A NonProfit 501(c)3
Bold for change
By Aarti Monteiro
Aarti is the daughter of co-founder Lalita Monteiro. She lived in India as a small child before moving to the Middle East. She has lived in the U.S. since middle school and just graduated with an MFA from Rutgers University. She visited Mumbai in May 2017.
MarketPlace's newest artisan cooperative, Jivdani Mahila Mandal, is located north of Mumbai in a small city called Virar. It took Bhakti, MarketPlace's production manager, and I almost two hours to get there. The train rattled through Mumbai's northern suburbs, the city landscape changing into fields and saltpans as we crossed over the river.
Rajeshree, a social worker for MarketPlace and SHARE, met us at the train station and we took a bumpy rickshaw ride to the home of one of the artisans. The women sat on the tiled floor, chatting with each other, Rajeshree, and Bhakti in Marathi while I listened, not understanding most of what they said. They served tea, biscuits and sweet chai in small metal cups, while their green bangles, which signified that they were married, I was told, jangled together. I asked them questions about their experience with MarketPlace so far, Bhakti translating for me.
They told me about their training on hand embroidery and tailoring, how it was challenging to travel to MarketPlace, but how they liked the independence they gained through the work. One woman said that she had done embroidery for her neighbors in the past, but with MarketPlace, it is more than a job; it was a business that they are all growing together. Much of the embroidery work they do happens in their homes, so they can balance their family responsibilities while continuing to make a living and be independent from their husbands.
After our tea and conversation with the artisans, Bhakti, Rajeshree, and I tried to take a rickshaw to the new office. Most of the drivers didn't want to take us, zipping away when we said where we were going. Rajashree told me this was because it seemed too far away, lamenting how difficult it was to get around in the area. Finally, we crowded in a rickshaw, the heat and dust gathering around us, and drove the half hour to the office, where Rajeshree and I continued to chat.
Rajeshree joined MarketPlace-SHARE as a social worker in 2015. Within six months of starting with the organization, she was tasked with starting a new artisan cooperative. She went to ten different communities in and around Mumbai in search of a place that would be the right fit. "I'm not from this area," Rajeshree told me, "so I had to see all the slums and talk to various people about MarketPlace and what we do before finding a fitting location and people."
After she settled on Virar as the right community, Rajeshree worked with the new artisans and a lawyer to register the group as a cooperative which will work with MarketPlace. As a cooperative, all of the artisans are owners and invested in the group. Rajeshree said that it was challenging to coordinate with the lawyers because most of the women weren't used to dealing with official documents and legal issues. Lawyers, in their experience, were only for people accused of crimes! They didn't want to share their family information, but Rajeshree supported them, carefully explaining what each document was for and why they needed it.
Many of the challenges they encountered, Rajeshree said, were around travel. "It's a lonely area," she said. It's hard to get auto-rickshaws or buses there, and many of the women who signed up to be part of the cooperative would say that they couldn't come for trainings because of the expensive commute. Rajeshree went to each of their homes, listening to their problems and ultimately convincing most of them that this was a great opportunity to gain more independence and have a job. She explained to me that by opening up about her own hardships she had created a bond that helped them trust her.
MarketPlace started the artisans on making bags and necklaces to develop their tailoring and stitching skills. The tailors went to the office for training every day for two months, getting a stipend from the organization for transport. Now, they have their own orders, working on patchwork fabric and products. They still have challenges with traveling to MarketPlace's main office in Santa Cruz for social programs twice a month, but they travel together and MarketPlace is in the process of setting up a sub-office so that the artisans north of the city don't have to travel quite so far. Rajeshree visits the group often, supporting them and helping them problem-solve as issues arise.
When I started talking to Rajeshree about how her family responded to her work with MarketPlace and her starting the new cooperative, she responded vaguely, saying that her family was supportive. As she started talking more, however, she opened up about the challenges she faced. She finished her high school degree after getting married and took a para-professional course in social work, she told me. Now, in addition to her job with MarketPlace-SHARE, she is studying towards a Master's in Social Work. Her husband was angry when she started working at MarketPlace, she admitted, resentful that she had to travel to Mumbai and other sites around the city. He wanted her to be close, as is customary in the community. He even secured her a job working with a local builder, but she was firm in her desire to be a social worker. Her husband got angry and didn't speak to her for almost six months. When I asked Rajeshree how she managed that, she said that she just stayed firm because she knew that this is what she cared about. She wanted to work with people, to help them. She felt bad about what she was going through with her husband, but she just thought of the artisans and that helped her get through it. "If you can get me a job in social work that's closer to home," she told him, "then I'll do that instead."
Her husband drives an auto-rickshaw, though he does not work consistently. Rajeshree is therefore the primary earner of the family, supporting her children's education and teaching them how to cook for themselves so they could learn to be independent. When her husband couldn't find her a job close to home, he accepted her working with MarketPlace and her need to travel around the city.
"I've gone through a lot of the same challenges as the artisans," Rajeshree said, "so I want to help them." She told me she was proud to be part of MarketPlace, proud of what the organization is doing. "It's not just a job for me." Now that she's been able to start a group, she feels confident that she can do it again.