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SERRV: Shopping to Make A Difference

August 11, 2011

For most of us, fashion serves a simple purpose: to make us look snazzy, feel confident, or fit a special occasion. While for many around the world, fashion and clothes serves a larger goal: to be a livelihood that can lift whole families out of poverty.

On July 28, SERRV, a Madison store specializing in fairly traded goods, hosted an event to bring this point home and illustrate the connection Madison consumers have with artisans across the globe. Aptly titled the SERRV Connections Marketplace: Handwork of India, SERRV invited artisan clothing makers Manisha Pawar and Shaily Agarwal to discuss the difference making fair trade garments has made in their life.

Artisans Manisha Pawar and Shaily Agarwal

They were the kinds of stories that stay with you long after the final words are spoken. A native of India (where it’s frowned upon for women to receive an education or have a voice), Pawar could not read, write or do basic math before she got involved in the Marketplace program, which works with a program called Fair Trade to train women and men to become artisans and helps them receive a fair price for their handiwork so they can make a living wage. Now a well-articulated and accomplished clothing maker, Pawar described what it was like to be a women who couldn’t even sign her own name and, like many women in her region of India, had to use a thumbprint to mark her children’s report cards from school.

Then, once she heard about the Marketplace program, she began training, making whatever products were needed throughout the season and was able to carve out her own path, while helping provide for her husband and three sons.

She has also used the program to help other women earn a living in a safe and sustainable way by teaching them her craft. It’s a dedication to her community and her livelihood that keeps her working tirelessly: Some days after traveling four hours (two hours one way) to get to a local marketplace and produce goods, Pawar comes home to train a group of women from 10 p.m. until midnight. Thanks to her hard work and the success of the program, Pawar managed to move her family out of their dirt slum and into a safer, cleaner flat.

Agarwal, an artisan designer with the program, has worked with Marketplace for the last three years and plays an integral role in the process, carefully managing the design of the clothes from their start in India to when they reach the hangers of SERRV’s Madison store and other stores within the Midwest.

As SERRV’s marketing specialist Serena Sato explained, hearing their stories illustrated how donning their handiwork is not only a fashionable choice, but one that can make a difference.

“It’s like meeting the farmer behind your food but you’re actually meeting the artisan behind the shirt that you wear,” Sato says. “Marketplace has a really, really great story about women’s empowerment. They’re just doing simple things that changes lives.”

A national nonprofit with an online store and shops dotted across the country, SERRV boasts a lofty mission to eradicate poverty through a simple solution–providing a direct link between lower income artisans around the world and consumers here in America. Madison’s Monroe Street storefront sells a bounty of fairly traded (and fairly priced!) goods that come directly from the artisans themselves, including chic home decor, cozy garments and jewelry, as well as books and toys for children.

Attendees were also able to enjoy food from Taste of India with delicious vegetarian appetizers, as well as one of SERRV’s specialties: Women’s Bean tea and my personal favorite, Divine Chocolate samples (I couldn’t stop myself from buying a bar to take home!)

Divine Chocolate samples

Overall, SERRV’s Marketplace: Handwork of India event showcased beautiful stories of perseverance and brought home a powerful message of how we can shop and make a difference all at the same time.

SERRV hopes to continue events like this and is taking a night to celebrate women with their “Ladies Night Out” on Friday, August 26 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The event will include a fashion show and music by Madison artist Stephanie Rearick at their Monroe Street store.

Learn more information about SERRV by visiting their store at 2701 Monroe St. or website serrv.org.

~Caroline

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