Kelsey Timmerman — Author of ‘Where am I Wearing’ and Co-founder of ‘The Facing Project’

Kelsey Timmerman is the author of WHERE AM I WEARING? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes and WHERE AM I EATING? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Condé Nast Portfolio and has aired on NPR. Kelsey is also the cofounder of the Facing Project, which seeks to connect people through stories to strengthen community. He has spent the night in Castle Dracula in Romania, played PlayStation in Kosovo, farmed on four continents, taught an island village to play baseball in Honduras, and in another life, worked as a SCUBA instructor in Key West, Florida. Whether in print or in person he seeks to connect people around the world. What inspired you to start teaching? I’m not sure I consider myself a teacher in the traditional sense.  A lot of universities and high schools have adopted my books WHERE AM I WEARING? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes and WHERE AM I EATING? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy as common reads and in classes so I get the chance to reach a lot of students from the page and while visiting campuses. But the stories are the real teachers.  I’m just the storyteller. My job is to introduce readers and audiences to the people I’ve met on my journeys to meet the folks who make our stuff (clothes and food). What is one of your favorite things about doing what you’re doing? WHY? I’ve farmed on four continents, spent the night in slums, shared a dugout canoe with a deadly venomous snake, but by far the best thing about doing what I do is sitting over a home-cooked dinner with a family in some faraway region of the world I never thought I would visit. This isn’t me saying that food is my favorite part, far from it.  I’ve eaten my share of bat, cane rat, and guinea pig.  But being welcomed into someone’s home and treated like family is always special. What has been one of your biggest struggles? When I was researching my latest book WHERE AM I EATING? I met a slave named Solo in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast.  It was a soul shaking experience.  He told me that the donkeys got treated better than he did because at least they got fed when they weren’t working. He called the farm owner master.  I feel silly talking about this as if it was a great struggle for me… because he was a slave.  That’s his reality. The struggle for me is overcoming the guilt that a product I love, that I eat almost daily, relies heavily on slave labor.  Guilt isn’t going to make a difference.  Accepting responsibility that we — including me, a young father from rural Indiana, and, Solo, a 20-year-old slave in Ivory Coast — are all connected.  We want to make our families proud. We want a chance to experience the dignity of work.  We want our kids to live better lives than our own.   What is it about fair trade that gets you inspired? Why should people care if their stuff is not made fairly? Fair trade treats people like we would want our fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, treated.  It gives folks dignity and a chance to improve their lives.  I really like the social premium involved in Fair Trade that goes back to the workers and farmers for them to decide how to spend. I visited a Fair Trade coffee co-op deep in the mountains of northern Colombia. The roads were barely roads. There were skeletons of wrecked SUVs alongside the road. Who knows what became of their passengers? Finally we made it back to the valley, which is the spiritual and cultural capital of the Arhuaco indians.  After bouncing around in the SUV for a better part of the day, I could’ve made a really strong argument for a road repair or construction project. But here’s the thing…. I don’t know what’s best for the Arhuaco. They do! They don’t want their valley to be easily reached. They’ve had outsiders come in before and try to convert them to a western lifestyle, and they don’t want any part of that.   They like their isolation.  The Fair Trade premium allows them to keep the world at arm’s length while supplying their community with access to medical treatment and education.  They’ve built clinics and schools with the Fair Trade premium they’ve earned. What do you think it will take for people to care enough to make a change in their daily purchasing decisions to buy products that empower, rather than exploit? I think that we’ve lost a connection with our things. It used to be that we knew the butcher, the baker, and the garment maker.  We knew what the lives of the folks who produced our goods were like. Our things had stories.  Now our things magically appear on a shelf as if they hadn’t crossed wide expanses of ocean to get to us. I work to make these connections for consumers.  I want to build awareness and therefore community across the global divide. I think people do genuinely care about the lives of the people who make their stuff once they read or meet that person or see their photo.  A few years ago a guy in England ordered a new iPhone and, when he opened it, he discovered a picture of a Chinese worker from the iPhone factory.  He posted the photo online and there was a media frenzy trying to discover who iPhone girl was.  When we saw this young woman’s smile, we actually cared about her. And once people see this connection they have with farmers and workers around the world, they want to support brands that provide producers with genuine opportunities.  This is happening one story, one sip of Fair Trade coffee, and one pair of Oliberte’s at a time. We’ll get there. What’s your favourite movement or brand right now? I’m loving the amount of apparel companies getting into Fair Trade.  In 2007, When I was on the global garment adventure that became WHERE AM I WEARING?  there were far fewer “ethical” clothing options than there are today.  Now companies like Patagonia and prAna are marketing and selling Fair Trade Certified products.  There are Fair Trade shoes!  I’m loving my Olibertes but I’m not sure I’d run a marathon in them.  But someday there will be Fair Trade running shoes. If you could have a one-on-one sit down with anyone for a conversation, who would it be and what would be your message/request to them? If I could snap my fingers and have anyone in the world sitting right next to me it would be Solo, the slave in I met in Ivory Coast.   I got Solo away from the farm he was working on. For a short while we were sort of on the run, but then we got separated.  Days later I heard he was back on the farm.  Someone may have taken him back, but it’s more likely that he looked at his options, at the opportunities before him, and chose to go back.  I think he may have chosen slavery, and that terrifies me.  It also shows me how desperate folks are for opportunities.  The line between exploitation and opportunity shouldn’t blur. Anyhow, I’d like to sit and talk with Solo and ask him how he ended up back on the farm.  I’d like to ask him how to find his parents in Ghana so I could tell them that their son is alive and working on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast.  That’s the least I could do. Favourite book? Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo because she paints the inhabitants of a slum in Bangalore, India, as humans and not three dimensional objects to be pitied.  Boo shows that the slum residents are every bit as rich in character and wisdom as those of us born into situations of abundant opportunity. What’s something exciting we can expect to see from you soon?   I’m really fortunate that I get invited to speak all over the world about my work. It’s an honor to share the stories of the folks who let me into their lives with students, communities, and conferences. So that keeps me pretty busy I have several book projects in the works, but all of them are too early to talk about. You can be sure that whichever project is next will be a continuation of my work connecting people through stories to strengthen our sense of global and local community. I also co-founded a community storytelling project, The Facing Project, which matches a community’s writers with individuals facing certain issues (poverty, autism, bullying, sex trafficking, disabilities, etc). The writers then tell the stories as if they are those individuals. A book is published and spread throughout the community, and released at an event of monologue readings and discussion.  I’ve had my life changed by carrying around the weight of someone else’s story.  At The Facing Project we help communities carry the weight of their own stories.

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