By Kaitlin Carney
MONTICELLO There is a group of teenagers in Sullivan County who are not just talking about change they feel needs to be made in their community they’re making it happen. Under the umbrella of Rural & Migrant Ministry, an organization that has fought for over 30 years for social justice and rights of farm workers in Sullivan County, the Youth Economic Group (YEG) was formed in 2010.
These teens identified a lack of jobs and challenging creative opportunities to be involved in as two major problems. The YEG has started its first venture: a cooperative business model that has members designing, sourcing, fabricating, and selling market bags. The teens researched their product, traveled to NYC for creative inspiration, and brainstormed ideas and concepts on storyboards.
A first in what will be a long line of accessories is the market bag. The teens purchase the bags from Justico, a fair-trade women’s cooperative in Mexico. They then hand dye each bag with a variety of custom natural dyes. When the bags are dry, the teens silk screen custom designs with messages of social justice and equality.
“There are statements on different ideas that the group thinks, are concerned about, and feels is pressing to bring awareness to,” explained Youth Economic Education Coordinator Jillian Rahm.
The YEG Business is youth-run and youth-operated. Following a cooperative business model means that everyone does equal work, has equal accountability, and are constantly reinvesting in the project. The business is also a grant funded project and each teen earns a salary.
Throughout the summer, students worked 26-hour weeks, and the bulk of the grant monies went to materials and startup. To that end the group endeavors to find local sponsorship so that they may continue their venture, and retailers to sell their wares.
The group is currently housed in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Liberty, a space wholly donated by the congregation. Pastor Wallace, who had a 50-year career at the church, was one day away from retirement when he was approached about space for the group. He simply told them, “I would love to see that happen.” They now occupy two rooms in the basement.
Looking forward, the teens would like to find a larger space to better accommodate their growing production operation that includes a design area, bag dying and drying area, and a darkroom for silk screening.
The teens are excited and passionate about their involvement. Irina Pezo of Liberty stated, “We are doing something different. No one else in the community is doing what we’re doing. We’re part of a group to better our community and it’s really interesting.”
Joel Aguilar, an apprentice in the cooperative from Rock Hill spoke of the growth potential he feels the group has: “In-school programs for kids don’t have much development opportunities. This helps us to get ahead.”
The teens have taken their challenges in stride. Their production area is donated space in a church basement, their grant funding won’t cover the full scope of the project, they had to learn the ropes of silk screening and building a dark room, and sometimes their van breaks down. But those issues are minor blemishes on a bright outlook. The excitement and pride in their work is palpable when they speak of their product, their ideas, or their dreams.
“There is a real positive energy. Our needs, so far, the world has helped us with,” explained intern Katia Chapman.
“These kids could be out there doing anything with their free time, but they’re here. Irina spoke to 200 people about our work. They are consciously doing this no one twists their arms,” added Rahm.
Now the teens are bouncing around names for their product line. They have identified retailers: Bethel Harvest Market and Green Flea on Columbus Ave, in NYC, and they keep creating designs for their new bags. They hope to expand the line to include hand woven, handmade hats, jewelry and t-shirts. Their work will be featured in an HBO Documentary and they are recruiting new members. And these teens are focused: on goals, on their product, and on their community. They are creating their own successes.
For further information, to get involved or to support the YEG contact Jillian Rahm at Rural & Migrant Ministry at 798-8275.