Rising International group shot
Cover Stories

Rising International Helps Women in 26 Countries Craft Their Futures

Local nonprofit works with women all over the world—and right here in Santa Cruz

Rising International volunteers and founder Carmel Jud (sixth from the right), next to top-selling representative Paula Smith. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

“My husband used to drink and then he’d come home and throw me against the wall and choke me—all this in front of our seven-year-old while he was fussing around with the lady across the street,” says Paula Smith, 67. “He’d say ‘This is all your fault that I’m doing all these things’ … it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The abuse lasted for about three years before Smith left. At the time, Smith thought she was pregnant with her second child but after irregular symptoms sent her to the hospital, the doctors told her it was a molar pregnancy—tissue that would normally grow into a fetus instead becomes an abnormal growth—that would have to be treated with chemotherapy. She was on food stamps, couldn’t work because of the chemo, didn’t have medical insurance, and couldn’t afford the doctors. The divorce took Smith’s money, her house, and for two years she lived in one room with her daughter. When the court finally settled, she was awarded $100 a month for spousal support.

“When I met Carmel Jud,” she says, “I had lost everything.”

Jud’s organization, Rising International, changed Smith’s life, and since its inception in 2002 has changed thousands more.

Rising International Azizi Life basket weavers

WOMEN’S UPRISING Josephine Ngirababyeyi stands (top left corner) with the Azizi Life basket weavers in Rwanda. PHOTO: MARBLERYE PHOTOGRAPHY 2013

Rising is a locally based nonprofit that connects women in high-risk environments across 26 countries with underemployed women in Santa Cruz, Monterey and the Bay Area. It’s a simple model: Rising satellite groups train women all over the globe in a craft to raise them out of poverty, human trafficking, sexual slavery and other unsafe situations. The baskets, dolls, jewelry and other handmade items are then sent to the U.S. and sold at “home parties”—popularized by companies like Tupperware—by women here like Smith who are struggling to find a stable income.

“If a woman in Afghanistan sews a beautiful purse, we buy that purse from her, she uses that income to impact some profound change in her life,” says Jud. “Then we’ve trained a woman in Santa Cruz in a homeless shelter to run her own home party business, she sells the purse for that woman in Afghanistan, she earns 20 percent, and she uses that money to move out of the homeless shelter.”

Jud estimates that there are about 4,500 women around the world benefitting from their involvement with Rising International.

“When we take into account their children and other family members, there are usually at least five family members benefiting from that income,” says Jud. “Most women that we help are widows, or the men are absent. The women’s income is the only source of income.”

About 160 local women, some referred from homeless shelters, have gone through the Rising training to start their own home party small business. When signing, they’re required to purchase a few items so that they have made an investment in their business, says Jud, and if they don’t have the funds it comes out of their commissions. It’s self-empowerment, but it’s also about building support, says Jud.

“Imagine you’re surviving some crisis and you find yourself in shelter,” says Jud, “Your social network has changed, it’s hard to get out and meet people who could open some doors.”

The average home party and pop up event can bring in $1,000 with the holidays peaking around $2,000. Of that money, 25 percent goes to local representatives, 25 percent goes to the global artisans who make the items (normally they would make about 1 percent in a sweatshop, according to Jud), 15 percent goes to training representatives, another 15 to shipping, customs, exchange, and the last 10 percent goes toward administration and fundraising costs.

When Smith started at Rising she was in the office working part time, learning QuickBooks and the bookkeeping ropes. Within three months, Smith had made $1,500—enough to make a new life possible. Nowadays Smith works as a bus driver for UCSC and takes on Rising jobs when she wants to. Smith can bring in $3,000 in commissionable sales if she works it right, she says.

Last year, Smith increased her income by 163 percent, she says. She’s also the top-selling Rising representative.

Smith tells the story of her domestic abuse, chemotherapy, and everything in between, with a lightness of a woman who’s reached the other side.

“I never thought that I could get in there and even help other women. I was in dire straits myself, I was having so much trouble,” Smith says. “I love telling about the women [artisans] and the success they have. We want to know how it’s empowered them and this has empowered me to talk about these women. At first I was embarrassed to talk about myself, but Carmel helped me with that and now I don’t mind. I’m not going back to that situation ever again in my life.”

 

MANY HANDS

When Jud hosted her first home party in May 2002 in her Soquel home, she was just beginning to learn about the plight of women in high-risk areas.

“I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, and I wasn’t at all very globally minded, I didn’t get to travel very much, so I just had no idea that we had these sorts of things happen against women in our world,” she admits.

Jud first launched the preliminary group after learning how women were being treated under Taliban rule in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Rising International women weave baskets

HEALING HANDS In the wake of genocide, Rwandans have found it healing to focus on commonalities. Here, Josephine Ngirababyeyi, center, weaves baskets with women from different backgrounds through Rising International’s partner group, Azizi Life. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRISTI WHITEKETTLE

Fifteen years later, Rising has an extensive global network, branching together organizations in the “worst countries to live as a woman,” says Jud. Approximately 10,000 people a year attend Rising events in the U.S. alone, says Jud—that’s 10,000 people educated on the plight of women in these regions.  

According to the IRS, the group was the first to try the home party model for a social cause.

And they’re only using the best parts of the Avon model, Jud clarifies, not the multi-level marketing methods or binding recruitment tactics.

Although their team is small, says Jud, the direct-selling model has proven successful in mobilizing all participants.

“I have to say I don’t really clearly understand how we even exist, because we don’t have steady funding. It’s just volunteers who are totally driven by the cause,” she laughs.

The goal, she says, it to get even just a fraction of the number of people who attend Avon and other home parties to a Rising event. Numbers like that (6.4 million women sold $10 billion of Avon products in 2013) could change the course of global poverty, says Jud.

The stories of women turning their lives around are countless, says Jud. In Afghanistan, a woman was forced to sell her children out of poverty and was able to buy them back after working with a Rising satellite group making dolls. After escaping the brothels of Calcutta, a girl named Priyanka was able to raise money through jewelry making to buy her mother out of prostitution.

Susanna Camperos, 27, was able to move her family out of the eastside of Salinas where her brother was killed in a gang-related murder in 2007, to a safer part of town. Camperos was in high school when she started and the living wage transformed her life, she says. Now working for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, Camperos says that Rising has made it possible for her to help send necessities to family back in Mexico.

 

THINKING LOCALLY, ACTING GLOBALLY

Jud was first inspired by news reports about women in Afghanistan, so she started volunteering for an offshoot of the Feminist Majority Foundation, selling handcrafted goods made by Afghan women fleeing the conflict, which was founded by Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife. Jud was tabling at an event in Palo Alto when an Afghan woman, Nadia Hashimi—now a Rising board member—recognized the handcrafted items on display. Hashimi put Jud in touch with her mother, who was still living in Kabul, risking her life to run an underground school for girls in the Taliban-controlled city.

Rising’s expansion to other countries grew organically after that—interest among members was increasing, says Jud, so she started reaching out to make connections in other countries.

Rising International Paula Smith

DRIVE ON After surviving domestic abuse, cancer, and housing instability, Paula Smith turned her life around with the help of Rising International. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

In 2009, Rising sent intern Katrina Makuch to Rwanda to find a group of women in need of economic support. Makuch found Food For the Hungry volunteersChristi Whitekettle and Tom MacGregor, and together they forged Azizi Life to connect local artisans to the international market.

Whitekettle is the international liaison for Azizi Life, and she says that the country has taken many strides since the genocide—almost 64 percent of parliamentarians are women—but it can take something extra to break free from traditional gender roles at home.

“One overall cultural idea is that the man is the head of the home and the woman is the heart. In many families the husband and the wife work really hard, but the woman does all the housework, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, as well as participating in farming work,” says Whitekettle. “Any time she needs something she can’t grow herself she needs to ask the man: you could imagine that even in the most functional of relationships that can be taxing for both spouses, so even for those women, having an independent source of income is really liberating and it helps to highlight her value and her dignity.”

Even for a single woman like Josephine Ngirababyeyi, 42, who survived the genocide—sleeping on the ground for two years as a refugee in the Congo, seeing her parents and first husband die—Rwanda’s societal structure puts a majority of the work on her shoulders.

Skyping from the Azizi Life office in Gitarama with a translator, Ngirababyeyi still grins as she explains the measures she has to take to get there: from her village, Ngirababyeyi hitches a ride on a motorcycle to the main road and then a bus from there to the office. The journey takes three hours, if the bus doesn’t break down—which it does, often.

But as a single mother with four children, the extra income is worth the journey, she says.

Most of her time is filled with subsistence farming—as is common for over 70 percent of the population—but the money from selling her hand-woven baskets helps with buying food, clothes, health insurance, school fees for her children and even with items for other families.

 

FREEDOM FIGHTERS

While Ngirababyeyi’s extra income helps her cover the basics to survive, in India some women have risked far more to make it to a living wage. Stories like those of Priyanka buying her way out of sexual slavery through jewelry-making are, unfortunately, the exception. Human trafficking and slavery are an all-too pervasive phenomenon in the country, says Sarah Symons, who created Her Future Coalition, a group that trains jewelry makers in India and Nepal and collaborates with Rising.

According to the United Nations, about 45.8 million people exist in some form of modern slavery across 167 countries, with the highest absolute numbers of people on modern slavery being India.

Sometimes family members sell their daughters, other times girls go to the big cities thinking they’ll get jobs in a kitchen or as a maid, not knowing that it can often end up being a brothel, says Symons. Separated from their support network, often unable to speak the local dialect or language, they’re left vulnerable.

“They tend to be girls from rural communities, either from India’s poor areas or surrounding countries Bangladesh, Nepal, the traditional communities,” says Symons, “so because they’re a girl—a poor girl, they just have no value. If there’s any money in the family the boys are sent to school and without job opportunities girls are seen as a burden. It becomes a decision of survival.”

When they’re rescued by agencies or the police, the girls are sent to shelters to recover—some of which offer the option to start training in jewelry smithing with Her Future Coalition. In addition to vocational training, the organization also provides human and legal rights training.

“We’re really trying to elevate them in every way so that they’re not just making jewelry, we want them to be free in every aspect of their life,” says Symons.

 

THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY

While Azizi Life and Her Future Coalition are just two of the partner organizations working with Rising on the international scale, Jud is also busy building a local network for human trafficking survivors.

“Just two years ago, I actually said in our office out loud. ‘Hey wait, I was born here and I don’t know if human trafficking is happening here?’ How can we even say we’re a women’s empowerment organization if we don’t know if girls here are being trafficked?” says Jud. “The very next day I got a call from a girl being sold by her father. The next day.”

So she spearheaded the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties with local businesses, organizations and individuals.

Most programs are set up to deal with what happens after someone has been trafficked, says Jud, not prevention. Instead, the coalition leads workshops for foster youth and adults combining jewelry making and tactics on how to stay safe through their Safe and Sound Program.

“Ultimately if you look at what all this work is for, why are we doing all of this? One of the things that we believe as an organization, that we dream of, is to see what the world would look like if women had an equal voice, because we’ve actually never seen that world. Ever. We know that where violence happens the most is where women are the most marginalized,” says Jud. “We want to see if women did have a say in those communities the change that would happen there so that we can see a world that none of us have ever seen.”


Upcoming Rising International Pop-Up events: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4, ETR Corporate Office, 100 Enterprise Way, G300, Scotts Valley. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, May 13, Toyota of Santa Cruz, 4200 Auto Plaza Drive, Capitola. Film screening ‘I Am Jane Doe’ 7-8:30 p.m., Thursday, May 25, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. risinginternational.org.


Updates 04/06/2017: The strides taken by Rwanda since the genocide were underestimated—almost 64 percent of parliamentarians are women, but traditional gender roles are the norm in domestic situations; subsistence farming is common amongst 70 percent of the population of Rwanda, not 90 as originally reported; Christi Whitekettle and Tom MacGregor were volunteers at at Food For The Hungry and did not lead the program as originally reported.

Features Editor at |

Anne-Marie was 9 when she decided she would be a journalist. Many years, countless all-nighters, two majors and one degree later, she started as GT’s Features Editor a day after graduating UCSC.
In her writing she seeks to share local LGBTQ/Queer stories and unpack Santa Cruz’s unique relationship with gender, race, the arts, and armpit hair.
A dedicated pursuant of wokeness and turtleneck evangelist, she finds joy in wall calendars and that fold of skin above the knee.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jenny L Wood

    April 7, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Rising International is an inspired and inspiring organization! I just can’t believe that such an innovative solution to poverty both locally and globally has not been done before! If you’re wondering what you can do, contact Rising International and host a party. I’ve done two of them and they are so much fun! And they bring such a spirit of love and warmth into your home.

    Thank you Ann-Marie for highlighting this amazing organization and their work!

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