We've talked about it for almost a year. We talked about it some more. We tested the waters with some sample products. This week we finally had our plans in place and so we were able to formally launch the next part of A Little Something: The Karen Weavers' Cooperative.
That name is still under construction as we will surely have more than just ethnic Karen women from Burma in our fiber arts group. We hope to eventually have other Burmese ethnic groups, as well as weavers and knitters from Nepal and Bhutan. (more on that in a future post).
Today we scheduled our first informational meetings for the women. Things got off to a somewhat discouraging start when our first meeting went completely unattended. Jaime and I, along with our translator, Margaret Htoo, decided not to let this influence us too much. We drove across town for the second scheduled meeting. This time, things went better.
Margaret, who is a weaver herself (and a little dynamo!), left Jaime and I at the steps of the apartment building where the meeting was to take place. She went around the neighborhood and knocked on doors, gathering up prospective participants and asking them to remind others that it was time to meet. As Jaime and I were chatting on the steps of the building, I looked up to see Margaret half a block away, with a small train of Burmese women in tow. Having escorted her first group to us, she set off once again to shepherd a few more to our part of the street.
I am normally a person who prepares her comments, who makes notes on index cards (middle-aged memory lapses--ugh), and who has an agenda for every meeting. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's my insomnia-induced fatigue, but I decided to just wing it. That seemed OK until we went inside and the women filed into the room. I stood in the room and realized I had no idea how to approach this group.
We have known the African women for a few years, and I, for one, am more familiar with them personally and culturally. As I set to work assembling a small photo display, I hoped that Jaime and I would explain the project in a way that would engage the women's interest and not in a way that would leave them thinking we were going to exploit them.
My worries were unfounded. The Burmese women do not harbor the trust issues that we encountered with our foundation group. They were polite and curious, they laughed at all of my jokes (and I give lots of credit to Margaret for being able to translate the nuances of my humor), and they nodded often as we explained the details of the project.
As I took a break from talking, Jaime took over and as she spoke, I looked around the room. We had seven women there for our first meeting. They range in age from 15 to 62. Some are educated, some are not. Three are so quiet, I could not hear them introduce themselves, although I was standing only a foot away. Margaret speaks English very well, our veteran ALS member, Htee Ku Paw, is a solid intermediate speaker, and the rest of the group comes in at zero English. A couple of the women have been here since last summer whereas two others arrived only last week. All of these women lived at least a decade of their lives in the Mae La refugee camp.
I don't know that if I had been relocated only a week ago that I would be up for joining a group of any kind. In fact, I would probably still be recovering from jet lag. Not these women. They are eager to get going.
When Jaime and I finished our part of the presentation, we asked the women if they had questions. They looked at each other. They looked at us. They looked at us. They looked at Margaret. Finally, Ko Gay said something very brief to Margaret. Margaret translated: "They want to know when they can start."
At this point, the women all started chatting at once. There was a lot of hand gesturing in the air and discussion among the whole group. Margaret leaned over and said, "They're talking about where they can weave and how they can set up their looms. In Burma and Thailand, we lived in bamboo houses, so you could tie the loom onto a post on any wall. It's not that easy here." (click here to see a slide show of Karen weavers in a refugee camp in Thailand.)
I had a laugh at my own expense. I've been thinking about the details of this project for a long time, and I have a vision of the many things we can do. I know that the Karen weave with a variety of fibers, and many spin their own. Traditionally, the weavers use homemade vegetable dyes to hand-color each skein of silk or cotton. I have envisioned us all working together outside of one of the apartment buildings, having "dye days" and warping fiber, making skeins, and building looms. Margaret's comment had just brought me back to reality with a big thud. Forget finding a community workspace; we need to find a way to use backstrap looms in modern Denver apartments!
As the meeting wound down, Jaime made a somewhat humorous observation. When we meet with the African women, the meetings are noisy and boisterous. There is spirited debate, and we are bombarded with questions. Side conversations go on while we're talking, it's hard to stay on topic, and every point has to be considered from many sides and with many "what ifs."
The Karen women, on the other hand, listened quietly, inquired politely, paid attention, and trusted us without question. Jaime and I realized that we hadn't ever had an A Little Something meeting that was so...subdued. Things are going to get interesting when the whole group is together. Furthermore, we've found that if we plan things more than a week or so in advance with the core group, they forget about those events when the scheduled day arrives. Last-minute wrangling works best. Margaret, on the other hand, very politely admonished us for not giving more lead time in getting the word out about the meetings. She recommended--several times--that in the future, we plan ahead.
Although there were only seven women at the meeting today, we know that there are at least seven more who wanted to be there but who had appointments or English class in the morning. In addition, there are other Karen women who don't weave but who wish to apprentice, and a few more who don't know any crafts yet, but want to learn to make jewelry.
Something is happening to our project--excitement is growing. It feels like we're on the verge of something much bigger. I think we're about to...bloom!
(The newest ALS members, in order pictured: Margaret Htoo; Paw Ku Thay; Hai Gay Moo; Paw Pah; Ko Gay; Than Myint Yee.