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This Social Enterprise of Weavers in a Thai Hill Tribe Lifts the Whole Community

When Christian missionaries Gene and Mary Long moved to Thailand in 1978, they were tasked with supporting a hill tribe in transition. The...

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When missionaries-turned-tribal-advocates Gene and Mary Long moved to Thailand in 1978, they were initially tasked with supporting a hill tribe in transition. The Mlabri (or “Yellow Leaf”) people had lived an almost perfect jungle existence with limited interaction with outsiders. The Longs arrived, along with their toddler son Allen, at a time when deforestation was slashing back thousands of acres annually—soon there would not be enough jungle terrain for the Mlabri to continue hunting and gathering. Allen (Udom) Long came of age in close contact with the Mlabri and observed what happens to a shrinking culture as their home turf disappears. “The Mlabri had no place to hide, in a very real sense,” Long told me.
Northern Thai farmers and other hill tribes, including the Hmong, moved into the area. While cultural precepts demanded the Mlabri could not become farmers themselves, they could farm for others for wages. Theirs became an odd amalgam of new experiences—Allen’s father introduced the Mlabri to mirrors, something they’d never before encountered. Modern inventions attracted them—flashlights, radios, lighters. Long explains that the community “didn’t understand the market value of the products they wanted.” Laboring for Thai and Hmong farmers, some Mlabri would work half a year to earn a flashlight. Some naively became linked with drug trafficking. Slash-and-burn agriculture using dangerous chemicals, at abusively low wages, became their means of survival.


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The Long family experimented with various forms of product-development with the Mlabri, attempting to use traditional skills to create products with appeal to fair-trade shoppers and tourists. Rather than making computer chips or iPhones, Long explained, the goal was to find a product over which the Mlabri already had ownership. They began making hammocks, which offered modest sales in-country at a smattering of Thai tourist shops. “For years I tried getting into the U.S. market with these hammocks,” says Long. He tried eBay, contacting retailers. He’d all but given up on breaking into the American market when a 26-year-old backpacker named Joe Demin showed up in the village. He’d stumbled upon a hammock at a resort and took an impetuous journey to the Mlabri that would mark the start of a growing lifestyle brand, Yellow Leaf Hammocks.
In the years since, the startup grew into a social enterprise that supports the work of 110 weavers, who can earn 650 percent more making hammocks than they did in slash-and-burn agriculture—or as much as a college-educated teacher. Demin says they're now able to afford uniforms and shoes for their children. "Every child of a weaver goes to school," he says.
Yet Yellow Leaf struggled with many of the same challenges that face startups—such as lack of capital to establish ready inventory. “We never had capital to guarantee fulltime work beyond a single hammock order,” Demin says. During times of heavy orders, the weavers could count on work, but when demand ran low, they still were turning back to slash-and-burn agriculture.
For Yellow Leaf Hammocks, loyalty to the Mlabri was paramount, and early on the company was hesitant to dip into venture capital (and any strings that may come attached). Fortunately, at the time that it became clear that the Mlabri were in need of more predictable income, and that the company needed steady inventory to get product to customers faster, Yellow Leaf was invited by Kiva to participate in its new Experimental Partnership Program (an extension of the popular microfinancing program into the social enterprise sphere that now includes 30 partners, and is set to grow).

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When I asked Jason Riggs, director of communications at Kiva, by email what prompted the fundraising site’s move to include for-profit social enterprises, he explained: “‘For-profit’ means that they have a business model that aims to be self-sustaining and that can eventually attract regular market capital.” Kiva’s patient and risk-tolerant capital can help prove the viability of such models, and Kiva lenders are willing to support these organizations so long as they see a strong social impact. “The hope is that Kiva can help quantify their risk profiles and make it easier for regular investors to work with them.”
Through the Kiva loan program, Yellow Leaf began piloting a program whereby a Mlabri weaver might have up to six months of work crowdfunded through a Kiva loan, at zero percent interest. Long went from family to family within the community totaling more than 300 people, explaining the potential of the program. “The Mlabri were skeptical,” says Long. They were wary of loan sharks. “They took several different angles of cross examination, which I was thrilled about.” For a community so exploited for decades, caution was wise. In the end, nine weavers from each of the major families signed on to pilot the loan program, and will repay their loans (usually over nine months) through hammock sales. Other weavers can still work under the old model, being paid per hammock made.
The Kiva loan program marks a milestone for Yellow Leaf Hammocks and the Mlabri. There’s been talk among the Mlabri about what to do with the profits—improved housing, maybe a television. One weaver has been considering buying a telephone. “When I pointed out I didn’t know who he’d call,” Long says of that particular weaver, “he kind of smiled.”
But having a chunk of cash to manage over time—which offers freedom and the ability to plan for the future—also means learning to manage finances, banking. Sharing your abundance is of the upmost importance to the Mlabri, who once hunted and gathered to support the collective; personal banking seems to run contrary to that. Even a decade ago, everything needed to be shared. Long told me that if someone bought five eggs, for example, they had to share them with everyone in the village. “It would take forever and everybody would get a little piece,” he says. Banking is yet another transition to navigate.
For Yellow Leaf Hammocks, and with the added benefits of the Kiva loans, the emphasis is on empowering the Mlabri to live their lives as they see fit—without exploitation, without the environmental and health risks associated with slash-and-burn agriculture. It’s a tricky mix of using modern economic structures to support a traditional way of life. The weavers determine how much work they need to put in to support their lifestyles. (“Full-time” means something different to the Mlabri, who with steady income, save time for traditional activities.) It’s a formal structure that lets the Mlabri decide when and how they want to work. It's far from the exploitation they experienced in the past. As Riggs puts it, “by providing flexible income activities, the Mlabri are better empowered to make their own decisions as to how their culture and society should develop and adapt.”
Images courtesy of Yellow Leaf Hammocks\n
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Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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Culture
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Communities
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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Politics
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Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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