Seeing Phelicia and Rebecca in the hotel lobby as we prepared to visit the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) headquarters in New York, I felt immensely privileged. Joining them on this meeting was a last-minute development. I was accompanying my colleagues Kianoosh and Zoe, who head the Entrepreneurs in Handcrafts program at Vital Voices and who had been looking forward to this series of meetings for weeks.
I don’t know much about fashion, but I know that visiting the CFDA office and having the opportunity to meet with designers is a rare privilege for artisans, particularly for artisans from developing countries. In the case of Phelicia and Rebecca, it represented a priceless opportunity to showcase their products, share their stories, and explore possible collaboration projects. Phelicia Dell, artisan, entrepreneur, and activist, is from Haiti and is a member of the Vital Voices chapter in Haiti, Femmes en DĢ©mocratie. Rebecca Lolosoli, 2010 Global Leadership Awards Honoree, is a Samburu woman from Kenya who established Umoja Uaoso Women’s Village, a safe community for women and girls who are fleeing violence and whose existence is dependent on the very jewelry that we were preparing to showcase.
The meetings with the designers, representatives from Maria Cornejo and Monique PĢ©an, as well as Simon Alcantara, Tory Burch, and sisters Danielle and Jodie Snyder from DANNIJO, gave me the first opportunity to learn about what it takes to produce fashion accessories in less-than-ideal environments. I had no idea that Phelicia has trouble finding even the most basic of materials in post-earthquake Haiti; zippers, for example, are particularly elusive. Or that Rebecca has to travel hours to Nairobi to buy the beads that Umoja needs to produce necklaces.
Looking at the products, it would be impossible to guess how much value they hold for the artisans who produce them. Each handbag and necklace represents a story, and not just that of Phelicia and Rebecca, but of the women who work to create them: the single mothers in Haiti whose weekly paycheck from Phelicia helps sustain their families or the young women in Umoja who had the courage to leave the villages where they were routinely abused and disparaged.
Phelicia and Rebecca were also in town to participate as panelists at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Conference. They shared the stage with Vital Voices board member Diane von Furstenberg, who has worked with both of them. During the panel, Rebecca gave one of her necklaces to Tina Brown. Immediately after the panel, the Vital Voices Boutique was overrun by women eager to buy Phelicia’s and Rebecca’s products. The high point for me came when I saw Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women and former President of Chile, walk away with one of Phelicia’s clutches.
Following the conference, Kianoosh, Phelicia, and I headed to Connecticut for an event held by the Vital Voices Connecticut Council, where I moderated a Q&A with Phelicia about her business, VĢ©VĢ© Collections, and about her involvement in her community. I learned, for example, that she works with a group of young women who have lost one or both parents and whom she mentors and employs, encouraging and helping them to finish school and go to college. Some she has welcomed into her shop from the streets, others have come to her asking for help. Or the group of young girls, ages 6 to 10, who are living in the tents, at high risk of disease, malnutrition, and sexual violence. When she asked them what toys they wanted for Christmas, they replied that they wanted food, clothes, books, and the chance to go to school.
None of this, however, can capture the resilience, commitment, and bravery that both of these women exemplify in their everyday lives. Despite having met Phelicia before and having read and edited her biography, I did not know truly know her story. How could I? 300 words cannot capture the context in which she lives, where day in and day out she sees young women, some of them illiterate, on the streets of Port-au-Prince, selling the only thing they have, their bodies, out of sheer necessity. Nor can they capture the frustration she felt after the Haitian judicial system miserably failed her, leaving her penniless after the tragic death of her husband six years ago.
When you meet Phelicia and Rebecca, you feel their strength and humility. Because they are selfless, they emit power, and one cannot help but feel humbled and inspired by them.
To learn more about Phelicia and Rebecca, please see the links below:
To purchase an Umoja necklace, click here.
To purchase one of Phelicia’s handbags, visit the VĢ©VĢ© website.
To watch the Women in the World panel discussion, click here.
To see a clip of Phelicia’s interview in Connecticut, click here.
To read more about the event in Connecticut, click here.
To learn more about Rebecca, visit her Vital Story Interactive.