Monday, January 30, 2012

Rachel O'Neill

As 2011 wound down, I was able to look back at all the ideas I had last year that never materialized into anything real. These go beyond CalistaJones posts that remain unwritten. I am, after all, the girl who cried grad school. (Sigh...someday) I tried to tell a story at The Moth, I tried to submit some essays to various websites, and I tried to upkeep a Tumblr that logged all of my belongings and their importance to me. I'm realizing that trying for Julia means thinking I might try, eventually. 

I did start the Tumblr. It's called Things for Tombs and my thought behind it is to have a record of all the things I own and to rate them on a 1 to 10 scale of importance in my life. 1 being the least valuable, 10 the most. Value based on emotional and nostalgic significance. The name is intended to be a bit morbid since the things we own are the things we leave behind when we die. A big part of why this particular project has been hard for me to get off the ground is because of how huge it is to catalog our belongings. Think about it; Americans own so much shit. I have too many clothes; shoes; trinkets; general stuff; and I don't even use much of it. The work of documenting each nonessential item is of course overwhelming. 
My great grandma Julia's
ring in its original box!

When I review the things I love the most, they are all gifts given to me by the people I love the most. My baby blankie (oldest and number one most prized possession), my great grandmother Julia's engagement ring (MVP), and the Ulu my dad made me by hand. These types things mean more to me because what they symbolize in my life goes beyond their mere function as stuff. Unfortunately, most of the things I own mean nothing to me. I buy things to fill time and create meaning. Last year I bought a hideous sweater on Modcloth just because it was marked down from $109 to $16. Unnecessary and the fugliest thing I have ever purchased. 

Why do I own this???
Recognizing the difference between emotionally significant items and worthless junk, doesn't keep me from wanting more things to fill my already thing-filled life. My desire for stuff seems to overcome any rational understanding of need versus want. I am constantly purchasing new things that come with the hope of filling some type of void I believe exists in my life. Things to make me look beautiful; things to make me feel happy; things to make me feel healthy; smarter; skinnier; more interesting; wealthier; things to make me better. That's what things do right? That's why we need stuff.

In my over indulged ways, the idea of having nothing, owning nothing, is completely lost on me. I have to go all the way back to when I was like 5 to remember a time when I wasn't in control of buying and acquiring things. I expect to be given gifts to the point that I probably only truly appreciate a small percentage of the many presents I receive. This is why the work that Rachel O'Neill is doing affected me so much when I first heard about it. She runs an organization called Little Dresses for Africa which gives handmade dresses from women in America to little girls in villages across the continent. The project isn't so much about clothing children as it is giving them a belonging made for them to own. It is an empowering way of letting them know they are thought of by others. One dress can strengthen a girl's self confidence and self worth because it is a physical manifestation of someone, somewhere in the world thinking of her and creating a belonging just for her. It is a material possession symbolizing the act of love. It is the embodiment of a true gift. 

For the past four years now, I have hosted a holiday party called "The Little Women Brunch". I mostly do it for myself since I love it so much but I think everyone has a pretty good time. I invite all my girlfriends over and they bring some type of brunchy food and we drink mimosas, lay around my apt, and, of course, watch "Little Women". (the 1994 version, obvs) I've seen the movie a million times but this year a particular scene got me thinking more about something I actively refuse to think about: where our things come from. 

Meg in her "plain" dress.

Meg March, as the oldest sister, gets to go to an ultra fancy ball. Before the party, she dresses with some of the weathiest girls in town. They are all wearing beautiful silk gowns and the latest fashions. Meg is in a simple day dress the other women look at pitifully. The March family are transcendentalists who believe in the good of people as individuals and working to better the community as a nobler aspiration than retaining wealth. They are well informed on matters of social justice and caring for those who are less fortunate. This is also during The Civil War, and as northerners they hold the belief, which is assumed by most to be the belief of all above the Mason-Dixon Line, that slavery in any capacity is morally reprehensible and has no place in a progressive America. The well educated Meg tells the other women child labor is used to manufacture the silk garments they are wearing and the factories conditions are detrimental to the health of the impoverished workers. The ladies acknowledge what she says, however, brush off the anecdote as a simple reminder to remember the poor. They continue to dress and convince Meg herself to amp up her look with the socially regressive clothing they choose to wear.

Meg in her silk gown.
While she did receive plenty of attention from male suitors who could have dressed her in silks for the rest of her life, Meg felt terrible and couldn't shake the guilt she felt by abandoning her principles. She goes on to marry a man of modest means, together rejecting the material world so embraced by their peers. 

Even though I've seen Little Women millions of times, this story line really affected me this year. As I think about the things I've accumulated, it's hard to justify their lasting value based on the cost of their production. Meg, thinking of the children working in the factories first, before her vanity and the judgement of the other women is a really powerful portrayal of compassion. Unfortunately, I more often actively ignore or justify my need for stuff first and completely reject the truth about where it comes from. 

VS panties made with slave-farmed cotton
Before Christmas last year, I came across an article about Victoria's Secret and how the organic cotton they use in their garments is farmed. Basically, they rely on the slave labor of 12 and 13 year old children in West Africa. And the use of the term "slave labor" is not hyperbole as it truly is slavery in the most barbaric form. The article follows a girl named Clarisse (13) who labors everyday as the less expensive replacement for an ox and plow on the Burkina Faso organic cotton farm, which is FAIR TRADE certified.  She is beaten with a tree branch by the farmer who oversees her work whenever she is moving too slow. The fruits of her labor are shipped to Sri Lanka (another nation that uses children in the garment industry) and sewn into trendy panties, where they end up sold on Michigan Avenue for $8.50 with tags that read: 
"Pesticide-free, 100% rain-fed cotton. Good for women. Good for the children that depend on them." (VS has now removed "good for children")
Assembly line at Foxconn, the factory
that produces Apple products
Our clothing is not the only product with a cheap price tag and a hidden high cost. Remember how Steve Jobs died a saintly genius who bettered the human condition? This American Life just did a show based on Mike Daisey's investigative storytelling about the factories that produce Apple's iphones and ipads.* He interviews people who work 12+ hour days, use nerve damaging chemicals that aid in cleaning the screens, and have never seen one of the devices they make after it is completed and powered on. Foxconn, a massive compound in Shenzhen, China that is walled and employs armed guards, has been accused of employing children and has a high suicide rate among its employees. There is a lot of evidence that Jobs and Apple, like many other corporations, were well aware of the way its products are produced but looked the other way to keep costs low. 

We all know about these types of injustices. These stories are nothing new. However, on a daily basis we all ignore the truth and happily live in our material world. Every Christmas I am given, and accept, Victoria's Secret underwear and this winter I purchased Gap finger-less gloves at 40% off so I can maintain my iphone addiction no matter how cold it gets. I know about the reality of where these items come from but I justify my ownership of them because they are "needed" in my life. My "needs" overcome any sense of morality I may have to my responsibility toward the billions of other people living on this Earth.

I have heard the argument time and time again that sweat shops are necessary in developing communities because they provide income for people who have no other options. It is said this will lead to future generations having a better life. While there may be some credence to this notion, it isn't acceptable even when compared to the non-compensated labor used by multi-million dollar corporations.  We have to make a change.

Garment workers protesting after the Triangle fire.
If the current wave of feminism is going to focus on attacking the kyriarchy, we have to accept our complacency in the face of such great injustice. Women in America have great power in our capitalist system as far as purchasing is concerned. We need to be better in educating ourselves before we buy things. We have had successes in the past in outlawing child labor and reforming workers rights in our own country. Just over 100 years ago, women came together to demand safe working environments after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The poorer women in the factories were aided in their protests by socialites who believed they should be paid a living wage and properly protected by their employers, even if that meant paying a higher price for goods. Around the world, present-day tragedies are happening all the time in places that produce the cheap clothing, accessories, and electronics we use and rely on. We need to require our products to come from factories with conditions equal to our own. Until that day, we can't claim any type of victory over oppression and certainly cannot pride ourselves in living in a civil and just society. Our entire way of life rests on the backs of people we abuse on a daily basis.

It will be hard to make these changes because our addiction to stuff is so deep. If I die tomorrow, I will leave behind a lot of junk with minimal lasting value; a fact that makes me sick to my stomach.  Yet I still can't seem to keep myself from feeling the constant "need" for more stuff. This year, I will be making it a priority to evaluate my true needs and refrain from giving into frivolous wants. We'll see how it goes... 

The irony of Rachel's mission is not lost on me: American women making garments for girls in third world communities. While her focus isn't on ending oppression, it is important work because she is forcing us to think about people who live someplace else while letting those girls know they are considered and valued. Thought and consideration are simple but powerful agents of change. If we all think about and consider the things we own, the stuff in our lives, along with the people who are necessary for their production, we will begin to redefine our value system. Hopefully, changing that will help to actively create a world more focused on the betterment of all lives instead of the acquisition of more things. 

Girls in their new dresses from Rachel's organization

*Mike Daisey's TAL episode has been officially retracted. I have left the reference to the original false story in this post because I open "Daisy Bates" with an explanation of the controversy. His deception is unfortunate, but it did aid in writing this entry and I didn't feel that it would be accurate to remove it entirely since I was influenced by his story.