Connected and Aligned

Agustina Soly lives 2 days travel from the nearest surfaced road. Her community in the remote highlands of West Sulawesi is beyond the reach of most Indonesian government services. People are very self-reliant here. Agustina is the school teacher and the coordinator for 7 weavers’ cooperatives with a total membership of 56 women. Weaving is an important source of income, and making traditional textiles is a huge source of cultural pride.

Last year, Agustina and six other weavers joined thirty other participants from across Indonesia for a four-day workshop in Bali. Several sessions explored the shared values across our network. We often do this, but it is always worth re-exploring. The common themes were: improving family welfare, strengthening cultural values, increasing cooperation, and enhancing mutual respect. Agustina made an insightful observation. She compared the weavers’ values to those in the mission statements of Threads of Life and the YPBB Foundation, noting that “Our values are not the same, but they are aligned and connected.”

We then explored weavers’ ideas about the values of Threads of Life’s customers, to whom they are ultimately marketing their work. This generated some powerfully unguarded comments. The majority of responses were a variation of, “They buy our work because they feel sorry for us.”

I can imagine where this idea might have come from. Development work is often performed by organizations with a particular focus, looking for communities with matching problems. When the problem is solved, the organization moves on. Communities’ defining relationships with the outside world are then those of being the recipients of help. Perhaps this unintended consequence leaves people feeling that the outside world feels sorry for them. Whatever the reason, it’s a disempowering self-image. In the case of Threads of Life’s customers, I think it’s also largely inaccurate: Our marketing is based on the assumption that our customers’ values are also “aligned and connected” with the weavers’.

The weavers’ textiles, baskets and other expressions eloquently convey their values to our customers. It seems, the act of buying has not been enough on its own to convey our customers’ values and aspirations to the weavers. We could tell the weavers they are wrong, but this would be nowhere near as powerful or convincing as you telling them. Overturning the weavers’ misconceptions could be achieved by some kind of meeting and respectful conversation about shared values between weaver and buyer. Impractical as this sounds, could there be a very simple way of achieving the same end?

Imagine if you could send the weaver a photo portrait of yourself printed with an accompanying 150-word translation of why you bought their work. Imagine each weaver getting one or two such cards per year; each cooperative getting a dozen or more. Everyone’s reasons would be different, but together and over time could build for the weavers an informed image of who their buyers really are, and what they value. The portraits could make this new intellectual understanding into a heartfelt connection. Imagine if this unleashed the potential in the weavers’ shared values: improving family welfare, strengthening cultural values, increasing cooperation, and enhancing mutual respect.

Further imagine that you could chose to have your image and text posted on Threads of Life’s website, so each new image and message could be informed by and dialogue with the previous messages. Might a conversation emerge that helps us refine and express our deepest values too? What power might that unleash within us?

There may be a better way of achieving this than the portrait-and-text idea, but I feel there is a deep reservoir of potential in sharing our values more explicitly. So this post is an invitation, too. If you think the direction of these ideas has merit, or you can see another way to do it, we’d like to hear from you. Please leave a comment on this blog. If this idea has merit, you will hear more about it in the future.