new jobs. One million people solving their communities' problems. One million families out of poverty. It's the kind of goal that will take, more than anything, a lot of grit.
Learn more about Becky's work here. We're donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to The Adventure Project!