Ten years ago, when I was just 10 years old, my family decided to pack our bags and journey to some of the most desperate places in the world, where we could connect with struggling communities, immerse us in their culture, and inspire and motivate their leaders and the people to address their challenges and make positive changes. This grew into an initiative now known as the Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow.
Hands Up Not Handouts, a new initiative that mentors women in the design and production of handicraft goods, was inspired by one of our trips to Palestine. A few years ago, we visited a women’s cooperative in the Qalandia refugee camp, which was founded in the early 1950’s and is the oldest women’s society for Palestine refugees. The women had already achieved the establishment of a training program in embroidery, knitting and quilting skills, so that they could create and sell home goods. The fact of the matter is, in some of these cultures, when women earn money; they earn a better opportunity for education, health and even power in their family and community.
The expert craftsmanship of these women and the intricately embroidered tablecloths and pillowcases were truly breathtaking—but the amount of unsold goods was utterly heartbreaking. There was so much hard work—and hope—sitting around collecting dust, simply because these women were making the wrong product.
The mission of Hands Up Not Handouts was clear form the start. We showed these women how to reapply their handicraft skills to create bracelets that would appeal to a trendy and stylish Western fashion sense. The designs incorporate bright colors and embroidery techniques with intricate mosaic patterns.
We also helped them determine pricing to make the most globally marketable product possible. By giving them the direction they needed to sustain and grow a profitable business, we were also helping them earn more independence and power in their community, as well as a better standard of living for their families.
We expanded the Hands Up Not Handouts collection during a trip to Rwanda. We visited the Gahaya Links and Agaseke women’s weaving cooperatives, which are organizations committed to the healing of Rwanda. Here, women train and mentor each other in the traditional art of weaving with sweet grass. For this project, we reinvented their labor-intensive sweet grass woven baskets into bold sweet grass earrings, which could be more easily produced and marketed.
Today, our initiative has grown tremendously and we’ve helped these women go from surviving to thriving. Over 300 Palestinian women and over 500 women from Rwanda work on this project. In addition to our website, www.handsupnothandouts.org, the collection sells at some of the most well known retailers around the globe and is supported by celebrities like Sting and Martha Stewart.
Hands Up Not Handouts doesn’t end with the sale of an earring or bracelet. Aside from creating value, we create a connection with the buyer by highlighting the women behind the handicrafts, their struggles, their achievements and their dreams. One way to see this is through my photography. I take pictures of the women during each visit, so that we can document their positive transformation and continued advancements, and share their stories with the world.
Tess Sager is an NYU student and the founder of Hands Up Not Handouts, an organization that mentors women of the world through the design and production of unique, one-of-a-kind goods. For more information, please visit www.handsupnothandouts.org