When I was 8 or 9, I recall gazing through the window of our two-family home on our tree-lined street near Boston. I considered why was I born in this beautiful neighborhood and not in “Africa”. In my young mind, thanks to media images of war and famine, “Africa” was the epitome of poverty. I didn’t understand that generational poverty and busing riots were occurring only a few miles from my home. I didn’t understand the complexities of racial, gender or socioeconomic inequity. But I knew my life was different from billions of others in the world because of where I was born.
My mother grew up poor, the child of immigrant parents and my dad grew up in a working-class family. His parents lived paycheck to paycheck, and he determined to change that in his own life. He worked 80 hours per week throughout my childhood and succeeded in moving our family to the “rich” part of town. I graduated from a private university debt-free.
In 2008 I was invited on a vision trip with Forest Hill Church to visit a ministry working in Rwanda and Burundi. While on the trip we visited a genocide memorial where 11,000 men, women, children, and babies were brutally murdered in a span of hours. I stood amongst the bones with a survivor of the massacre with thoughts like those I had looking out my window when I was 8… why am I here as a visitor rather than a survivor or victim? We heard the stories of Rwandans who forgave people who murdered their own family members. I was stunned, especially as I considered the lack of forgiveness in my own life for minor offenses.
I returned to Charlotte transformed with new awareness and sensitivity to poverty and injustice and new inspiration to build relationships with people with different life experiences from mine.
I became friends with a young woman who was trafficked into sexual exploitation in Charlotte when she was 16. A friend encouraged her to leave the lifestyle and they began helping other young women escape.
I met an artist who survived 30 years in an abusive marriage in order to protect her children. She courageously bought a one-way ticket to Charlotte to start a new life, leaving everything she owned and everything she knew behind. She served for many years as our lead jewelry designer using her skills and her compassion to serve other women.
I met a young woman who came to Charlotte from Haiti after the earthquake to escape poverty and destruction. She taught herself English in a matter of months so she could reach her dream of providing a better life for her younger sisters and family back in Haiti. She graduated from Nursing School and is financially supporting her sisters as they pursue college degrees.
These women changed my life. They inspired me and taught me about hope,
determination, and resilience.
I considered my life in the light of these new friends, who faced significant challenges from the trauma and oppression they faced, and I prayerfully considered what my response should be. I began to dedicate my time, my financial resources, and my personal network to walk alongside these courageous and amazing women on their journeys. The result was Fashion & Compassion, now BraveWorks.
We began by periodically hiring women overcoming sexual exploitation in Charlotte to make necklaces from broken paper bead jewelry and beautiful Ethiopian crosses. As we strung the beads, the women opened their hearts and I learned about their hopes and dreams for the future. We invited more women facing other challenges such as addiction, incarceration, and abuse as well as refugees and immigrants to join us making jewelry each week.
As I got to know the women, I realized that there were simple connections or
introductions I could make to friends or organizations that could help them. We do this every day with our friends and neighbors – a friend shares a situation, a challenge or a dream and we connect them with a friend or organization we know that can help. The term for this networking is social capital.
According to JD Vance “there is enormous value in what economists call social capital….the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.”
Unfortunately, too often social capital stays within communities of privilege, further benefitting those who already have access to opportunities but remaining inaccessible to those suffering from the results of poverty and injustice. One of the beautiful things that BraveWorks offers women is access to opportunities through the collective social capital of our staff, volunteers, and network of local partners.
This shared social capital has connected women to jobs, housing, and opportunities for further growth. The staff, peer and volunteer community within the jewelry projects provide love, practical support and spiritual growth opportunities empowering the women toward holistic life transformation.
For 10 years, BraveWorks has empowered women in Charlotte to transform their lives and has supported families around the world through global artisan partners. It brings me incredible joy to see women’s lives continue to be transformed. I’m grateful that God provided Beth Bell to continue the vision and take the organization and impact to the next level – she’s phenomenal!! I’m also deeply grateful to the greater BraveWorks community who continue to support the work through prayers, shopping with a purpose and financial gifts.