November 12, 2003

Mayaworks: Aiding the Poor

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This is the first in a series on non-profit organizations both at Cornell and in the surrounding Ithaca area.

Jennifer Fabbrini ’06 first heard about Mayaworks, Inc. from a friend at her high school in Evanston, Ill. “Every year she would have a Mayaworks sale at her temple,” Fabbrini said. “She learned that they had tours every year to Guatemala [and she wanted to go] … but she didn’t want to go by herself because she didn’t really know anyone.” So, Fabbrini went with her. Her experiences on the first trip stuck with her, and now Fabbrini is actively promoting Mayaworks through a fundraising sale for the Cornell Rotaract Club.

Mayaworks is a non-profit organization based out of Chicago. It is a fair trade group that helps Mayan women in Guatemala market their handmade crafts to people in the United States. According to Kathleen Morkert, executive director of Mayaworks, the organization started in 1991 when Patricia Krause, a volunteer working in Guatemala, met some Mayan women who liked to weave.

“These women told her that they loved to weave, but they had no market for their weaving … they asked her if she would bring back some placemats to the United States and sell them for them,” Morkert said.

The placemats sold extremely well, and soon Krause had organized a group of women who were interested in helping with her project. In 1996, Mayaworks was incorporated as a non-profit group, and “it’s been going wild ever since,” Morkert said. The small staff, consisting of five paid employees split between Chicago and Guatemala, is supplemented by roughly 145 volunteers who run sales and take on various other jobs.

Currently, the group estimates that there are 400 Mayan artisans, primarily women, involved in Mayworks. But, Morkert pointed out that the economic benefits of working with Mayaworks affects the entire family, not just the artisan individually. So, “when we talk about how many lives the sales are impacting, its at least 2,000, probably more,” she explained.

Fabbrini got a chance to see this impact first hand on her tour. “We went around to smaller villages, and we visited with the women that actually make the products,” Fabbrini recalled. The visitors also saw a school in the small village of Xenotox, where they were greeted by Mayan school children. “We got to see how Mayaworks had impacted that school and the families there,” Fabbrini said, adding that many of the children’s mothers were involved in the Mayaworks program.

There are two main reasons why Mayaworks focuses primarily on women. The first is because of traditional gender roles in Guatemala. The men work in the fields while women tend to stay home with the family. “From what we understand,” Morkert said, “[the husbands] are very supportive to have their wives bring additionally money into the family income.” Another reason for focusing on women though can be found in events that occurred in the 1980s, when the Guatemalan government wiped out thousands of native Mayans.

“A lot of the women that we work with are widows from the violence [in Guatemala],” Morkert explained. “Their husbands were killed or disappeared.” Marketing their weaving and beadwork in the United States helps these women provide for their families.

Morkert could not say what the average income for Mayaworks artisans is because it varies so much from person to person depending on their amount of work. However, in order to be a fair trade producer, Mayaworks must pay a wage that is fair in local context. Morkert did say that all Mayaworks artisans make more than $4 a day, the minimum wage in Guatemala. “That [minimum wage] doesn’t mean that you can live well,” she explained. “That means that you can live.”

According to Pat Lallas ’70, paying a fair wage is only one part of being a fair trade organization. Lallas, who is the manager of Ten Thousand Villages — a fair trade store on the Commons — explained that fair trade organizations must also agree to care for the environment, help improve living standards, preserve native cultures and not employ children.

Many of them, like Mayaworks and Ten Thousand Villages, also pay part of the cost of the merchandise up front. Ten Thousand Villages doesn’t currently sell Mayaworks merchandise, although it does carry other Mayan products from Guatemala. It is also part of the Ithaca Fair Trade Coalition, a group dedicated to promoting fair trade, and trying “to get traditional business people to embrace the practices of fair trade [as well],” Lallas said. This coalition also includes Cornell’s Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR).

Besides helping women design and market products in the U.S., Mayaworks also offers other forms of assistance to the groups it works with. To date, Mayaworks has given out over 100 microloans, small loans that can be used to buy livestock, plants or special materials. “[The loans] are about encouraging women to find other sources of income,” Morkert explained. So far the program has been very successful, as every single loan given out has been repaid with interest.

Mayaworks also offers scholarship programs for Mayan girls. This year, 100 girls received scholarships of roughly $50 each. According to Morkert, the Guatemalan government only pays for school through the sixth grade. These scholarships help families to cover the cost of uniforms, books and transportation to and from school. Mayaworks has also opened a study center in the Village of Comalapa to help students with their studies. The center offers access to computers and a full-time tutor, as well as English classes. In reference to the study center, Fabbrini said, “Mayaworks just allows them a lot of opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

When asked if these new opportunities might affect the traditional Mayan culture, Morkert conceded that it was a possibility. “Our principle is that they get to make choices about their lives. So if kids go to school and they find out about opportunities beyond their community, yeah probably some things will change,” she said. However, Morkert pointed out that in the remote mountain villages, Mayan people are still wearing traditional clothing, speaking in Cakchiquel (a Mayan dialect) and following other traditional practices. “You don’t see much infusion of the 21st century there,” she said.

According to Fabbrini, the Mayan women she saw on her tour seemed to be happy with the program. “Overall, they love Mayaworks,” Fabbrini said. Their obvious enthusiasm for working with Mayaworks is part of what inspired Fabbrini to hold a Mayaworks fundraiser sale for the Cornell Rotaract Club. “I just thought it was a very good organization,” she explained. Last year Mayaworks made over $330,000 from a combination of sales and fundraisers like this across the country. Of that, 65 cents of every dollar went directly to the artisans, and another 10 cents went to supporting programs like the scholarships and loans.

Marcelo Moreira ’06, president of the Cornell Rotaract Club, is looking forward to the upcoming sale, which will benefit both Mayaworks and his organization. “The Rotaract Club’s interest in working with Mayaworks arises from the international focus of Mayawork’s mission,” he explained. “Both organizations share views on creating an understanding of the needs of people in other parts of the world. We hope that through this and other similar projects feelings of solidarity with less fortunate people, both locally and abroad, take root in our members and people around the Cornell community.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts