Giving Back: Supporting Women Artisans through Maya Traditions

Part of our mission is to give back. For us, our focus is on positively impacting the lives of women artisans by selecting various charitable organizations around the globe to partner with and we're doing it by allocating 5% of our profit to this cause. 

The first group we've selected to work with is Maya Traditions. What drew us to the foundation was their vision and mission which so accurately aligned with ours. Our initial goal will be $500 -- enough to send a high school student to school for one year -- but the amount we're able to donate really depends on how much we sell (so we're starting small)! 

We wanted learn more, so we got in touch with Laura Gehring, Executive Director of Maya Traditions, who was more than happy to share with us the work they do. It's really incredible the work they do and the women whose lives improve because of this foundation. Our Q&A will explain it all! 

One of the artisan women dying yarn.

One of the artisan women dying yarn.

How does Maya Traditions work with women? 

We work with 6 cooperatives of women from 6 communities/villages. In total, we partner with about 70 women and their families representing 3 Maya ethnicities (Kakchiqueles, Tz'utujiles, and Quiches).  

The cooperatives are independent entities with internal governance and are contracted by Maya Traditions. As part of our Fair Trade Market Access Program, the women create backstrap woven textiles that are used to create accessories and housewares for domestic and international markets. When an order is received from a client, the Production Rep from the coop comes into Maya Traditions office in Panajachel to receive instructions and the raw materials needed to complete the order. The Production Rep then goes back to her village to distribute the order among the coop. The artisans then weave the textiles in their homes. When the textiles are complete, the Production Rep receives them and brings them to Panajachel to be quality controlled by the Production Manager. At that point, the Production Rep receives a fair payment for the work the coop has done, which she distributes to the other artisans in her coop.  

Preservation of the traditional art form of backstrap weaving brings pride and economic independence to a marginalized population

Why is it so important for the Maya women artists to preserve their knowledge of traditional art?

Part of Maya Traditions mission is to facilitate the preservation of culture, focusing specifically on backstrap weaving and to a lesser extent, traditional healing.  Backstrap weaving is a women's only art form originating during the time of the Maya empire and predates the arrival of the footloom during the Spanish conquest. This traditional art form has become severely devalued due to globalization, fast fashion, and the 'up-cycled' güipil trend (güipiles are the backstrap woven blouses worn as part of the traditional outfit). At Maya Traditions, we believe in leveraging this traditional art form to provide a source of income to these women that values their culture and skills.  

We see a huge difference in the level of education between the artisans we work with and their children. The average amount of formal schooling that the artisans have received in their lifetime is 2.8 years. On the other hand their children, with assistance from MT's Youth Education Program, are going to school with most graduating from high school and some going on to University. With this generational shift in educational levels, we see traditional cultural practices diminishing and Western ideas becoming normalized.  

Preservation of the traditional art form of backstrap weaving is important to the women we work with because it brings pride and economic independence to a marginalized population that has been systematically discriminated against for thousands of years.  

A woman starting the weaving process.

A woman starting the weaving process.

What impact have you seen on the families and children of the women who are now involved with Maya Traditions?

The women receive fair payment, and now, will not stand for anything less. We have cases of women (at least 2) who found strength in their ability to earn and were able to leave abusive husbands. Other women were able to improve their homes or invest in side businesses.  

Recently, we had a group of evaluators visit the coops that Maya Traditions has been working with for years. They were blown away by the way the artisans consistently spoke their minds and articulated their needs, hopes, and suggestions for improvement. We find that the women that we work with aren't shy anymore, can speak in front of groups, and participate more heartily in workshops and exchanges.

The children, through MT's Youth Education Program, are sponsored to go to school and many graduate from high school. This is a huge achievement because of every 100 children in Guatemala, only 18 complete high school. These children have much better employment incomes and tend to have less children than their parents.  

What do you hope for the future of Maya Traditions? 

My hope for Maya Traditions is that it continues to grow as a Fair Trade brand and can greatly expand its impact to more and more indigenous women artisans and their families. I hope that the artisans continue to feel satisfied with the work opportunities and social programs we offer them, and their quality of life improves.

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What's your favourite thing about working with Maya Traditions?  

My favourite thing about Maya Traditions is working with the artisans, of course! Travelling to the communities and spending time with them and their families is a joy and always a learning experience. These women have absolutely amazing life experiences and much to teach us about humility, strength, perseverance, and art. Being with them is like breathing fresh air — it is a grounding experience that puts things in our very modern lives in perspective.  

For someone who's interested in getting involved, what do you suggest? 

There are many ways to get involved with Maya Traditions! If you're a retailer or wholesaler, consider carrying Maya Traditions products, which are WFTO Fair Trade Guaranteed. If you're a jet-setter, visit us and meet the artisans in person through our Ethical Tourism Program. We also offer student sponsorship opportunities if you are interested in supporting the educational aspirations of indigenous students.  Consider donating to MT or follow us on Instagram (@mayatraditions) or Facebook.