Remarks at the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise "Handmade is Human" Forum

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
The Aspen Institute
Washington, DC
December 2, 2016

As prepared

I have a confession to make. When I first started this job, I was not the biggest champion of the U.S. government focusing on the artisan sector, because I was concerned that the sector was viewed as arts and crafts. But fortunately, I saw the error of my way when I started working with the Alliance. And to those who know Peggy and the other key players, this is no surprise. The Alliance has some of the most committed, passionate, and persuasive people dedicated to its mission. And as someone whose time in the Department is almost finished, I find comfort in knowing this Alliance is in good hands. So my thanks to Peggy and the Aspen Institute for their tremendous work on this issue.

After traveling to dozens of countries, where I often met artisans at U.S. embassies and in local markets, I am a complete convert to the power of the artisan sector. Because I have seen time and again the impact that it has on livelihoods and communities. Let me give you an example. In the capital of Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River, there’s a white building surrounded by gardens and palm trees. And it is here that women with disabilities gather every day to make beautiful handicrafts. I had the chance to visit the center last year, where I bought a bowl woven out of recycled newspapers.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region. And for women with disabilities, economic opportunities can be even harder to come by. Between their gender and their disability, they often carry a double burden. But this center helps make that burden easier to carry by giving women the opportunity to create something beautiful and, more importantly, earn an income for themselves and their families. The bowl I brought home from Laos now sits in my office. Every time I look at it, it’s a reminder of how this sector can and does transform the lives of women and their families around the world.

That’s why we’re here today. Because we know that the products that come out of the artisan sector tell the stories of human history, tradition, and culture. We know that the people who work in the artisan sector have talented hands and passionate hearts that are worth the investment. And we know that the impact of this sector can create jobs, lift up economies, and bind communities together in the name of peace. No other industry has the kind of products, people, and impact that we see every day in the artisan sector.

So from a foreign policy perspective, this is an opportunity for the United States to promote inclusive growth, and do it in a way that strengthens communities and preserves tradition and heritage. This is particularly important in my job, because of the huge number of women who are artisan business owners and suppliers. This summer, I visited the Cusco region in Peru, which is known for its beautiful traditional Incan textiles. In the 90s, a group of women came together and formed the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco to preserve the knowledge of traditional weaving techniques. Today the center is a member of the Alliance, and so I was fortunate to be able to visit one of their locations. I was struck by two things. First, only women in these communities learn to weave. So the preservation of these techniques is literally in the hands of Peruvian women. And second, each city or town in the region has its own weaving patterns. If you visit the different locations of the center, you’ll find designs that are unique to each place. The women at the center are keeping this heritage alive. And they do it while providing fair-trade opportunities for other women working to support their families.

That’s what the Alliance is doing on an international scale. And thanks in large part to our efforts, I am far from the only person who has a new perspective on artisans. Last year, the State Department hosted the Alliance’s first-ever global forum on the artisan sector, where we launched a global campaign that has reached millions of people with a simple message: choose artisan. These and other efforts have changed the way the world views artisans. Instead of vulnerable women doing arts and crafts, they are seen—rightfully, I might add—as entrepreneurs, business leaders, and artists. And they make a tremendous impact on communities and economies around the world.

But the Alliance has done more than simply change people’s perspectives. It also brings together governments, companies, and NGOs working to support artisans in building and expanding their businesses. As the founding member of the Alliance, the State Department is deeply committed to this effort. I’d like to highlight a few examples of the impact we’ve had in our work to support artisans. In Timor-Leste, artisan entrepreneurs are positioning themselves to access international markets with the help of networking, mentorship, and business training with support from the Department. In Pakistan, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea, women now have access to business centers supported by the Department. These centers provide an entire suite of business support services for artisan entrepreneurs.

And finally, we have partnered with Aspen to create the Artisan Innovation Workshop. This tool encourages artisans to bring together stakeholders and say, look, here’s the process we have for sourcing, creating products, and bringing them to market. Here are the barriers we face in that process. Let’s talk about how we can fix it. My team has tested this tool in Rwanda, the Philippines, and the U.S. I know some of you were a part of those pilots. So I want to take this opportunity to say thank you for helping us design and refine a tool that will work for your businesses. We knew it would be a success when we started to see the lightbulb moments people had during the pilots. By bringing together stakeholders from across the value chain, this model creates the kind of collaboration and creativity that we need to find real, tangible solutions for local artisan businesses.

But this tool will also help us make change on a broader level too. We’ve designed the workshop so that as these conversations happen, we’ll be able to collect data, identify gaps and trends, and then respond to them. This is critical, because so much artisan activity takes place in the informal economy, and we don’t have enough data on the sector. But through this tool, we’ll start to see some of the bigger trends, which will allow the U.S. government, along with the Alliance, to bring our full weight to bear in finding solutions. So we hope everyone in the Alliance will use this tool, whether you are a U.S. diplomat in Morocco, an NGO worker supporting artisans in India, or a buyer in a major multinational company right here in the U.S.

Earlier this year, I met a Mapuche woman from Chile named Ana. She wore a silver necklace she had made that had several chains linked together. Each chain represented the many steps that a woman must climb in her life. In addition to being an artisan herself, Ana organizes women weavers to sell their goods collectively. She also teaches others about her culture and the Mapuche language. I told her, you are a business person, a teacher, and a role model all wrapped up in one. And her only reply was, well someone has to do it. That’s what this Alliance is all about. We have seen the potential of this sector. We have seen the many barriers that stand in the way. But instead of walking away, we’ve come together to say, well someone has to do it. And it might as well be us.

So thank you for stepping forward to be a part of the Alliance. It has been my great privilege to be a part of this work these past three years—from the stories we’ve lifted up, to the tools we’ve created, to the vision we’ve set for the future. I look forward to seeing that impact continue long after I’m gone, because I know that this is a group of people who will say, well someone has to do it.

Thank you.