The second most common question Ruraq Mak is asked is how I, the founder of the organization, got involved with working with incarcerated women in Peru. Before I tell the story I want to preface it by saying that although I founded Ruraq Maki, I am in no way the only person responsible for the birth of this beautiful project. Many people have helped in large and small ways and it is through these collaborative actions that Ruraq Maki has been able to stand on its own two feet.
In 2007 I embarked on a 5 month study abroad volunteer program in Peru. I spent the first 3 months in Lima and last 2 months in Ayacucho. When I arrived in Ayacucho the program informed me I would be working in the prison with women and asked if I could teach the women a new skill. Flabbergasted at what I was asked to do I drew on the only skill I felt comfortable enough to teach: jewelry making.
Jewelry making had been a long time hobby of mine and I I quickly outlined the class, with a loose idea of what we could do. The women were interested in the jewelry class and when we announced it 20 women signed up.
The classes began and I did my best to teach the fundamentals of jewelry design in my limited Spanish and bring new and interesting designs to the women. Many of the women stuck with it and, after two month, the women had a basic knowledge of jewelry making and wire work. The women had been used to classes that taught mediocre skills or English. My class was the first that gave them a skill they could use to earn income and it was fun! In those two months I became very close to and fond of the women and leaving the prison to return to the U.S. was gut wrenching. On my last day one of the women said to me, “Thank you for respecting us and treating us like human beings. When you treat us like that it makes us feel that way.”
I returned to the U.S. wanting to do something more for the women in the prison, but unfortunately, young and inexperienced, I got caught up with my life and this idea slipped away.
Fast forward 2 years later to January 2009: I received an email from a former volunteer in my program who had visited the prison. The email told me the women were asking about me and wanted me to come back. The volunteer suggested I start a long term project for the women.
Stunned that my class had made such an impact that 2 years later the women remembered me, I decided I had to return to Peru. Logistically I was at a loss. I no longer spoke Spanish, didn’t have anywhere to stay, and wondered how I was even going to get into the prison, yet stubbornly I bought a ticket for a 6 week summer trip to Ayacucho and enough supplies for a jewelry class.
As luck would have it, the day I arrived in Ayacucho I ran into a woman with close connections to the prison and she agreed to take me to the prison the next day. The reunion was joyous and after a bit of a snag with my health (okay- I was hospitalized for 2 days) the jewelry class was underway. Many of the women in my 2007 class returned, along with new women and we worked solely in wire working, creating beautiful jewelry along the way.
Yet, jewelry making wasn’t enough to truly help the women. There needed to be something more. The women made beautiful bags from manta which was hand woven in the prison and later hand embroidered by the women. I decided to invest my savings into the bags and bring them back to the U.S. to sell. Whatever money I made from the bags could be used to buy more bags and materials for the class. The idea was that by creating a market for their products in the U.S., the women would have reliable work several times a year and make more than they did from embroidering manta. It was worth a try.
Before I left Ayacucho, I asked the women to name the project, hoping that it would help the women feel a sense of ownership over it. They chose Ruraq Maki which is Quechua for “hand that create”.
When I returned to the U.S., I had no doubt that Ruraq Maki was meant to be in my life. Almost immediately I filed my paperwork to incorporate the organization. I began selling bags, to friends, family, and to Rainbow Grocery Co-operative, Ruraq Maki’s first vendor. Later in the year I sold the products at a craft fair and made enough money to place another order with the women and return to Peru the following January. Since then the organization has grown, slowly, but surely.
Part of my motivation for telling this story is that many people want to do something to help others, yet have no idea where to start and are afraid they will fail. I was no different. As a 24 year old student, I had very few resources available to me and simply had to make do with what I had. Yet, I took that leap because in my mind there was no other alternative and whatever fears and worries I had, they were nothing compared the reality of the women’s lives. I’ve had to redefine my notion of success and remind myself that my small impact is part of many small impacts all over the world. When you add it up, we are making a lot of change, and if more people join us, imagine what we can do.
- ruraqmaki posted this