When we first traveled to Nicaragua in 2009, it was with a spirit of adventure and exploration, and we were instantly struck with the vibrancy of the country—a potent mix of breathtaking beauty contrasted against very visible economic poverty. Like many people who travel to places with economic struggles, we felt a sense of duty to give back in some way. When we met a group of young people living in a shelter who happened to make handwoven bracelets (“pulseras” in Spanish), the seed of the Pulsera Project quickly germinated.
None of us remember who had the initial idea to sell pulseras to our family and friends, but within weeks, our friends took the project to their own communities and began selling there. As a bunch of college students, the school connection immediately took hold, and soon some family friends who were teachers began selling pulseras in their K–12 schools as well.
Our initial project was shaped by the very human desire to help, and our efforts reflected that. We brought down donated goods and clothing, but soon learned that not only did the artists have some ideas on what they actually needed, but their ideas were much better than ours! Despite the material resources we were able to bring, we had almost no understanding of the immediate problems we were trying to address—principally poverty, but also fostering positive social values, improving relationships within communities, and creating social mobility in the communities where we worked.
As we listened and began developing partnerships with local artists and advocates, we started to see our entire organization differently—not as a network of people from the U.S. helping people in Central America, but as a partnership that emphasizes humility, solidarity, and self-awareness. We learned to see poverty differently, understanding that economic poverty is but one form of poverty, and that all of humanity suffers if they lack essential human needs, which include community, family, and a connection with the world around us.
The Pulsera Project’s educational program grew from these hard-won lessons, in an effort not only to connect students to the artisans they empower in Central America, but also to enrich their own understanding of the world. Today over 3,200 schools across the country have hosted pulsera sales, creating fair trade jobs, investing in programs that benefit thousands of people in Nicaragua and Guatemala, and involving hundreds of thousands of students in fair trade service-learning projects.
We seek to create a brighter and more colorful world by breaking down the artificial barriers that separate us, by fostering understanding and respect, and by generating a positive material change in the world. Pulsera sales are free to host, include dozens of free educational materials, and there is no requirement to sell a certain number of pulseras. We happily work with schools of all socioeconomic backgrounds and situations.
As a co-founder of the project and director of our educational program, it is the privilege of my life to work with so many hundreds of dedicated teachers who make this work possible. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to speak with Norah for the The Language Imperative podcast, and hope any interested teachers will get in touch with us at email@example.com.
By Chris Howell