Mi Esperanza translates to “My Hope,” and that’s precisely what I experienced after speaking with Julie Lawson — board member of Mi Esperanza, an organization working to combat intergenerational poverty in Honduras by employing women in ethical and fair wage fashion. Her stories of heartbreak and redemption left me forever changed.
For Julie, her eyes were initially opened while on a mission trip to Honduras in 1999, where she encountered a 12-year-old girl in need of desperate medical attention. After much hard work, and many miracles, this young girl received a life-changing surgery; that young girl is now a young woman. And while her life was completely altered, Julie’s was too.
“I began to understand that it’s just a matter of where you’re born, as to what your life circumstances are. It so easily could have been me sitting in that room waiting for medical attention,” she explained.
Eventually, Julie would come to meet Janet Hines and Lori Connell, who were also looking to make a long-term impact for women living in the villages of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Julie explained to me that when Lori was leaving the country sometime in the 90s, a local woman pleaded with her to take her baby. “It gets you. You think about where a woman has to be in her life that she would give up her child to give it a better life.” I felt highly emotional during the telling of this story, but Julie said something else that stuck with me, “Their life is a life of destitution. But I don’t want to sell them short. Because in the midst of this destitution, their lives are so full. And their communities are so rich, and in many ways they have what we wish for when it comes to family and community. I don’t want to make it sound like their lives are terrible, it’s just sometimes their circumstances are.”
Fast-forward to 2002, and Janet and Lori officially founded Mi Esperanza. Over the next nearly two decades, the co-founders — along with an incredible force of other ladies — unified resources to help change circumstances for local woman.
If ever there was an example of women supporting women, this is one of the finest.
“It’s a school, but we also sell goods,” Julie explains. “It started with one product… Janet and Lori had the idea that since the women have these gifts now, we could make a product to sell and the money could come back to the program and to pay the women. That was the start of the Mi Esperanza brand.”
Mi Esperanza provides assistance in a practical way: by educating women in courses such as sewing, cosmetology, computer skills and jewelry making. Local women are hired to produce Mi Esperanza’s own line of beautiful fashion goods, including handbags and jewelry. The organization also acts as a manufacturer, crafting goods for third party companies like Tribe Alive.
One of the most unique approaches to their brand is something called the “Hope Supply,” described as a “curated collection of ethical fashion’s finest brands.” It’s essentially just that — a box filled with beautiful, ethical goods that you can purchase seasonally in support of the women of Mi Esperanza.
When I asked Julie to describe how her life has been impacted by employing these women, she told me the story of one woman they’d hired who had dreams of purchasing a computer for her daughter with the money she would earn — a practical and attainable outcome. However, once she completed her project, she changed her mind and instead she did something inconceivable: she bought a house! I love this tale because she started out with one goal, but thanks to her education and steady employment, she was able to dream bigger than she’d ever imagined. (P.S. Later, she was able to purchase the computer as well.)
It’s estimated that 80 percent of the world’s garment workers are women.
At the same time, 60 percent of clothing exports are made in developing countries where the rights of workers, particularly women, are by no means ideal. These facts were not lost on me while listening to the stories Julie shared. I couldn’t help but wish that every garment factory embodied the heart of Mi Esperanza. I asked Julie if working with these women changed the way she saw the fashion industry, to which she replied, “Of course! It changes how you purchase. It makes you want to be absolutely certain that the working conditions you offer are wonderful and that you pay them fairly. Pay them a living wage. It makes you think about those kinds of things on many different levels.”
It does make you think. It also made me think about how lasting change is made when we’re motivated by something more powerful than sympathy, but rather empathy. One way to practice such empathy is by being responsible with how we impact women, and men, everywhere, with our purchases. Julie said it best, “Our dollars speak volumes and we need to be very judicious about where we spend them. And that we not patronize companies that have bad practices. That we make certain that we use the power that we have in our spending to cause retailers to change.”
We can be denizens of change — it starts with us, you and me.
It starts with supporting the women of Mi Esperanza, by purchasing their products so that they can continue to learn and work. It starts with volunteering your time to help support the Mi Esperanza team.
And it starts with believing that people should always be more valuable than things.
It’s been a week or two since I spoke with Julie, and I’ve spent time digesting all that she shared. I’ve spoken with friends about it. Some were overwhelmed by the reality of our world, others were unsure of where to start to help. One wise friend told me that the first thing we can do is educate ourselves by listening, and then take what you’ve heard and live by it.
Or put simply, truly practice what you preach.
It encouraged me because, while at times my power seems so limited, I’m aware that I can control where and how I spend my time and money. So I ask, with all sincerity, to recognize the power you have and join me in standing for women and for hope. Purchase a Hope Supply Box, and let's put our money where our beliefs are.