In August of 2009 I found myself on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. I was introduced to this land and its people through working with a friend in her artisan project, and we instantly began working directly with several local women. I was stunned by the beauty and power of my surroundings, as well as the ambition and strength of the women. This solidified my lifelong connection with them.
I began organizing a group of traditional bead-workers, six women from different villages and language backgrounds who did not know or trust each other completely. To form a collective, this trust was our first initiative. Trusting each other and trusting me, the gringa from an unknown outside land. Many foreigners go to Guatemala to help, few stay and make a lasting impact.
Over the first year, our trials and tribulations helped us grow closer as a cohesive group. The women began to confide in each other, and as they began to understand my respect for them, they returned that respect to me. We figured out ways to connect two worlds different in language, education, perspectives, and general way of life. We developed systems to overcome these barriers, enabling the artisans to function in Guatemala while connecting to the Western market. From our Western perspective, modern technology has helped tremendously with teaching and using tools such as ATM machines, online banking, email, and even calculators, all of which were previously unused and mostly unknown by these women. But there are perspectives that our Western minds do not innately understand that are so necessary to successfully create this bridge.
Their lessons to me cannot be quantified or measured. Life lessons of perseverance and strength, which manifest themselves in a completely different connotation from our English ideas. Between those differences we find common ground and connect with our fellow woman, and the branches continue to grow.
These women are now my dearest friends and role models. We laugh and joke together, have group lunches and birthday celebrations. Their children play and learn with us; and very importantly, their husbands have grown to respect our work.
In 2010, aided by the mentoring of some wonderful friends, I officially began JUSTA Collective to provide these women an avenue to sell their products. Through Global JUST Designs, we sell these cross-cultural works of art at across the world.
My commitment to the women is to provide them consistent, living wages for their families, as well as an open and secure space to learn, create, and grow as women, mothers, and leaders in their communities.
The collective members learn everything I learn and know, and as I continue to equip and empower them with continuing education and business knowledge, my goal is that these women will continue to grow this project for themselves. I will always be with them, but their strength will allow them to become more and more independent.
Since starting JUSTA, I have also began working with two other women who are each organizing their own sewing collectives. I have followed this same model of development for these two collectives. As we keep growing, JUSTA roots are extending into four villages around Lake Atitlán, incorporating 21 artisans, and reaching over 80 family members.
This is not only my story, it is their story as well. I feel privileged to honor their stories; working in a beautiful place with beautiful people.