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Career Marketer, Crafts Spur Development

In corporate circles, she was always on the fringes of the artisan sector. Maybe she heard her true calling when she was in China to help masons salvage antique stone from the gravel industry. Or maybe it came to her in Argentina, where she worked with craftsmen who carved furniture for the high-end market in New York. Whenever it hit her, Monika Steinberger decided she wanted to join the nonprofit world and dedicate her business savvy to artisans. She wanted to help them make good incomes through the fairest possible trade and preserve their cultural heritage.

In the mid 2000s, Steinberger got lucky. Aid to Artisans (ATA), now part of Creative Learning, needed someone multilingual who could fly to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Haiti, where it had upcoming projects. It was in New England; she was in nearby New York. She knew people the world over who worked with their hands and creative professionals in the United States and Europe, who specialized in marketing, branding, advertising, and photography. A native of Austria, she spoke German, English, French, and Spanish. Most important, she was willing to travel in dicey times.

Into the Field

For eight years now, Steinberger has collaborated with craftspeople in the remotest and poorest regions of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, including the Middle East. She enjoys her daily interactions—often via cellphone—the most. She can hear about, if not see, the impact of ATA projects on people’s lives and livelihoods. She can measure changes in family health, education, and overall well-being by collecting stories, sometimes statistics. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. I would almost do it for nothing,” she volunteered.

Haiti’s desperate poverty and environmental devastation really got under Steinberger’s skin. ATA fulfilled the livelihoods component of a three-year project supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the UK Big Lottery Fund. She and her Haitian colleagues held a workshop in Cap Haitien for women and men to help them design and produce bamboo bangles (see picture, above) for the local tourist market. The artisans spent one dollar on raw bamboo for each bangle they fashioned and sold the finished bracelets for five dollars each to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise ships docked at Labadie. The bangles were later a hit at winter and summer wholesale shows at the Javits Center in New York. Global Girlfriend, an online retailer of women-made gifts, ordered 500 with 2,500 to follow, for a total of $13,000—a fortune for the Haitian artisans. The project showed the immediate impact craft can have on an economy and environment. For every bamboo stem they harvested, the artisans had to plant two shoots. The grass grows rapidly, stabilizes eroded soil, and lends itself to craft.

Behind the Scenes

As in all ATA ventures, the first step in the Haitian project was to assess the local, expat, tourist, and international markets for demand. Funders, whether public or private, usually approach ATA with a craft medium or region of the developing world in mind. ATA then consults its vast network of craftspeople. “We never start from nothing,” Steinberger said. “We are there to bring information from the market to them.” ATA assists artisans in developing or upgrading their crafts and links them to buyers. Through workshops and in-country management, ATA imparts business acumen to craftspeople, always mindful not only of the markets, but also of the environment and relationships. Artisans, who are usually women, are part of communities. They have to support their families, even more than save the cultural patrimony of their countries. Matters of money and spirit have to jive.

But they do not always readily synch. In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan women weavers did not trust each other with trade secrets, nor could they band together to buy raw materials at wholesale prices. If they could get a formal business license from the government—a cumbersome process even for ATA— they could expand. The interpersonal and practical realms collided until ATA/Mexico began organizing the weavers as a uniquely Mexican association. Most ATA projects continue as registered businesses or nongovernmental organizations with local staff. Some, like CREATA in Columbia, grow to partner with ATA.

Steinberger calls that success, but the project she’s working on is always closest to her heart. Right now, she’s busy in Yemen, where ATA is part of a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development agricultural project implemented by the Land O’Lakes Foundation. She just returned from evaluating Yemen’s craft market. The country’s cultural heritage—gingerbread architecture, silver jewelry, and painted windows—entranced her. She fixed on an active hand-weaving tradition that merits expansion: men weave skirts on simple ground looms for the local market. If the community agrees, Steinberger would like to engage a small group of women to produce similar cloth for the international market year round.

“Identification of the artisans is a crucial part of our work. We have to be careful not to do harm. We are empowering people by giving them access to income they didn’t have before. That changes a family and community,” Steinberger said. At harvest time, she will help men and women export artisanal honey, coffee, spices, fragrances, and herbal lotions by connecting them to buyers. She knows the products will sell.

Arts in Development, Then and Now

ATA’s approach to arts in development was once unique. Well-meaning donors still sometimes send consultants to countries without exploring the markets or sounding out local craftspeople. They might train women to produce pillowcases on sewing machines they donate to a community center with sporadic electricity. In two weeks, the foreign experts are gone. Pictures of smiling faces enliven thick reports. But there’s no follow-up. The women have wasted time they could have used making money and are left with a skill and machines they cannot use. No locals or foreigners need pillowcases. Traditional crafts lie fallow. Three months later, there’s no trace of the intervention. Nothing is sustainable—except the women’s newfound cynicism.

Such projects have not helped arts in development, which, as a field, endures skepticism from practitioners who favor huge agricultural or infrastructure interventions with statistically measurable results. “Scaling up” is the buzzword of the moment, according to Steinberger. The international development community wants to fund projects that have the greatest impact on the largest number of people, even if they take decades to show results. Funders prefer to underwrite livelihood projects that help hundreds of women in the garment industry produce thousands of inexpensive shirts for Western consumers. Although craft is often a country’s second biggest employer after agriculture and has a more immediate, sustainable effect on a population, it’s hard to scale up without sacrificing quality, incomes, health, environment, and the intangible cultural heritage it embodies.

Sometimes Steinberger sees intercultural conflict while saving cultures. Artisans everywhere tend to be poor and very jealous of their turf. Aymara in Northern Chile told her they lost much of their international market in native alpaca products when Americans started raising the animals in the States. The Americans, in turn, had to lower their prices to compete with cheaper imports. “You have to measure your market impact and tailor your intervention accordingly,” she cautioned.

State of the Artisans

Partly as a result of the worldwide recession and partly because of lessons learned by practitioners of international development, ATA now competes for places in massive undertakings in tourism, environment, agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment. It cannot find funding for crafts-only projects as it did for over thirty years. Nevertheless, in the past two years, Steinberger has seen renewed emphasis on cultural preservation among funders. In March, ATA will start collaborating with the Smithsonian, its once-frequent partner, to protect pottery and nomadic crafts in Tibet. Steinberger is excited about using cultural mapping during the assessment.

When asked if she thought craft sales fed Americans’ insatiable consumerism, Steinberger pointed out that buyers everywhere help safeguard cultural traditions. Many big-box companies are now following the ATA approach, at least in part. Although large corporations have recognized the demand for crafts in Europe and the States, they want artisans to create them at high volume and low cost. The crafts and craftspeople do not prosper. Consumers need to pay more to preserve quality and support the artisans. Still, Steinberger commends the multinationals, some of them ATA partners, for establishing fair-trade sidelines.

“The key is to educate the consumer,” observed Steinberger. “Telling the story is really our reason for being. It’s an economic reality that something that’s handmade will be more expensive than something that’s mass produced. If you want to sell it, you have to explain that it’s an original work of craft that has been touched by the hands of a real live artisan in a particular place. It’s a losing proposition to take out the story. You take out the soul, meaning, and value. So it’s our daily work to make sure that the cultural content is known because in the end, that’s what makes craft sustainable. That’s what attracted me and still attracts me to the mission of ATA—making culture a building block of the economy.”

Like the Chinese builders who inspired her years ago, ATA’s Monika Steinberger helps protect old traditions. Like the Argentine craftsmen she once advised, she helps create new custom.

Jargon and Spam Pollute Word Reefs

Thanksgiving is almost here. So the poultry purveyor at my local market wrote to say that he would “defiantly have turkeys.” What a relief! Sadly, obviously, words aren’t his “strong suite.” Nor are they the special talent or concern of most people anymore. No one seems to care that words, like corals, are suffering and can no longer live happily together, whether in twosomes or tomes.

Clauses, sentences, paragraphs, books—the reefs words inhabit—are under attack. In hardcopy and online, word pollution is rampant. Bad grammar, misspellings, adjective-noun hybrids, and verbosity threaten the habitats of language. Wherever words hang out, ill-chosen punctuation and emoticons festoon them, like cassette tape on a colony of the Crochet Coral Reef. Even the World Wide Web, the Great Barrier Reef of the new world of words, struggles under our creative runoff and virtual trash.

Two of my pet word pollutants are jargon and spam. The first masquerades as healthy language in print and online; the second floods email and comment balloons.

Jargon, lingo peculiar to a profession or group, obfuscates meaning by puffing it up. Think excessive levels of nutrients from fertilizer fouling pristine bays. Spam (never mind the spiced, potted meat) is irrelevant or inappropriate language on the Internet. Envision sewage flowing into rivers and oceans.

Have you looked for work lately? Here’s the sort of listing that makes editors and writers run, not apply:

JargonCorp, a next-generation, growth-oriented company with a fast-paced, deadline-oriented environment, seeks to improve its coordination and facilitation of cause-marketing initiatives and activations and develop multi-channel communications campaigns with brand awareness. We are looking for a dynamic self-starter with cutting-edge insights to join our team of blue-sky, out-of-the box thinkers with end-user perspectives. You will develop a narrative arc for episodic information sharing, as well as tactical strategies and technical implementation to leverage enhanced cross-platform functionality.

What? Are you going to read more of the “role profile” and “accountabilities”? Do you care that they care about “E&D” or want to ensure their “list hygiene”? Goodness, these words are unhappy and individually diseased!

They are only one step away from the Web’s effluent, spam. Hundreds of passages like the following opened my site to a hacker and almost killed it before its first birthday:

Penelope [sneaker brand] dvd website cranberries [a medicine for men Americans sent to Afghanistan] trucks stuffing crayons …

Heavens! Not a single comma!

Google buried Sebold Communications half alive. But miracles happen …

And speaking of Thanksgiving, here’s a shout out to WordPress Web Developer Brian Jessee of Jessee Productions. Since September, he has, dare I say, “securitized” and helped optimize seboldcommunications.com for Google and Bing. Thanks for cleaning up my spot on the reef (errrr, Web), Brian!

Setting Themes

Where Health, Environment and the Arts Meet is the slogan of Sebold Communications. It’s also the theme of my Web site and blog, the Bamboo Pen. The pen–chicory flower trademark graphically embodies my current work and writing, the way I see the world.

Like you perhaps, I enjoy putting together different fields and arts and breaking down barriers between peoples, even species. Interdisciplinary, intercultural programs and publications, when well designed and managed, make lasting impressions on audiences and can ease relations between political opposites. Behind every success lies a unifying idea, or theme.

Here are four steps you can take to develop themes for programs, publications, and businesses:

Imagine

Start with the message you want to impart or the subject you want to showcase—in other words, what you want to learn or accomplish and what you think might excite others. Don’t be wowed by the reputation of a speaker, artist, or writer just yet. Later you can choose a celebrity to present your program or compose a book chapter. For now, turn on music that evokes your topic. Get enthused about your idea. Do some research online or in specialized libraries.  Record all your thoughts. How can you weave together a series of programs or blog posts? A performance and a publication? A health presentation and a holiday celebration?

Before settling on a theme and tagline for Sebold Communications, I did a lot of thinking. In previous work, I had seen arts and cultural programs foster peace, environment, and health. I decided to write blog posts about not only environmental health, but also arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

I got out crayons, colored pencils, a sketchpad. I found my old bamboo pen from Islamic calligraphy classes with Mohamed Zakariya. I paged through wildflower books. My mind wandered. Which colors would best suggest health and the environment; which flower, the world? After some bizarre drawings, I came up with a trademark and representative colors. To read up on Asclepius, I went to the Library of Congress with my reader’s card. And for a season, I took mock blog notes at art exhibits, science fairs, and international development conferences.

Visualize

How can you bring alive your ideas? Can you find a funder whose values reinforce your theme? Choose your speakers or authors now. Picture the room or the finished publication. How will people move through the conference room, negotiate the layout of your online or print report? Will there be a bottleneck at the pastry table? Will a well-placed graph enhance readers’ understanding of your project results? Place the tables and chairs or chapters and pictures with the takeaway in mind. You want to make sure your in-person and home audiences enjoy themselves enough to stay for the whole program or read the entire book. You want them to absorb your message.

For Sebold Communications, I had to design an attractive Web site in concert with a graphic artist and a Web site developer. I visited sites of Webby Award winners in the arts and sciences to see how they laid out their homes on the Internet. I wanted to unpack the trademark on the inner pages, create mini-themes by using different chicory drawings on the services panels and the bamboo pen on the blog, or writing, page. Then I had to learn WordPress to compose pages and posts. At that point, I decided to alternate topical pieces with somehow-related articles on writing, editing, programs, or languages. For eight posts introducing the elements of my trademark and the format of my blog, I wanted photographs in blues, greens, and yellows.

[Update: In January 2016, Gallop Web Services helped me redesign the site to make it mobile and more useful to visitors. I also decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events and features on practitioners and scholars in the four interdisciplinary fields mentioned above. Tell me what you think!]

Publicize

Who is your audience? Where do they get their information? Do they read only professional publications and blogs? Or does your program or publication have broad appeal? Should you advertise on radio and TV or YouTube and Vine? Which languages should you use? Should you bother with hard-copy brochures and press releases? Where can you mingle with your potential audience? At conventions or shared workplaces? Package your theme accordingly.

Which social media do your readers use? There are so many to explore. I signed up for LinkedIn early on, then Twitter and Google+.  LinkedIn reinforces my business, and Twitter reflects my blog. Most of the people I work with are at least on LinkedIn. Those who work in relief use Twitter, and those who manage programs gather in Google Hangouts. Communications and marketing experts know know that social media drive curious visitors to their organizations’ Web sites, where they can find publications and calendars.

Give

Think of something you can give free to your audience or readers, something that will match your program, publication, or business. With a souvenir, they’ll remember the experience longer and more fondly. Your report won’t get lost in a pile.

If you plan a program on the history of the camel as I once did, offer attendees camel burgers on toothpicks! In your next performance program, include a seek-and-find word puzzle whose solution underscores your theme. Watch early birds find the answers and stay in their seats at intermission. Are you doing a program on hand washing? Give out tiny soaps as health educators do.

At Sebold Communications, I haven’t quite gotten to this step. I’m not too sure about the white papers marketers advocate. Maybe I’ll write a blue or green one! Offering people free help with a tough sentence or two didn’t fly through Twitter. For now, I’ll stick with providing writing samples through my blog or editing a page or two from the middle of a prospect’s report. I might volunteer to organize a lecture.

Now that you’ve suffered my advice on setting themes and had the behind-the-scenes tour of my business and blog, let’s explore where health, environment, and the arts meet. The next post will in some ways be my first. I’ll write about the project that inspired me to blog: Environmentally concerned artists have crocheted coral reefs to call attention to the beauty and plight of real ones in oceans around the world.

After I spin that much shorter yarn, I’ll examine the structure of sentences and paragraphs. After all, words live closely together like corals, either happily or unhappily.

So stay tuned. Tell us about your creative process. Share news of health, environment, and the arts!

Green Business

\ˈgrēn ˈbiz-nəs\ n

In third grade, we had to invent something. I came up with the “pollution vacuum cleaner.” It would suck up all the trash and poisonous air and water in one snort. Maybe it was then that I decided to go green.

Fast-forward quite a few years. When I started my sole-proprietorship, I decided to run it as sustainably as possible. Here’s what I’ve already done and have in the works:

  • Clean Electricity. Like you perhaps, I’m very troubled by fossil fuels and the steady rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So I switched to wind to power my home office. Now, in my spare time, I can fight mountaintop removal and other destructive mining practices, with a cleaner conscience.
  • Green Web Hosting. By 2020, Internet servers will probably emit more carbon than the airline industry, now the biggest culprit. With that scenario in mind, I chose a green Web host when I designed my Web site. Now my real and virtual abodes are wind driven.
  • Vegetable-based Printing. Pigments carried in linseed (flax), canola, castor, and other vegetable oils release fewer volatile organic compounds (VoCs) than petroleum-based inks. The oils also degrade more completely than conventional inks and can be removed much more easily from paper during the recycling process.
  • Skipping the Car. I live downtown in a city with a fairly good public transportation system and many bicycle-friendly roads, so I don’t own a car. Bussing to meetings is an option. Walking and carrying my own purchases keep me physically fit, save me money, and help keep tons of carbon out of the air.
  • Environmental Education. Last but not least, I read to discover just how much I pollute, even without driving. I attend lectures and, in the process, network with potential clients. Before I engage a business, I research it. Does it practice and promote sustainability? No one is perfect. What are its intentions?

Do you have a sustainable business? What have you done? What do you plan to do this year? If you’re new to the idea, visit Green America for tips.

How can we make it easier to be green?