Lancaster Limelight: Ten Thousand Villages

It’s Valentine’s Day!

Instead of talking about cool things to do on Valentine’s Day and all that fun jazz, we Gents had a different idea.

We wanted to tell a heartwarming story.

So here goes.

When we started Gents of Lancaster, Alex, Gentry, and I wanted to create a space where we could talk about the stuff we like while incorporating local businesses and non-profits.

To date, we’ve done a little bit of that — and we really want to start doing more.

So to get into the swing of things, we want to turn the tiny, tiny, tiny spotlight of our website onto a local non-profit that the three of us passionately support: Ten Thousand Villages.

Here’s why you should support it, too.

What Is Ten Thousand Villages?

Ten Thousand Villages in a non-profit retailer that pays artisans in foreign countries to practice their craft. That sounds like a typical business, right?

But Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit because, well, it’s not trying to make a profit.

Here’s how they work.

Ten Thousand Villages identifies an area that’s typically underserved, economically.

They then commission whatever the artisans in an area can craft — book ends, chess sets, baskets, rugs, etc.

Once an artisan finishes their item, Ten Thousand Villages purchases it from the artisan to cover the cost of materials, labors, and some extra.

Then, Ten Thousand Villages sells the item with the primary goal of moving inventory.

That means they may sell items at cost or even at a loss.

In that way, Ten Thousand Villages acts more like an investor in its artisans than an actual retailer.

Artisans are paid in full for their work, and if Ten Thousand Villages can’t make the money back from the purchase, then it eats the cost.

So why does this matter?

Using this system, Ten Thousand Villages has helped more than 20,000 artisans in impoverished areas around the world.

Artisans work how they want, when they want. They’re paid better for their craft than they would get in a typical corporate environment, like a sweatshop.

And in that way, Ten Thousand Villages is helping individuals in underdeveloped areas meet a quality of life that would otherwise be impossible.

Noble, right?

The entire premise is based on fair trade, ethical work, and a sense of compassion that conventional capitalism is all too quick to forget.

But that’s just the beginning — it’s even more impressive how Ten Thousand Villages started.

How Did Ten Thousand Villages Start?

Ten Thousand Villages started in an unusual way.

It all started with Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite woman from Akron, Pennsylvania (Lancaster County) who traveled to Puerto Rico in 1946.

While she was there, she saw that women were struggling, especially when it came to providing basic needs for their children.

(Like food.)

But the women of Puerto Rico did make some interesting needlework.

Convinced that other Americans would be interested in it just like she was, Byler bought some needlework and took it back to Lancaster County to sell.

And she sold it.

Ten Thousand Villages now repeats that process on a global scale from Pakistan to Vietnam.

But Byler didn’t stop there.

Mennonite Central Committee, also of Lancaster County, took an interest in Byler’s idea and actively helped her reach more women in more countries.

In the 1950s, MCC helped Byler build relationships with women in Jordan and India.

From there, Ten Thousand Villages surged into the global charity that it is today.

So why is this noteworthy?

If you’re familiar with the culture of Lancaster County (or general American history), you probably already know.

But I’ll write it out anyway.

Why Is This History Noteworthy?

This is why Byler’s journey is so impressive:

  1. She was a Mennonite
  2. She was a woman in 1946
  3. She got support

Before you hate me for saying this, let’s take a look at Byler’s story in context.

First, She Was a Mennonite

If you don’t know, Mennonites are an historically conservative group of people.

Even the most progressive minds in the Mennonite faith rate as centrist or traditional-leaning in the sense of American culture as a whole.

This is exacerbated by the fact that southern Pennsylvania is a historically conservative area. It hasn’t been kind to non-white non-straight non-males for a very long time, either socially or politically.

So for Byler, a Mennonite woman, to strike out on her own and start doing something like this, it’s truly remarkable.

Most of the history I wrote in the last section came from Ten Thousand Villages directly.

But what the organization doesn’t talk about is all of the adversity that Byler almost certainly had to overcome from a cultural and religious perspective.

Hell, I was baptized into a “progressive” Mennonite church and I have a distinct memory of watching grown men argue about whether women had the capacity to be leaders.

That was in 2006.

That idea existed in the same area 60 years after Byler started doing this.

And I’m not trying to badmouth Mennonites here. As I mentioned before, I was one.

I’m making this judgment call based on the overwhelming pro-masculine anti-feminine sentiment that I saw in my church growing up — and like I said, my home church was one of the more progressive ones in the area.

Considering it was also a few miles away from Akron, I feel confident in the knowledge that Byler had a good amount of people get in her way and even try to tear her down.

After all, Mennonites are only a stone’s throw from being Amish, which is a weirdly-celebrated cult with an absolutely abysmal view of women overall.

But I digress.

Byler had to overcome some heavy obstacles, for sure.

Second, She Was a Woman in 1946

So why does this matter?

Sexism (and general prejudice) was an ingrained part of the American culture in the 1940s.

This wasn’t even three decades after women got the right to vote, just before the advent of the idealized and hyper-conformist 1950s where everyone had a family with a mom, dad, daughter, son, dog, and white picket fence.

So Byler didn’t just have to overcome the prejudices and ideologies of her local community — she lived in a country (and world, really) where the rhetoric surrounding a woman’s life was to procreate and raise children.

And instead of doing that, she started a worldwide movement.

Impressive, to say the least.

Third, She Got Support

The fact that Byler got support from MCC is a big deal.

Generally speaking, MCC is a disaster relief non-profit that sends Mennonites around the world to help impoverished areas.

They saw the value in Byler’s work and made it possible for her to expand to other countries.

So she was a Mennonite woman in 1946 and an entire organization decided to support her entrepreneurial work.

That’s pretty wild.

But the story that Byler created has a clear theme in this context — and maybe that’s why I like it so much.

A Mennonite woman in 1946 decided to form a microeconomic system that directly benefited impoverished women she found throughout the world.

It’s a story that’s built on the very concept of underdogs.

The uphill battle against a conservative faith, conservative social norms, and then to find financial support is an incredible journey for Byler to have traversed.

And now, 60-some years after Byler first went to Puerto Rico, Ten Thousand Villages is making a difference on every continent.

Except Antarctica.

I mean, come on.

So all in all, Ten Thousand Villages exists as a non-profit that helps more than 20,000 people throughout the world stay above the poverty line.

It empowers people to buy food by creating everything from trinkets to intricate rugs that bear the hallmarks of strong cultural heritage.

The things created for Ten Thousand Villages all have stories. They have people who cared for them, and they’re looking for good homes.

And at the end of the day, supporting Ten Thousand Villages means supporting someone you’ll never see, meet, talk to, or maybe even fully understand.

But you’ll help them in ways that’ll change their lives — and, someday, the world.

What Does Supporting Ten Thousand Villages Do?

This is the brass tacks question for any capitalist purists out there.

Although, to be fair, it’s also a good question for anyone unfamiliar with Ten Thousand Villages.

Supporting Ten Thousand Villages means you help grow a non-profit dollar by dollar.

That cash then gets spread throughout the world to some of the people who need it most.

Buying a new chess set (I love their chess sets) helps a child eat.

Buying a rug (they’re really nice) probably buys a house.

Buying a drum (they sound awesome) can just make someone’s life easier.

All the while, you get some of the coolest crafts that were made by cultural natives, all of whom earn a living by showing their people to the world.

How Can You Support Ten Thousand Villages?

There are three basic ways you can help Ten Thousand Villages grow:

  1. Buy from them
  2. Volunteer for them
  3. Work for them

Simple enough, right?

They always need help in their hometown of Akron, Pennsylvania, but they also have locations throughout the United States.

(And world, actually.)

So if you want to do something great for a world-changing non-profit that was started by a Mennonite woman in the 1940s, this is your chance to help Edna Ruth Byler’s dream thrive throughout the planet.

You can help change the world by buying something cool.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every retailer worked that way?

Want to Start Small?

No problem — we totally get it.

Check out Ten Thousand Villages for yourself.

And then help change the world.