Spread across Bolivia, 2,000 artisans knit and weave with alpaca wool, working with leather and wood to create products for an American market. Their link to the U.S. runs straight through Oklahoma.
In 2005, Cara Barnes, of Oklahoma City, quit her full-time job in the marketing world to concentrate on volunteering.
"I wanted to use my time to help other people," Barnes said. "I have a philosophy that I don't want to have regrets. I don't want to squander opportunities."
Particularly, she wanted to use the skills she had employed in the professional field to help women set up a sustainable income. She began talking about her goal with friends and eventually connected to Margaret Enis Spears, a fellow Oklahoman who was stationed in Bolivia with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Spears graduated from Casady School in Oklahoma City before heading to Boston College to study economics and romance languages. She did her graduate degree in international development at Georgetown University. Working for USAID, Spears was based in Bolivia's capital of La Paz as the director of the Economic Opportunities Office from 2003 to 2007.
Within the office, Spears worked on programs to help create small businesses and set up microfinancing. One of these programs, Aid to Artisans, worked directly with the artisans of Bolivia.
The nonprofit Aid to Artisans, Spears said, helped artisans develop new designs, improve quality and reach new markets.
"This successful project generated significant new sales during that time, and the artisans' new skills in business management, design and production prepared them well for continued future success."
It was as the Aid to Artisans program was ending that Spears connected with Barnes for the first time. She introduced Barnes to a new project that was taking the place of Aid to Artisans: ProArtesania Bolivia, run by local businessman Javier Guardia.
"Her marketing experience made her ideally positioned to take the project to the next level," Spears said. "She reached out to ProArtesania in early 2007 to provide much-needed continuity with clients in the U.S. market. She volunteered her time and resources to help them improve designs, participate in international fairs, establish sales linkages and successfully export.
"Thanks to her efforts," she said, "the artisan businesses started during the initial project are now thriving as they continue to build export experience and focus on market demand."
For Barnes, the project in Bolivia was exactly what she was looking for.
"They had all this motivation, all these designs; they just needed an American distributor," she said.
DESIGN AND COLOR PALETTE
With Guardia in Bolivia, Barnes works the American end, connecting with buyers and helping the artisans develop their product for the U.S. market. Since 2007, she has visited Bolivia three times. She meets with the artisans and conducts workshops on doing business in the U.S.: working on American deadlines, creating consistency, making a profit. She also works with the artisans to talk about what sells well in terms of design and color palette.
Most of all, however, she said it's all about collaboration. She always needs to take into account what skills the artisans have and what raw materials they have access to. To that end, she and Guardia have created a library of sorts of tools needed for the various trades. The artisans can check the tools out and then turn them back in when they're done for another person to use.
ProArtesania Bolivia works with 2,000 artisans based in cooperatives across Bolivia, the majority of them indigenous women who have little other source of income in this poorest of South American countries.
Barnes visited one of the capital city's poorest areas to meet with artisans during a 2007 visit. The La Paz slum, called El Alto, is home to many of Bolivia's indigenous people.
"Javier took us to the homes of all these artisans," she said. "It was such a powerful experience. The people have these great skills, but nowhere to sell it."
Spears has witnessed firsthand the powerful change finding a market for artisans can create.
"The artisans are able to work from home, and draw upon their local culture and traditions to create beautiful designs," she said. "Selling to high-value markets that appreciate quality, unique designs and handcrafting ensures that the women receive fair compensation for their work, which allows them to feed their families and send their children to school. Artisans have shown me the improvements to their homes "? replacing dirt floors with tile or adding a bathroom "? paid for by exporting artisan products."
But, Spears said, it is about more than financial benefits.
"This type of trade builds bridges between cultures: American consumers learn about the cultural tradition of the artisans, and the artisans learn about American culture and styles as they develop new product lines and designs. They take great pride in knowing that their handcrafted products are worn or displayed in their homes by women like them in the United States."
Spears, who is now based in neighboring Columbia, works with similar artisan groups.
Back in Oklahoma, Barnes connects ProArtesania Bolivia with wholesalers. She has attended both the New York and the San Francisco International Gift Fairs, where big and small stores are looking to buy. Through that, she has started working with Melange, a Fair Trade company that has contracted with ProArtesania to produce decor products.
She also conducts sales in Oklahoma City and shows the group's wares at local markets throughout the year. The revenue from the sales goes toward working on product designs, training and tools for the artisans and even collaborating with a designer who specializes in working with artisans.
Recently, a local energy company purchased 600 ornaments to give to their employees for the holidays. Barnes worked with the company to donate the funds raised from the sale to benefit a Bolivian child care center where many of the ProArtesania artisans work.
For her, it is that type of collaboration that excites her most, to help the men and women of ProArtesania be given the opportunity to thrive.
"Every decision I make," she said, "I want it to be sustainable."
"?Jenny Coon Peterson