Changemakers: Joan Shifrin and Catherine Shimony

Changemakers Joan and Catherine at work El Hombre sobre la Tierra woman At work in Swaziland Image: © Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos

By Staff | Changemaker
Posted Apr 3, 2013

Changemaker is our series that highlights some really amazing work that is fueled by a passion and desire to change the world through sustainable efforts.  We caught up with the founders of  Global Goods Partners- a non-profit organization that helps women in marginalized communities by selling their handmade, fair-trade products- to learn more about what they are doing to make a difference.

What’s your background? (Where did you grow up, go to school, etc and some of the history that laid the groundwork for GGP.)

Joan: We both grew up in the mid-west; myself in Cleveland and Catherine in Chicago. When I was young, I was drawn to books about girls whose lives and families were very different than my own. I spent a semester in high school living with a family in Wales and then went to a small college (Macalester)—known for its global perspective and student body—to study cultural anthropology. I eventually shifted to international studies, spending my junior year in Geneva, Switzerland. Immediately after college, I moved to Washington, DC, where I worked for two years before going to graduate school at SAIS (the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies).

After working several years in the private sector, I joined a firm in Washington that created public education campaigns on health related issues. When I was offered a job to lead the social marketing efforts of a young organization supporting non-formal education initiatives and youth empowerment around the world, I jumped at the chance. It was there, at the Global Fund for Children, that I witnessed first hand what I knew to be true only in theory up until that point: that income generation through dignified work was a key to improving women’s lives and the lives of their families. While I traveled at GFC I saw the incredible craft skills that were passed down from one generation of women to the next and the beautiful products that women produced. But often there wasn’t a market for their crafts; products languished and, worse yet, craft skills diminished among women in local communities.

While we each worked in our respective organizations, Catherine and I talked often about the women we met and the reservoir of skill, intelligence, creativity and wisdom that was often untapped or entirely suppressed. Ultimately, we shared a vision and decided to take the plunge.

Catherine: In high school I was interested in foreign languages and studied both French and Spanish. This was in the 70’s, when our thinking was less global and there was less emphasis on foreign languages. I traveled overseas after high school and again for my junior semester during the University of Michigan. After college I worked for the Berlitz School of Languages as the director of one of their Chicago offices but after one year, decided to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where I spent the first year in Bologna, Italy and the second year in Washington, DC. It was in graduate school where I became interested in international development and human rights and traveled to Kenya to do research on women’s cooperatives for the summer following graduate school. Since then, I have had many interesting positions, all in the nonprofit sector with an international focus: Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Council of the Americas; UN; American Jewish World Service and now Global Goods Partners. The issues that I’m most passionate about are women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation and justice. All three comprise the mission of Global Goods Partners.

What motivated you to start Global Goods Partners?

We launched GGP to provide a bridge between the US marketplace and the poor, often isolated, communities where beautiful handmade artisan products were being made. While many products sold as global crafts were widely available in the US, most were factory made under exploitative circumstances. Only crafts made by artisans earning a fair living wage can produce sustainable livelihoods. So, we set out to create an organization that adhered to fair trade practices and promoted fair trade as a critical element to the achievement of equity and justice.

We were clear from the start that our approach would be to work with community groups—as opposed to individual artisans—where the benefits of income generation initiatives can be maximized. Today, we work with more than 35 associations, cooperatives and social enterprises worldwide that integrate their commitment to community development and social justice—such as improvements in education, health, women’s rights, and employment opportunities—with socially responsible income- generating programs in craft development.


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