These are the days…

I am often asked what a typical is like at Sari Bari. Truthfully, there are no typical days. There is always some surprise, a few hundred interruptions to a normal day. Maybe crazy mixed up, a little happy, a little sad, a little hard, a little crappy, a little brokenness and frustration, a little dancing, a little baby holding and a little laugher IS a typical day.

Most of the women spend the day sewing, ironing, chatting and making the wheels of Sari Bari turn. The listen to each other, pray for each other, give each other a little sh?t and share a meal and tea together.

My day is a roller coaster of problem solving, financial concerns, heart issues, conflict mediation, sweating for no reason imparticular, advising, cleaning up, maybe a little creative energy toward storytelling, cheerleading and designing stuff. I love most days and most days are hard all out push through to the end.

Today was a bundle of all those things. I dropped off sprite, meds and crackers for the design intern who was sick as I made my way for a weekly checkin meeting with Upendra. Of course, it was interrupted and so I got down the business of cranking out some drawings of new products for a big customer who has something very specific in mind. We prayed and zoom the day began with new trainees checking on when the new building will open so they can start their freedom journey. A conversation on how to best care for one of the women’s husband who was discharged for the hospital with less than two weeks to live and the complications that I won’t name that come with this particular situation. Then then was an hour for cutting the pattern and working with one of the women to sew a sample. And then tea…a few minutes for friendly banter and the off to a meeting to further discuss our response and resources towarding helping the woman’s husband who needs end of life care and a place to receive that care. Then back to the office, a minor production crises and a major discussion over issues with the final parts of the new building construction. That was fun. And off to the Kalighat office, picking up food, a snack really that ended up being my lunch. Landing at kalighat, whoa, hello production crisises with a sprinkling of conflict and hurt feelings. Okay time, to make sure everyone feels loved and valued and remind everyone that we are on the same team. Followed by a teaching and hopefully empowering moment with an assistant manager who caught a problem with something being done at another unit….she made the call to the other unit. Problem solved. And there was the hour long mediation with two mangers who are having a hard time seeing the best about one another. It ended well and took a lot of time to get there. And then came the happy dance, the moment where I act foolish to bring up moral, got the ladies to throw their arms in the air and chant happy while I tried engage them in silly cheerleading moves, think Pharrell Williams. Everybody laughed, moral went up, we went back to work. Talked to some of the ladies about their new gold earrings, Modi got elected, the price of gold went down, they invested ;). Then emails and a little more problem solving and then the end. The walk home, the diet coke and the quiet of the tiny veranda space to let day drain away. A mini prayer of examine and a moment consider all the ways God worked in the day, before and behind. Just a typical day I guess.

Prevention: We all need to get in this fight

Truly the issue of human trafficking is a complex one. It’s probably largely an issue of economics. Desperate people who are willing to go anywhere to gain food and an income for their families. Desperate parents willing to send their daughters to work in someone’s home when they are but 10 or 11 figuring at least their daughter will get some food in the home of a weathy family. Or willing to marry them off to a strange boy who doesn’t ask a dowry with the grim hope that he is actually decent fella (though they rarely are even close to decent). Desperation clouds judgement, hunger trumps morality, the risk is worth the possible gain. Sadly the risk often does not pay off and fathers end up in forced labor situations and mothers picking apart stones for pennies, and boys of 7 or 8 working in leather factories chained to tables or young girls end up on the doorsteps and then the confines of brothels losing both their youth, their innocence and what little value their gender afforded them in the first place.

So again I posit that economics are a large part of human trafficking. Supply and demand at work, demand for work and demand for cheap labor, a supply of laborers is a needed to make the world run, a middle man with a heart full of greed sees an opportunity to dupe vulnerable people and sources the demand for cheap material goods in western countries with a supply of men, women and children to be both physically, sexually and financially exploited. Where are the jobs with fair wages? For men in India at least there is a greater chance for some education, the learning of some trade that will support a family. Still wages may not even equal a dollar a day for all the family members that these wages must support. (Think about this, the $100 we spend on an outfit at a major retailer is the equivalent that the worker got for 45 hours a week as a months wages–seems out of balance right?) But when it comes to women and girls, their gender makes them even more vulnerable less likely to be able to get job besides washing floors and cooking in someone home for a pittance.

So the next issue is gender. Being a girl just might be the hardest thing the world at least as a starting point in life in certain places, if not all places. Please forgive me, as I am about to give self righteousness a beating. In America we have Barbie’s and Miley’s showing the world that women have no dignity and value outside of our physical appearance and sexuality. We both men and women of the west submit to the objectification culture and are lured with pornagrpahy, both male and female objectification in advertising and fashion mags(the porn of the teenage girl and the adult woman). The female gender is commodified and sold in neat packages like American Apparel. We have purity rings and father daughter dances too which just feed the idea that men must protect women/ daughters as property rather than rather empowered self sufficient powerhouses of strength, dignity, intelligence and beauty. Hey to be clear I’m not knocking father daughter relationships or even possible valuable and unique events that they can share in together. I’ve got a great dad who both called me a princess and who told me I was smart and capable and I could do anything I wanted.  And I have parents who taught me sexuality is a gift, not a power tool and certainly not the only thing that defines me as a person. This is an issue to of being whole people, not just body parts, not just beauty and flat bellies but also brains and emotions and creative energy.

On the other side of the planet we find it easy to target the bad guys, those men who visit and traffick the girls in India, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. Those cultures that are backward and don’t value women and girls, they are the bad ones. But really it’s just the same as western cultures, the systematic objectification and devaluing of the female gender just looks a little less candy coated. In Asia it’s called slavery and trafficking, the exploitation of girls and women, in America is called advertising and self expression. Same same but different.

And IT IS different in praxis. The actually enslavement of another for sexual exploitation is indeed a far worse offense in the physicality of it. Far worse because choice is taken away, dreams stolen, lives ruined. It is serialized rape and the destruction of the personhood and dignity of human being, a boy, a son, a girl, a women, a sister, a self. It is a heinous crime.

And I might also say that we are willing slaves to the de-personification of the female gender in the west. Hello,ladies, yes we love to hate ourselves, our bodies, our bellies and our breasts, our wrinkles and our grays , we willing have submitted to our own objectification on some level. We have been trained to do it and it’s an ugly habit that needs a butt kicking. I know I’m guilty, it has been a lifelong process to dig myself out of this hole, and I’m still digging. And gentle reminder to the gentlemen out there #realmendontbuysex and #realmendontseewomenasobjects and I’m so sorry that advertisers sell a women’s body’s to you when they are selling a car and sell your manhood to you via pretty girl offering you a Budweiser. Really I am sorry. The question must be asked are we all not conspirators and collaborators in the crisises of the objectification and subjugation of women on one level or another? Aren’t both women and men contributing to the historical and ongoing crisis of gender inequality and in both action and word, subconsciously and consciously. Until we confront the objectification and valuing issues in our own hearts, how will things change, how can we demand change of others in this area and not expect to do the same within ourselves. It’s that log splinter issue.

So back on topic, prevention of human trafficking as both and economic and gender issue (by the way, I am only naming two of innumerable root issues in relation to social and systemic evils that contribute to human trafficking) can be addressed by creating economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in vulnerable places. We at Sari Bari were tired of seeing new girls coming into the red light area every week. Tired of of fresh faces becoming hard, and empty. Enough was enough, restoration for women exiting the sex trade was and is important but the flip side is stopping the exploitation and mass trade in women for sexual purposes in the first place. So thankfully we 4 years ago this week we opened a manufacturing unit 100% devoted to the cause of prevention of trafficking. And now 4 years later we are marking the anniversary our first Sari Bari prevention unit ( we hope there will be more) focused on women 17-25 who are vulnerable to trafficking and mothers 25-35 with daughters who are vulnerable and whom the mothers agree to keep in school with our education assistance program. More than 50 have come through the doors, 32 working still and none of them have ended up in the trade. Some have come and saved up money and gotten married, some have moved to other jobs, some have left and come back when finances strained. A safe place has been established, vulnerability has been lessened, just a scratch on the surface of the problem, or a just a sandbag in the stemming of the tide but maybe the whole world to the 32 women who can save for their marriages, feed their kids and their parents right here in Their own village.

My hope is that we can continue to grow the area of preventing further exploitation of all human persons and in particular the female gender through employment and I also hope that both the women and the men who read this will consider in their own hearts how to both prevent and heal the wounds of the exploitation and objectification of women and girls within our home cultures.



This safe place

I ache when she comes to work like this, bruised and swollen.  We all know what happened last night, she bears the remnants of the beating for some unknown, unjustified reason.   There is no reason in it.  Just another broken man, beating his broken wife, my dear friend, again.

Somehow, she finds the will to come to work.   She almost never misses, sick as anything, she will come to “be” here.  We dreamed of creating a safe place. It is…not perfect but certainly safe.   So many women, find it a safe place, a home of sorts, a place of welcome, respect and dignity, so much so that I have heard it often said, “if we were open on Sunday, I would come here”.  For this, we are thankful. And we are broken, that home for so many of the women of Sari Bari is still not a safe place.

So, my friend, our sister, she makes her way to work beaten or sick or sad, she steps toward safety, toward love, toward community.   She makes her way toward a safe place, our shared home and workplace to find welcome and comfort; a place where her wounds both physical and emotional are tended.  She is a unique gift to our community. She loves with a strength that I find difficult to comprehend, a deep well that springs with mothering care, forgiveness and compassion.  She is undoubtedly one of my hero’s, a woman I follow after, want to be like, to be able press forward,  even in pain, and still love with abundance.

I don’t want to her to stay with her husband, I desperately want her to leave, for her know her own value, her own strength, to be able to see herself, as I do, as we do, who sit around her as she stitches the finishing touches on most every blanket and scarf that comes through for final quality control.  She is our finishing artist, our faithful friend who feeds us, and mothers us and holds us as we hold her.

Until all places are safe, we press on…


The Downhill

Yesterday marked the 5th significant loss to our community this year. We have lost 1 woman to a long term illness and one woman yesterday to a sudden onset of dengue fever that was complicated by other health problems, she was 46, at work one day and we were at her funeral the next. We also lost the husband of one of women to illness and 2 significant staff members returned to the USA (one who had been apart of the community in one way or another for the better part of 8 years.). These losses make our year and how we have been able to live it, not so easy. Being present in the moment is a struggle as I subconsciously struggle with who will leave next, who will we lose to sickness, what is the next crisis we will face. We as a community generally bear up well under the losses, we have learned to be all stars in a crisis because the fact of the matter is we faced too too many.

I have begun to think of these times of crisis and loss as the uphill walk. When I was walking the Camino (Camino De Santiago, the uphills were hard and took a significant effort. They were an exercise in will especially the first day with a 5000 foot climb over about 22 miles. Yet I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Taking a break when I needed it. By the end the uphills became my favorite part.  I loved the conquering, the exhilaration of my body being able to do what it had struggled too do only weeks earlier. The uphill is conquerable, the crisis, you just push through and you can to become a master of it.

The downhills were a big surprise to me. I though they would be the easy part. Turns out that’s not true, the downhill, means a slow down and control of your body in different ways, a strategy for how to protect your knees, mastering the zig zagging gallop or whatever might work best for body to take the stress off. The downhill is hard, I might even describe it as the most difficult part…because of the conflict of my brain telling me to stay controlled and use of the strategies to minimize the pain and my body crying out in pain to stop and heart urging me forward, a belief in the the vague promise that the pain ends eventually. Truly, the downhill puts stress on places that you don’t feel unless you are walking downhill.

I think post crisis or loss is the like the downhill, it is surprisingly hard, maybe even harder than the actual moment of crisis or loss. It’s the postscript that causes the most pain. The post stressors of the crisis seem to have a lag in effect, that is much more difficult to deal with than the actual crisis. How do I pick up the pieces, where do I go from here, where do I or don’t I see God in all of it. The downhill, hurts. I mean it really hurts. As  I have now almost spent as much time off the Camnio as I did on it, I find myself in the middle of another type of downhill. The post Camino downhill of where am I now, who am I now, what do I want now and where in the world is God now? And beyond that in yet again another downhill walk with the sudden loss of a friend yesterday. I am not here alone, there’s a whole community of folks walking the Downhill of this loss with me. Come to think of it, the downhills were easiest on the Camnio when I was walking with someone, —you know who you are—, somehow the knee pain seemed less and time went faster.

All that said, the downhill still sucks and hurts worse than all the rest. And it is always true that for every uphill there is a down hill and a season in the plains. I just wish there was a guidebook so I could better prepare for what was coming.

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our friend Gita. A woman with a ready laugh and the ability to laugh at herself whose presence will be deeply missed by all the women at our Sonagacchi office, and the people in her home in the red light area, and most deeply by the 15 women who sat with her upstairs, who knew her stories and and her hurts and she knew theirs.

So here I go again walking the downhill again in more ways than one. Can I say again the downhill sucks and it is better when your not alone. Can I get an amen?

The Art of it


A friend was describing her sister’s love relationship with math.  As she described it, I was like math for this woman is Art, an organic creative process. Addictive and delightful creative expression!

This conversation was reminder of how I see my life aka my job.  It is always a creation in process.  Sari Bari for me has always been a creative process.  It is a business and I run a business as an artist (no smart remarks).  What that means for me is that every spreadsheet can be David and every new system or process is for me an organic creative endeavor. I love it.  I love it because for me it is art, an artistic expression.  I love sitting in the middle of 1000 sari’s mixing and matching, dreaming of what they could be become.  I love designing products a just little bit more than creating a spreadsheet but I am pretty darn excited about a spreadsheet that makes freedom a little more tangible and hope a little easier to execute.

For me it is all Art. It is all looking at a gigantic peace of stone and seeing within it something impossibly beautiful. It is staring at that stone for a year, just looking for the right place to begin. And then doing it again and again with a new piece of stone, as each new phase of life of Sari Bari begins.  And this is never ever done alone.  Each stone, masterpiece, has been shaped progressively, uniquely and creatively by the women and the staff who have also invested their lives and their creative beings into the life and community of Sari Bari.  Each part of every impossibly beautiful masterpiece bears the markers of the various artists who have made their impression upon it. Truly an impossibly beautiful thing.

Is your work Art?  Do you call yourself an Artist (YOU ARE)? What inspires your creative soul?

Sec. Clinton remembers Sari Bari

Sec. Clinton remembers meeting some of the folks at Sari Bari in the TIP report:

When I met with the people who were working with victims in Kolkata, I met several young women from the United States who had been inspired by reading about and watching and going online and learning about what was happening in the efforts to rescue and protect victims. And they were there in Kolkata, working with organizations, NGOs, and the faith community, to do their part. So this is a moment for people to ask themselves not just what government can do to end modern slavery, but what can I do, what can we do together.

Death is only fertilizer

Two of the funniest women we know! Celebrating Life and showing us how!

In Kolkata, it seems that there are an endless series of deaths.  Death to self, being one of the most regular and painful aspects of life here.  And then there are the departures of long terms friends and short-term friends and to the sense of loss that these comings and goings create.  There are the physical deaths, losing dear friends to murder, HIV and addiction.  The fragility of life crushed so easily in the grubby palms of a broken place among broken people.   The death overwhelms at times.  The losses feel like they might be too much to bear. One on top of the other, everyday there is some story of loss.  A child has run away, a friend is left by her husband, another friend is being beaten, another is pulled from our embrace by addiction, my own personal failures and brokenness exhibited harming another, life in community sometimes causing us all pain, these daily losses complied feel a little like being buried alive, struggling for air.  They are a tomb of sorts.   A burial site that we live in feeling as if we have no choice but to sit in the darkness and let the pain roll over us.

And as we sit and mourn and rail against God with angry tears there comes a crack, a single steam of light, another type of story that disperses the darkness of the grave we live in.   A story of freedom, of 18 year girls meeting a Sari Bari woman on the train and instead of being trafficked she get a real job, a path that she did not expect.   A divine moment of grace, a hug, sometimes simply walking through the door into the embraces of friends, a kindness, an easy visit to a government office, the truth instead of a lie, silence instead of violence.  The light comes in and everything changes.  We see the losses amidst in the gifts, existing together and see how they make a strange kind of nonsense.  Maybe just enough light so that long dormant seeds begin to sprout. The tomb becomes the womb.

The pain of losses 10 years in is a little different than it was in the first two years.  Walking the train platforms, bringing in God’s beloved who were left to die in the streets and train platforms was devastating.  There was not much hope in it. Just obedient acts of service, hands and feet, doing what hands and feet were meant to do.  The losses were losses to be sure.  Seeing what humans are capable of doing to one another is profoundly breaking.  We brought in many many people who died in the Taxi on the way to the MC home.  I brought in a young woman who had been raped, her bruises bringing tears to both our eyes as I washed away the blood and dirt.   Her face still seared on my brain. We saw thousands and thousands of people walk by as someone died on a train platform.  This was beginning of understanding the tomb.  But we did not know many names or stories in this season, we were hands and feet and that was enough.

Ten years later, I know names and stories and the deaths are equally disturbing and far more painful.  When Rina died, I lost my friend.  I lost a part of myself, a part that was just for her.  I know her story, I know what she left behind, I know that now she is a peace and hopefully cracking jokes and getting someone to make her some pasta and bring her some limes!  Rina’s loss still hurts; maybe it will never stop hurting.  And still even in the grief of herfuneral, her loss created something new in our community, another affirmation that we are a family, that we are not alone.  For the 11% of our women with HIV, it affirmed that they are not alone and we will walk with them to death all the while celebrating their life. And when the time comes 80, 100 women and friends will gather around them, upholding their family and children after they are gone.  The tomb becomes the womb.

There seems to be 20 stories of loss for every story of hope and new life.  It would be easy to stop looking for the light and let the darkness overwhelm.  Most of us here Kolkata have lived in this darkness for months and sometime years at a time.  And the longer we are here, the more we can see the cracks (we have learned where to look), the places where the light is seeping in and even bursting in as the stone is rolled away, it’s impossible weight pushed back as if it were nothing.   The tomb becomes the womb.  It is not always Friday here.  At least once a week Sunday comes and the tomb becomes a womb where new life is born, restoration, resurrection, and death is only fertilizer.

(Inspired by Mars Hill Easter Service-Tomb becomes the womb)

The way I walk…

I walk the same way to work everyday. Out my door, take a left and then a right winding my way past my friend who makes Chai tea.  This woman who graces me with her smiles coming and going and has offered to kick a little butt when I am being followed.  Down the alley a bit, to the sweet old man who always say’s”good morning” and “goodnight” but never at the right time of day.  Past the man who sells fish and sometimes curiously and shyly inquires why I am coming or going.  Into the red light area, where sometimes on some days, I pass some hero’s on their way to Freeset (a freedom Business), who greet me with smiles and an occasional accusation as to why I am not yet married.  I go farther along, past some jewelry and sundries shops, past an idol, past groups of men sitting in chairs idylling the morning or evening away. As I enter the main lane, busy with men, always busy with men, I meet the eyes of every girl I know, chat a little, and try to meet the eyes of those I do not know with a smile.  Sometimes I get a smile back and it feels like it might be a good day.  Sometimes the girls who are working farther down the line call after me and scold me for not stopping if I happen to be in a hurry and there is no hurrying past.  Some of them know my name and some of them just call me by the name of whatever friend they can remember, Puja or Moussumi.  If I do not come by or have been out of town, they all notice and ask where I have been and even if it has only been a few days, they ask if I went to my country.  I turn left walking past the some of the youngest, freshest faces working the line, toward Sari Bari.  Still a ways to go, passing another idol, maybe a caudron of something cooking in a vat for some puja I do not know about. Men line the lane.  Shopkeepers nod.  Children zig and zag in slow motion across my path competing with the street dogs for dominance.  To the left a circle of women gather water, filling their jugs for the day, chatting, gossips, observing everything and a little ways over men bathing on the road nearby. This lane is so dirty, always muddy.  Walking past some madams nodding, smiling, past the open cesspool of urine and trash on the corner winding my way, holding my breath. Deeper in now, I chat with more women I know, begging some of the scary madam to smile back at me, willing it.  Looking for an invitation to speak.  Sometimes, women from Sari Bari who live in this lane, pull me in to their rooms for tea and breakfast.  Sometimes, it’s a race to see who will get to the door of the office first or out the door first depending on the time of day.  Walking past another trash dump, greeting more women already waiting for customers in the morning at 10am and going home in the evening more women out than before, weariness from the day already drawing down their faces.  And then up the stairs into Sari Bari, past the potted plants, where the guys are cutting bags, and the air rings with greetings.  The floor is full of stuff, beautiful stuff, blankets in the making and the scraps of every type of sari and color imaginable.  This is the tale of my daily comings and goings. It is the way that I walk from home to home and back again.  And I say that someday this walk through these lanes into the beautiful space of Sari Bari will bear much fruit.  At least that is what I dream.

Remembering Pornima: April 7, 2010

Our Friend and sister Pornima passed away two years ago this month.  Tonight She came to my mind.  Below are some of my reflections from those days.

What violence has beset us this day

What violence has beset us this day
Of all days, this day was most unexpected
Most vile, violent and cruel
Because it is the day after hope still lingered in one woman heart
Yet is lingers no longer with her end
Today is everyday and the today no one wanted
Today is for weeping over violence
Weeping for freedom lost
Where no freedom can found
Powerless, fearful silent
Offenders protected
Shame for such injustice is heavy on us all.
Three months of freedom tossed like her body
What violence has beset us this day.
We all are her. She was us.
Part of us left with her.
The violence committed, indignity
Against her, against us all. 
She flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone
This sister gone.
Her fight for freedom was violently wrenched from her grasp, 
We will fight on remembering.

For Pornima. Completed three months of training at Sari Bari.
Died: Today  

To read more about Pornima: