A community based art project developed by Felice Salmon, The Handicrafts Initiative Project dealt with creating economic potential through cottage industry and forging stronger identities for young people through artistic empowerment.
How do you shift the way a young woman sees herself? Is it possible to give her the ingredients she needs to gain economic power without dictating to her the way in which she uses those tools? If a young person is allowed to find both a spark of interest in something along with relationships and opportunities to use that spark, I believe she can mold her own identity, develop a cottage industry, and transform the story she tells about herself. But is that enough power to change the patterns and stories of a society? In 2006, I ventured into the mountains of the Dominican Republic. In an old journal entry, I wrote:
“I witnessed an interesting mixture of new growth and old obstacles. As I understood it, our purpose in going to Boma was to join in the work of Enrique and Blanca Delgado by assisting them in the process of building their new home and providing the children of their village with an opportunity to learn some crafts and skills that will provide them with an added source of income in the future. What I did not realize was that I was starting to have a vision for making more than a week-long contribution to the Delgados’ ministry at Escuela Granja.”
There are a number of factors that lead to violence against young women and sexual predation among men, but chief among them are economic instability, lack of education, and the shifting understanding of sexuality among the population in The Dominican Republic. As I began to witness and grapple with these realities, I began to see an unfolding opportunity to pioneer an intervention. As rudimentary as my understanding of the situation was, I applied for a grant from my university to spend the summer with young women in The Dominican Republic.
The Handicrafts Initiative Project was formed in 2007 in response to the growing epidemic of sex tourism, violence against women, and femicide in Latin America. My grant pitch read like this:
“There are still many needs that are not being met throughout the Dominican Republic. Specifically, with only a boys’ track established at Escuela Granja, there are still many young women in the village of Boma and throughout the Dominican Republic without practical skills or a stable means of contributing to their families’ income. By teaching handicrafts, English, and additional practical skills over an 8-week period and by assisting in the organization of a long-term curriculum for girls, I may be able to provide the extra help needed to establish a girls’ track at Escuela Granja. Once this program is established, girls from the rural areas near Boma will be able to learn and develop skills necessary to create marketable handicraft items. If young women are given this opportunity, they will not only be provided with an alternative source of income outside of the sex trade, they will have an opportunity to learn about themselves, hygiene, and various other practical skills.”
There certainly is no simple solution to creating a shift in the way a society views women, but, with a small budget and the fundamentals of needlework, I joined a group of teenage girls in the mountainous region outside of Jarabacoa, DR to explore how we might gain more skills and economic opportunities in the time between finishing primary school and beginning a marriage. When society places the role of women in the home while simultaneously devaluing the role of women in the village economy, women are left with a tremendous amount of responsibility, but very little economic power. Is art a tool that could bring both beauty and power to young people seeking a voice and an economic foothold?
We spent a summer producing samplers, discussing identity, and practicing our business and marketing techniques. As we worked together, young men began to request their own stitching school. So, I began to work with teenage boys, too. By summer’s end, we had produced and sold 28 samplers. I am still waiting to see the final economic and cultural impacts of this project. In truth, very little may have emerged beyond those initial projects. The biggest changes were manifested in the personal relationships between the students with whom I worked and myself. Reflecting back on the project, I wrote:
“Over the course of my 8-week adventure, I not only learned how to be a “profesora” (teacher) for students young and old, I learned to let people get close enough to me to give me nicknames like “Felicipi” and “La Americana.” Though I knew I was going to teach handicrafts and English in the village of Boma, I was not exactly sure of how I was going to go about teaching these classes nor was I sure of how relationships would evolve between students and teacher. Somehow, in the midst of these relationships, I stumbled upon both vision and creativity with which to form daily classroom routines and lesson plans and a bounty of opportunities to get to know my students. By summer’s end, my eager students were so capable in their craft they began to sell various necklaces, embroidered bookmarks, and crafts. Thanks to the closeness that developed in our classroom setting, I became “profesora,” but I also became a trusted friend.”
Funded by an Asbury University Initiative Grant & in collaboration with The Crecer
Foundation & Escuela Granja.