“We don’t hire homies to bake bread, we bake bread to hire homies.”
I have often written about my love & admiration for Father Greg Boyle (Father G) and the work he has done with the gang population in Los Angeles with Homeboy Industries. It is not an easy thing to promote the dignity of people who have been involved in violent criminality, finding kinship in mutual love and respect.
This line — “We don’t hire homies to bake bread, we bake bread to hire homies.” — is a perfect description of the complex dynamic of running a business that is, at its core, motivated to employ a marginalized population.
"Social enterprise" is the category name for a business that is run for profit (not a charity), but that also has other goals in addition to profit as the bottom line.
I consider dignify a social enterprise: we are motivated by sustainable finances (profit), but also by good. Good for us, good for the artisans making our blankets, good for everyone from stitch to doorstep, good for the earth.
Basha, our producing partner, is also a social enterprise, but with a heavy lean on the social side. There is simply so much need! When you choose to employ people who are traditionally difficult to employ, there are risks and challenges, and most of all: tensions.
In a standard business, if an employee doesn't show up to work multiple times, they get fired, right?
What if she doesn't show up because her husband beat her (again) last night, and she's nursing her wounds? What if she is cradled in a corner, unable to get going for the day — a direct result of the trauma of her previous year, 5 years, lifetime?
Decisions, as the boss, become a bit more tricky, a bit more nuanced.
I came across this article this week, with a provocative title:
I had never heard of Lidl before, but it is a German-based discount supermarket chain, a competitor to the UK’s Tesco (the best comparison Stateside may be a Walmart Supercentre, though this wouldn’t quite capture the grocery-focus nor the pervasiveness of Tesco; it’s been said that 1 of every 7 spent in shops in the UK is at Tesco).
We’re familiar with the cheap/fast fashion conversation, and with these jeans being made in Bangladesh, the discussion hits close. But, what is different about this article (and why I think it is worth reading) is its breakdown of the costs.
When I talk to people in person about dignify & what I do, there are two questions that I am asked almost inevitably:
I’m sure that neither of these things are keeping you up at night! But, here are my answers, nonetheless:
Recently, I received an email from a customer who expressed concern over whether the value of our blankets is legitimately “ethical”. With so many places to find kantha on the web from etsy to Amazon – and at a wide range of prices – what makes dignify’s blankets worth the value? Are we simply using the word “ethical” as a marketing scheme?
As a self-run business from an admitted amateur, I realized that while the stories of Basha (our producing partner) and dignify are thoroughly integrated in my operations and thought process, I haven’t always communicated them adequately.
It sounds a bit cynical, sure, but these questions are valid & reasonable – the questions we should be asking.Not just of social enterprises, but of everyone for whom we open our wallets.
But the truth is, Basha is the real deal! It is run by caring leaders who guide the artisans, and teach them, and check on them when they don't show up at work, and run workshops for their husbands about why not to beat them. It is a good place.
An acquaintance just contacted me after her husband, who works in prosthetics, had traveled to Bangladesh for some work & training. Her words:
“He managed to stop at the Basha facility and was completely blown away. He and the fellow he travelled with were almost in tears by the kids' affection for them. They had a tour and bought some blankets. Absolutely LOVED it! “
For more specifics, I have tried to address some great questions & concerns below. Please feel free to comment or contact us for more discussion on these or other questions.
Two weeks ago, I posted this video about the reality of sex work in Bangladesh. Reactions to something heavy & sad like this can be varied: one key response being discouragement.
Plainly: yes. Of course this is true.
How can I make a difference in the face of big problems? We can be tempted to stick our heads in the sand, because otherwise the scale of issues becomes all too overwhelming.
There is also an undercurrent in our culture that says it must be “all or nothing.” Anything in between is slapped with the greatest of insults: hypocrisy. Words without actions are meaningless, and even worse: an action that in any way betrays your words is crucible!
I obviously don’t think well-intentioned people should be puffed up with big talk and no action (raising awareness, anyone?). But, I also disagree with such a simplified reaction. In reality, we live in constant tensions!
So,how can we move from overwhelmed to empowered?
I have often mentioned when discussing dignify & my work that I, personally, am more focused on the business aspect than the social justice results.
Partly this is because of my skills, interests, & affinities: my background is in marketing, I love visual aesthetics & design, and I am a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none personality that lends itself well to small business.
I also mention this to people partly because it brings things down to earth. When you tell someone you are working in “fair trade” and employing women who have been trafficked and sexually exploited, they tend to feel overwhelmed and somehow inferior. But I am no saint. I am a very unremarkable person, doing something I really enjoy, that happens to have very significant & remarkable results.
So, I keep my head down, focus on what I know (well, and on a lot of things I don’t know – running a business is like doing 18 jobs at once): photographing blankets, mailing packages, creative marketing, etc. Sure, I think about the women involved – I see their names, receive pictures from their office, & marvel over their handiwork.
But I forget about why they are there, at Basha, in that office, stitching their names.
I couldn’t watch it in one sitting. It is grave and it is true. As Basha wrote, “If you want to know why we work tirelessly to make sure Basha can expand throughout Bangladesh, this will show you why. It is graphic, it is disturbing, but it is an amazingly candid view of what is happening here. It ends stating the fact that once embroiled in prostitution, there is little to no chance of leaving. This is what Basha is changing, one blanket, one bracelet, at a time.”