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Advocacy Project Blogs - 2007 Fellow: Mariko Scavone

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Tough Decisions

Posted By: mariko

Right across the street from the light rail train is the Lovely Disabled Home. It is the only one-story house situated among 2 story homes in a working class neighborhood. We pulled up and I got out with my laptop and camera in hand. I was on a mission to see whether Salaam Wanita and the Lovely Disabled Home could form a business partnership whereby the home's residents roll recycled paper for our weavers to use to make eco-baskets. My mind was ringing with logistics questions.

How many people could we count on to make rolls? Do you have a way of transporting the rolls to our headquarters once they are made? Will you provide the recycled magazines or should we? Do you have access to a computer and Internet so that we can correspond more easily? We have to sort the paper by color, are any of your residents blind? Will children be rolling? Do you have a paper cutter? Will you sell us the roll by the quantity or the time it takes to roll?

We rang the door bell and waited...and waited. It was hot and I was uncomfortable under the weight of my bag. Clean laundry stood stock still as there wasn't a breathe of wind. I looked at the home. It's sloped roof is not very different from the roof of the home where I grew up in Texas. The house is white with Chinese characters spelling out the name. Newspapers and large bins of some unidentifiable objects, probably pamphlets litter the yard. But it is not messy or unsightly. It's just the sign of an on-going project- a very slow going project. The gate to the Lovely Disabled finally opened, and Mr. Lam, the director, greeted us.

He took us around the corner to the workshop and training area so that we could meet some of the residents and talk. The workshop was filled with more pamphlets and letter stuffing supplies. I looked around and took a deep breathe. I got answers to all my questions and then through my volunteer translator answered Mr. Lam's. It was obvious that he wanted work to find work for the residents. He had brought a young lady from far away to learn the rolling technique because he thought I was there to train his residents. I was only there to assess the situation.

I took some pictures for my own reference and was charmed by the peace signs and affection the residents showed. They all wanted their picture taken. I looked into their faces and desperately wanted to give them work. You see the work is more than income. It is dignity. Mr. Lam explained that it is also an important point of contact between parents and disabled children.

Back at the office, I thought over my meeting. I believe that the Lovely Disabled Home could produce rolls. I believe that the residents are capable and would be hard working. I would be proud to buy the rolls from them. But in buying rolls we face very high transaction costs. It just wouldn't make business sense, and we don't have the organizational capacity to arrange such an endeavor. Moreover, the disabled are not our target. But you try looking into Mr. Lam's hardened face, and saying so. It's not easy. It's damn near impossible. And it's absolutely heart-wrenching to say no when you believe you could do something. But it just doesn't make business sense. Technorati Profile


The Eating Experience

Posted By: mariko

Fruit Salad: guava, mangoseteen, mango, apple, pink grapefruit, rambutan, rose apples, and jack fruit

Food is such an all encompassing aspect of life here that I thought it was deserving of its own category. Let me see if I can do the eating experience justice.

The smell of lunch fills the air and like one of Pavlov's dogs, by 11 am my mouth is already watering with anticipation . I want to close my eyes and absorb every flavor, but that may not be appropriate in polite company. Creamy coconut is infused with cinnamon, cloves, mustard seeds, cumin, anise, lemon grass, and chili. The chili burns my mouth. And I like it. I keep coming back for more. The burning in my mouth only intensifies the flavors. But taste is not the only sense that is stimulated. Bright red curry contrasted against white rice reminds me of a surreal white moon floating in a red sky, and the silky texture of tofu feels good inside my burning mouth.

The fusion of three different culinary traditions plus a ready supply of local ingredients makes the food in this country so wonderful.

A perfect example is curry mee. Mee are yellow noodles made from flour that hail from the Chinese. Usually the Chinese eat them in a clear broth, but here the mee is eaten in a bowl of coconut milk based curry with tofu and prawns. Malaysian curry is different from Indian curry because it is thicker and the base paste adds pounded sardines to the usual pounded chili and garlic. The result is a spicy and hot noodle dish.


We go for the chutney

Posted By: mariko

It's Saturday at 730 in the morning. Julia (my roommate) and I walk out of the apartment. The smell of clove cigarettes winds its way through the morning air. We nod good morning to the guard and scan the palm tree lined street for Ching Ching. I spot her sitting under one of the sleepy palm tress and think that her tiny frame looks even smaller against the healthy tress. She springs up and we walk briskly down the street until we arrive at "the hill." The hill is already packed with Saturday morning pilgrims paying their weekly homage to fitness. The walk is brisk and I feel alive. Sweat beads on my neck and my heart works to pump blood to my legs. Our walk lasts for about an hour and a half and ends in our favorite Indian restaurant. We eat there every Saturday morning-sit at the same table, order the same thing from the same waiter. And every Saturday morning Ching Ching wavers her hands about and leaves the table several times to maker sure our order- 3 tosei and tea without sugar- is understood.

We don't go for the service. We go for the chutney. There are three types -cocconut, papaya, and tomato. The coconut chutney is my favorite. Along with coconut, it has strong overtones of ginger and fresh chili. There are also hints of cinnamon and anise. It is the first time I have ever eaten coconut chutney, and I end up bargaining with the cashier to sell me some. The tomato chutney is even more spicy. It is a deep red and tastes something like salsa sans cilantro and with more chili. Finally, the papya chutney is a sweet compliment to its spicy sisters. I can see different spices floating among the small chunks of fruit. We dip tosei in the chutneys. Tosei is like a crepe only it is crispy. It comes served on a banana leaf. We put the chutney on the banana leaf and tear pieces of tosei to dip in the chutneys.

It's a Saturday morning ritual that smoothes out all the bumps of the work week.


Social Enterprise

Posted By: mariko

Between the dog eat dog world of business and the "let's save everyone and everything" world of non-profits are social enterprises. I came to the conclusion, that social enterprises' first priority is to their beneficiaries, while their second priority is to their profit or at the very least their sustainability. Simply stated, social enterprises drive a double bottom line-social justice and then profits. At a recent XL event the various definitions of a social enterprise came to light, and helped us understand one of the reasons why Ching Ching has had to fight tooth and nail for every one of her successes.

XL is an international business that sells membership to its network. The membership price right now is $9,900 and, according to the organization, is on the rise every year. The social justice aspect of the network is two fold. First, many XL members are successful business people looking to give back. They join XL to help use the network to build their own organizations. The second aspect is that XL encourages many of its members to steer their business practices toward social enterprises, in other words, businesses that make a regular practice of giving back to the community.

Ching Ching was invited to attend an XL event by a member who has bought 100 baskets from Salaam Wanita. The morning of the event Ching Ching loaded a taxi full of baskets with the hope of selling a few or making a few contacts to sell to. That didn't pan out, and her frustration only mounted as the term social enterprise was loosely thrown around and used to refer to businesses that engaged in the occasional community outreach project mainly for the photo opportunity.

Membership to the network was very enticing as members told of their successes and the business model was explained. But Ching Ching wondered out loud, how could a social enterprise ever afford the $9,900 membership. The price seemed exclusionary and unfair. It locked out real social enterprises and invited in dog eat dog businesses. After traveling, by taxi, all the way to the city center at 730 in the morning, unable to sell baskets, she was obviously frustrated at the lack of understanding by people who were supposed to be devoted to social change. It seemed unfair to charge $9,900. After all, if profits were measured in social change, then Salaam Wanita would be able to pay for its membership without a problem.

Being a social enterprise is a challenge. We face tough questions every day. And our questions consider complex concepts such as the value of self-confidence or optimism. When one of our weavers turns in a product of poor quality, we carefully go over the flaws and hold her hand until her quality improves. This may go one for years. We spend time, transportation costs, and administration costs. I would say fire the weaver. But making money is not our bottom line. After five years of hand holding, we barely break even, but said weaver has a steady income and is able to feed her children. Her higher self-confidence helps her break the isolation that contributes to her poverty. How can you put a monetary value on stories like this?

I tried to assuage Ching Ching's frustration by telling her that she is really a pioneer, and that there are few people in the world like her. In a world driven by money and a hard bottom line, hers is social change. Just as Ching Ching could not imagine firing a weaver for poor quality, a business would not entertain the idea of keeping low quality workers. We finally agreed that social enterprises are so new that the term has not been well-defined and is not well understood.

Who would consider someone well being before their own?


Stormy Weather Ahead

Posted By: mariko

The mix of culture, language, and religion I find in Malaysia is at once comforting and disconcerting. On the one hand Malaysia and the US share in being home to people who come from different places, eat different foods, speak different languages, and practice different religions . This is comforting because it means that Malays are tolerant of differences and, unlike my stay in Japan, I don't have to bear the embarrassment and frustration of always being a foreigner. On the other hand, I am beginning to see the subtle, but ever-present signs of frustrated race relations.

I believe that racial and ethnic tensions manifest in lack of opportunities for meaningful employment, and education as well as lack of access to public services. In Darfur, for example, the struggle over resources turned into an ethnic conflict to such an extent that the conflict was finally labeled genocide, which the UN Genocide Convention, 1948, defines as act with the intent to destroy national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Full-blown ethnic conflicts are difficult to reconcile. Consider Kosovo, Lebanon last summer, Bosnia, Cote d'Ivoire, Iraq and the list continues. If access to resources is not distributed in an equitable fashion, I fear that these inequalities will turn into full-blown ethnic conflict, which as evidenced by history only turns into long, bloody conflicts.

Here in Malaysia the races seemingly get along. Chinese, Indians, and ethnic Malays eat together and share a fusion of culture. By 7 AM the nearby park is filled. Tai chi practitioners, Muslim women clad in head coverings, old and young, healthy and disabled, Chinese, Indian, and Malay gather to get in their morning exercise. But under such a serene sky, perhaps there is a torrent waiting to pour down. Ching Ching, the executive director of eHomemakers jokes with an ounce of discontent that pork is no longer widely available, that the market rarely carries it and she has to buy it as if on a clandestine operation. She jokes that turkey was outlawed because "halal" (prepared according to Muslim rule) turkey could not be procured. She jokes that maybe one day the elaborate structure dedicated to Prime Ministers' wives might someday be used by her ethnically mixed organization. Every joke is a repressed feeling of frustration and I'm sure Ching Ching is not the only one who harbors such frustration. Now, she jokes but there is nothing to laugh about in the tone of her voice.

That is why eHomemakers and Salaam Wanita is such an important project. More than empowering women, the existence of such a peaceful, ethnically mixed and fair project is a statement. It brings attention not only the plight of urban poor and women, but also to the challenges that Malaysia faces as a heterogeneous democracy.


Getting ready to go, very first blog

Posted By: mariko

First, I'm so grateful to the Advocacy Project and eHomemakers for the chance to work with their organizations.

I have been thinking about my work in Malaysia and what I would like to accomplish. First, I feel so excited at the opportunity to work with women. Women's empowerment has been a passion since I was an undergrad and it feels good to know that I am working in this area.

In particular, I am working towards women's economic freedom and independence. I hope to do this by reinvigorating the Salaam Wanita project. The Salaam Wanita project trains women in making eco baskets. Eco baskets are made from recycled paper and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Then, the idea is to sell these baskets.

I've looked at the marketing web site and it looks good. Fortunately, since the project started in 2002, it is not going through the start up process, but still needs some logistical support. That is what I want to provide. I would like to develop some sort of strategy that looks at the following

Who are the baskets marketed for? Who buys them?
Who makes which baskets?
How is the pricing scheme developed?
How are the baskets sold?
Is production efficient?
Which baskets are most popular and what line should be promoted?

I have some experience in business development and will be using those skills as a guide, but this will be a learning experience for me as well. In the fall, I'll be taking a business development class and it will be interesting to combine this experience with an academic one.

More to come later


After finishing a degree in Spanish from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Mariko took the next logical step. She went to Japan, where she lived in a rural village for two years.

After coming back to the US and getting over the shock of 20-ounce mocha frappaccinos and toilets without music, Mariko decided that it was time for graduate school. She is currently working toward a master's in foreign service from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

Mariko will be trying to reinvigorate the Salaam Wanita project. This project advocates on the behalf of urban poor, and homebound women through the buying and selling of eco-baskets. Eco-baskets are hand-woven baskets and purses made from recycled magazines.

They are practical, unique and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Through the creation and selling of these baskets, the project aims to break the isolation and poverty that threaten the women and their families.

Having worked with a similar operation only in Nicaragua and selling candles rather than baskets, Mariko knows that no business model from the pages of a text book can solve the logistical, staffing and marketing challenges that arise with any small business, let alone a social enterprise. She is excited to have the opportunity to get involved in a burgeoning social business.

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The Advocacy Project develops partnerships with advocates on the frontline and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In so doing, we take our cue from partners and tailor any support to their needs.

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