The Big Picture
Our online store launches in a matter of days! I want to take the time to reflect on the journey of the Radical Grandma Collective and share with you how we got here and why we’re doing this work.
I first came to Na Nong Bong -- the small mountain village where the radical grandmas live -- in 2010 as a college student. During our homestay in the village, Mae Rote, a spunky mother of three who had been leading chants at a protest earlier that day, took me and a handful of other students under her wing, and brought us out to her farm. It was about three miles outside of the village on a winding dirt road surrounded by rice fields and banana trees. As we took that bumpy ride on her small, hand-made tractor, we talked with Mae Rote about her life through our broken Thai and beat-up dictionaries. She told us she’d lived in this village her whole life and had inherited her farmland from her parents. Her family survived off the land, as she does now, though back then they got to the farm on a cart led by water buffaloes.
Mae Rote told us how she had been planning her whole life to pass the land on to her children so that future generations could enjoy the lifestyle she has, connected to family and the earth. We pulled up to a valley surrounded by mountains, with a trickling stream running through the center. Soybeans, cotton, vegetables, and fruit were growing together, waiting for us to harvest that afternoon. Who could be luckier than the children who would inherit this piece of paradise?
But it’s not that simple; Mae Rote has been robbed of her dream of passing down a pristine piece of land, of raising her family in a place where they can feel safe and healthy. Ever since a gold mine was built on a nearby mountain ten years ago, she has been fighting to protect the land and her fellow villagers from the destruction brought about by mining. If you haven't heard of the numerous effects that mining can have on communities, you read about them here.
In our many years working with Na Nong Bong as young Americans, we continually ask ourselves, “How can we support the people who have so generously taken us into their homes? How can we help them when they are up against something bigger, and more powerful, than all of us?”
Partners in Entrepreneurship
The Radical Grandma Collective was born out of the understanding that the best way for us as Americans to work in solidarity with the villagers of Na Nong Bong is to provide skills and resources that villagers don’t already have. This is tough when it feels like they can do anything including so many things that I can’t do, myself. They build their own houses, grow their own food, weave cloth made from cotton grown in their fields, fight court cases, organize fundraisers, and fix seemingly anything. An American college degree seems pretty flimsy compared to the education you get growing up in Na Nong Bong.
Women in the village started a weaving collective eight years ago to help raise money for the fight against the mining company. The arrangement was simple. The grandmas in the village would weave products with cotton grown in the village, which they would then sell to visitors, giving a portion of the proceeds to People Who Love Their Hometown, the village organization fighting the gold mine. Mae Rote kept the products at her house because she hosted the most visitors and has a smile that is hard to turn down. The weaving was solid but business was sporadic. Some months they’d sell a lot (my mom must have bought 20 when she came for New Years two years ago!), and some months they wouldn’t sell any. The weaving collective was steady, but its potential was untapped.
I and the three other people from the U.S. on the RadGram team were all skeptical that market solutions could address social problems created by capitalism. After all, the majority of gold produced is for the jewelry market, but after talking with the grandmas about their weaving collective, it became obvious that they were already using market solutions to fund their struggle. But their market was too small. When we realized that the best way to support our families in Na Nong Bong would be to connect their weaving collective to our friends and families (and their families and friends) back in the United States, the Radical Grandma Collective was born.
My role is working with the grandmas to produce the scarves and shipping them to our warehouse in Los Angeles. I feel pretty lucky because I get to see the impact of the Radical Grandma Collective firsthand and talk with these amazing women about their hopes and vision for this project. Business meetings are about as far from a conference room as you can get. Every time I go, someone brings me a new pattern they’ve been working on and I have to figure out which scarves we can sell in the U.S. and which ones have to stay in the cabinet. I usually buy more than the U.S.-side team tells me, because saying no to grandma is very difficult. They’re always right.
How the Radical Grandma Collective Contributes to Sustainable Development
The Americans in this project have all studied and worked with the CIEE: Khon Kaen Development & Globalization program, and we’re well versed in development theories and how development plays out in Northeast Thailand. In our circle “development” is usually a bad word, associated with top-down policies emanating from Bangkok and international financial institutions that prioritize the needs of elites and require sacrifices from the poor. That has certainly been the case in Na Nong Bong.
The Radical Grandma Collective allows us to finally put our money where our mouth is, and instead simply bashing the system through tired conversations, create a sustainable alternative at the small scale.
The three main ways the Radical Grandma Collective contributes to sustainable development:
1. Continuing tradition: The patterns and methods the grandmas use when weaving their awesome scarves have been passed down in the community for generations. When we asked each of the grandmas where they learned to weave, they all had the same response: “my mother.” Even the tools they use, from the large wooden looms sitting on their porches, to the spinning wheels that turn cotton into yarn, have been passed down from generation to generation. By buying scarves from The Radical Grandma Collective, you’re providing opportunities for women to continue these cultural practices and preserve the way of life that the gold mine has threatened. Our hope is that the success of The Radical Grandma Collective will encourage the younger generation to learn this amazing craft so that the tradition lives on into the future.
2. Providing economic opportunity for women that contributes to community building: What the grandmas like about weaving as opposed other ways to earn a living, like rubber harvesting, is that they can weave during the day with their friends. Weaving is often a social exercise. One grandma weaves while their friends, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews sit near her, talking and spinning yarn to pass the time. It’s common that when the weaver gets tired or wants to prepare lunch, her friend will pick up where she left off. They can work together, rather than alone, and their relationships strengthen their ability to protest the mine and educate others about their story.
3. Supporting the essential work to protect the community against the gold mine: A portion of the earnings from each scarf goes directly to People Who Love their Hometown, the village organization that has been tirelessly fighting the gold mine for over a decade. The money is used to pay for travel expenses when villagers network with organizers and other communities or have to travel to court to fight the gold mine, and to pay for food and other expenses when the community hosts awareness-raising events. The Radical Grandma Collective also helps expand the movement within the area and provides an international platform to show how powerful this community is to people around the world. The gold mining company has continuously tried to defame the villagers’ reputation by calling them rabble-rousers, and even a threat to national security. The Radical Grandma Collective tells the story from the villagers’ point of view and puts the narrative into the people's’ hands.
This method is not the only way to contribute to sustainable development, but it’s the path we’re choosing to walk down given where we’ve been and what we’ve learned. If you’re like me, you may be daunted by the problems of the world, but we hope you can see that supporting the Radical Grandma Collective is one small way to make a difference.
You may want to buy our scarves because they’re beautiful, soft, and will keep you warm when you need it most – and that’s awesome. But there’s a larger story behind the threads, one we hope you’ll share with your friends when you wear your RadGram scarf.