Behind the Scenes at Earth Heir

Last week, I had the great pleasure of going to one of our many artisan studios and meeting Mr. KL Ng, a rattan weaver who makes a few of the Earth Heir products. As soon as we arrived, he graciously welcomed us into his home, which doubles as his work space, and showed us many of the things he was working on. I was awestruck by the intricate details of the benches, chairs, and baskets that surrounded the front door to his house. There were bunches of untouched rattan leaning against one wall while some pieces that had already been thinly carved for weaving laid on top of a shelf.

We followed Mr. KL Ng inside, where his wife was also working on a piece, and he showed us around the variety of baskets he had been making. As we sat down to watch him repair some of the handles before we took them off his hands, I was entranced again. His hands moved quicker than my eyes could even follow and I felt like I was watching a magic trick in fast motion. His fingers nimbly braided the thin rattan and twisted it to his own desire. He checked it with the basket, saw it needed more adjusting, and continued working. All this while holding a conversation and a television set playing in the background. 

Mr. KL Ng and his wife talked about the changes in crafting and artisanship in Kuala Lumpur, sharing that the annual craft fair may be moved to a new location next year. As Mr. KL Ng is disabled from polio, traveling can be a challenge for him. They talked about their uncertainty regarding where they would sell their crafts, and I looked around the room to see stacks of gorgeous bamboo chairs, waiting to be sold and used. I realized that companies like Earth Heir are so important because the average consumer would not know how to find these artisans, leaving little to no hope for their work. At least with social enterprises buying from these artisans, they could hold onto that hope, but there is still much that can be done to improve their access as artisans and the assistance they are receiving from the country for their traditional artwork.

Later in the week, I was able to visit a second set of artisans in the Mah Meri community, women weavers who work together to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. The Mah Meri community has their own set of challenges as an indigenous population who have faced oppression and exclusion on their own land for centuries. Now, they make money by selling traditional crafts, such as beautiful wooden carvings and some woven pieces, such as the ones that Earth Heir purchases from them.

The afternoon I spent with them was an incredible break from the hustle and bustle of the city of Kuala Lumpur. As we drove through green, lush valleys, the number of cars around us started to decrease. I felt a sense of calm as the palm trees rose around us and reached up towards the cloudy, yet blue, sky. Before turning into the Mah Meri Cultural Village, an area that has been opened up for tourists to visit and purchase crafts from the community, I noted a large resort just next door to the land. Another reminder of the stark inequalities that exist for many indigenous communities.

The afternoon was slow and lazy, and full of laughter. I watched the people around me, doing more listening than talking. Dogs and cats of all sizes eased in and out of crossed legs and feet, children played with toys made out of plates and utensils. The smell of food filled the humid air and clung to my nostrils. I chatted with Sasi about how the calmness reminded us of villages in India, where taking things slow is okay.

More than an hour later, we were sorting through colorful bracelets, headbands, bookmarks, pouches, and more, all handwoven by the Mah Meri women. The afternoon light joyfully bounced off the pastels, making them call to me and play off each others’ shades. I listened to Sasi speak in Malay with the artisans. One of my favorite things about traveling is being in environments where I have no verbal skills, it allows me to learn how to read people and understand situations otherwise. The flick of a wrist, a finger circling the air, a laugh or a click of the tongue. When words cease to mean anything, these all mean so much more.

Before I knew it, it was time to go. As we said our goodbyes and slowly walked back to the car, I thought about the community that had welcomed me in for a few hours, fed me, and given me warm smiles. Although this is a group of people who have had their land and their home taken from them, you would not see it in their eyes. They seemed more at peace than anyone else I had met in Malaysia, and I felt this joy through their crafts, as well.

Volunteering with Earth Heir has been an incredible journey of seeing the narratives of so many different people, and understanding the multitude of ways one can be Malaysian. But, also, it’s reminded me of the importance of using our skills to help each other and to live on this Earth together. Through the process of empowerment, we can strengthen our communities and tell more stories, make our values deeper and more meaningful through a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I think Earth Heir works towards this ideal every day, by connecting and weaving narratives the same way the artisans weave their products. Earth Heir is a reminder that we can always do better, whether it is how we treat our neighbors or how we decide to shop and consume. It’s a simple reminder that working together will always result in more.

Originally written for Earth Heir

Social Entrepreneurship and Earth Heir

Something that should come as a surprise to no one who knows me well is that I'm a bit of a workaholic. (That may also be a bit of an understatement.) One of the hardest parts of this fellowship has actually been the lack of a routine, the lack of work, and not being sure of what exactly I'm moving towards. As time went on, I was able to realize the incredible growth and knowledge that is occurring for me everyday, something that I'm very grateful for. But it was still difficult to continue on this journey that doesn't really have a set destination or path.

I started to love the surprises and the moving and became more comfortable with carrying my entire existence on my back in smelly busses and hot trains and dark taxis. But then—all of a sudden—I was half-way done. The crazy, scary, mysterious 8 months that I'd be spending abroad were already slipping away. From now on, each day would be moving closer to the U.S., a place that now seems a bit scary from afar, and further away from this wonderful journey and these beautiful places and people.

Maybe to find some reassurance or to find something familiar, I reverted back to workaholic Harleen. I found a job.

For the last two weeks, I've been working with Earth Heir, a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earth Heir focuses on sustainability and ethical fashion, bridging the gap between artisans and those who want to appreciate the art and fashion they're creating. The organization works with artisans in five different countries, designing products that draw from traditional craftsmanship of that culture. Then—the cool part—they help the artisans sell these products and ensure that they receive the price they truly deserve for their work.

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

The last few weeks have flown by (as the rest of the trip), but it's been a blur of meetings and writing and photography and learning. Sustainability and ethical consumerism is, unfortunately, one aspect of public policy I never really experienced, and it's been really fascinating to slow down start that process now. Seeing how much ethical consumerism ties in to race, culture, social class, government, and so many other factors is just another reminder that, if we truly want to be socially conscious beings on this planet, we cannot pick and choose which issues and which people we want to stand up for. It's all interconnected.

One moment that still sticks out is when I was able to meet one of the artisans, Uncle Kl Ng, who crafts beautiful baskets, chairs, tables, and so many other things out of rattan. Below, you can check out a video of him working on the Earth Heir Nelly Bag. The way his hands moved so quickly and effortlessly captured my attention for minutes on end and I was in awe of how much he could make from so little. The way he intertwined pieces of rattan reminded me of all the thoughts and ideas in my head from the last few months, starting from strands and weaving together, one by one, to form this larger, beautiful idea. I think my process still needs a bit more work, however, before it looks as good as Uncle's rattan pieces.

Working with Earth Heir has been a fascinating journey, and I'm excited for all that I'll learn as I continue to work with them over the next couple weeks. Also, keep an eye on the Earth Heir blog, as I'll be writing some fun things for them, as well!