Artisan in Focus: Sasa Designs by the Deaf
Plume Collection’s mission is simple: responsible fashion. The fashion part is easy. We work with an incredible array of artisans from around the world, each of whom provides an individual sense of aesthetic and craftsmanship to our collection. The responsible part is more complicated. We source only from vendors who are committed to providing living wages for their workers and who value the artisan more than a profit. Which isn’t always easy. Many of these organizations are in rural communities where infrastructure is scarce. The artisans, mostly women, are often disenfranchised with limited employment opportunities. The clothing and jewelry you see on our website is crafted in spite of these conditions. It’s a triumph.
Recognizing this, we are excited to introduce the Artisan In Focus series on our blog. Each entry will highlight a different organization, where the people behind the craft will tell their own stories, in their own words.
For the first installment, we’re honored to introduce you to Kenya's Sasa Designs by the Deaf.
Sasa Designs by the Deaf was founded in late 2011 to provide work for deaf women in Kenya. Just a few years later, Sasa has trained and employs 14 artisans who earn a living wage crafting beautiful necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Today, Sasa works with vendors and other organizations in six countries, but they aren’t finished. We spoke with Director of Global Enterprise Megan McDonald to learn more about the organization and its plans for the future.
Plume Collection: What is life like for deaf women in Kenya?
Megan McDonald: Kenya, like many countries with a disproportionate amount of people living in poverty, has a large Deaf population. Most people lose their hearing in early childhood as a direct result of poor access or inability to afford medical care, or a lack of immunizations. For those born Deaf, they are often treated as broken or a burden on families … They are treated as stupid in school and sometimes it's years before someone realizes their problems stem from an inability to hear -- nothing more. Unlocking the potential of a Deaf child can happen if they are lucky enough to go to Deaf school -- but many carry stigma throughout their lives.
PC: If not making jewelry, what might the artisans at Sasa Designs do?
MM: A number of our artisans had never worked formally. Those that had had mostly been, or would be, "house help" -- a term that refers to a woman who does any combination of cooking, cleaning and caring for kids. House help make up the base of the Kenyan economy, but it is incredibly low paying. Our artisans make five-times as much as a beginning house girl. One of our artisans had found work at one point as a seamstress, but it was at an overnight factory and the work was grueling. All others would likely be at home "up country," depending on family.
I honestly cannot express the joy of seeing an artisan like Susan, two years after coming to Sasa, welcoming us to her home and describing in her own way how different she was when she joined the team. Everything about her reflects her newfound sense of value: how she signs (talks), how she dresses, and her general spirit. She is also able to afford a much safer and securer room near our workshop than the original hut she lived in. And she now sends money to her extended family. What a transformation for a woman who was considered a burden now to be in a role of provider to her parents and siblings!
PC: Sasa Designs has grown quickly since its inception. What’s next?
MM: We have doubled every year! We produce between 1,000 and 2,000 pieces a month and are working to double this capacity in the next year.
In 2015 we want to establish a five-year strategic plan that includes building our own workshop, hiring more Deaf artisans (including some men -- we currently only work with women) and increasing the skill set of our artisans so we can create a broader product range. Our dream in three-to-five years is to set up Sasa in three additional countries where Deaf people face employment challenges, and can help us create new product lines to keep them employed long term. We'd love to build more of a lifestyle brand to support livelihoods of Deaf people around the world.
PC: Ethical fashion creates a bit of a dichotomy. One doesn’t necessarily inform the other, and sometimes, when it comes to the world’s most popular brands, it seems as if aesthetic trumps the treatment of the people making the products. Do you think ethical fashion is a sustainable dichotomy?
MM: I am actually very thankful for this dichotomy. I believe deeply in the potential of small-scale producers to grow and engage more and more with the global economy. Educating artisans about what shoppers truly want is the only way this can happen. Training artisans to understand global production standards, providing training and capacity building support, and giving a bit of patience on lead times (“handmade” takes time, after all) ensures that we can develop lasting relationships and expand beyond a quaint cottage industry and into the global marketplace.
You can learn more about Sasa, its mission and the women who make it special at www.sasadesignsbythedeaf.com. If you’re more in the mood for some shopping, check out Plume’s collection of Sasa Designs jewelry during our Spring Sale, available April 10th.