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This article by Henry Innes MacAdam were prepared for the December
20, 2000 edition of
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It Takes More than a Village
When Hillary Rodham Clinton gave her book on child
welfare the title "It Takes a Village," she helped popularized
an ancient and widely practiced tenet of African culture: "It
takes a village to raise a child." There and in many developing
nations, villages are still the fundamental social unit of community
life, its populace always ready to protect and support the youngest
Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are among
such regions where the livelihood of its villagers may be dependent
on their ability to create and market traditional handicrafts.
That’s where Ten Thousand Villages makes a difference in the lives
of individuals who may not have heard of a shopping mall or know what
a retail store is.
"We’re a traditional handicrafts outlet," says store manager
Cheryl Nester Detweiler, manager of Ten Thousand Villages in the
Shopping Center at 301 North Harrison Street. "Our company is
the largest alternative trade organization in the U.S. It was founded
after World War II as an outlet for handicrafts produced in what were
then called `Third World Countries.’ We sell their products throughout
North America, and the income helps them establish and maintain a
better lifestyle than they might otherwise have."
Princeton’s Ten Thousand Villages is one of 200 stores in Canada and
the United States, one of two in New Jersey (the other is in
This time of year it is decked out in its wintertime finery, its
decorated with beautiful icicle-like garlands made from nothing more
complicated than straw.
The shop is packed with visitors, and Detweiler is happy to point
out items on her own shelves that she deems special in one way or
another. These include handmade angels and carved Nativity scenes
for Christmas, Chanukah Menorahs and draydls, and greeting cards for
both celebrations. Baskets, textiles, and candles are here in
Detweiler thinks the store’s musical instrument collection is
"We put 12 of these instruments on display at Plainsboro’s recent
`Traditions’ event," she says. "Children and adults are
to pick up and try the instruments — this is very much a
store. How else can you get to know how to make very different music?
It lets you participate, even for a moment, in the culture of the
creative person who fashioned the drum or horn or whatever other
catches your eye. There is a very personal aspect to everything we
Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit program founded and developed
by the Mennonite Central Committee (based in rural Lancaster County,
Pennsylvania), the relief, service, and development agency of
and Brethren in Christ churches in North America. By marketing native,
traditional craftwork made of local materials such as wood, straw,
ceramics, cloth, shell, and bone those who buy from Ten Thousand
are assured of purchasing quality items at fair prices, and in the
knowledge that the artisans will receive their share of the profit.
Mennonites are among the earliest of the dissident Protestant
sects that emigrated from German-speaking regions of Europe to America
in the 18th century. Followers of Menno Simons, they settled in
County, Pennsylvania, and eventually separated from their stricter,
more conservative brethren, the Amish. Mennonites emphasize the
of a "community of believers," which means marrying within
their faith, dressing plainly, and refusing the binds of legal oaths.
Since, like the Quakers, Mennonites are pacifists, they avoid military
service but compensate by advocating alternative community work. This
is why volunteerism is so strong a conviction within the faith, also
part of the reason its clergy receive no salary. "Volunteering
is an expression of religious faith, and has become, over the years,
a basic part of the Mennonite work ethic," Detweiler explains.
Detweiler and her husband Daniel, a computer programmer
at Princeton University, moved to this area in early 1999 when the
store space (formerly Chesapeake Bagels) at Princeton Shopping Center
became available. The couple is expecting their first child later
this month. "It was my idea to come here, and Dan really gave
me his full support without having a job lined up for himself,"
she recalls. "Luckily I had visited Princeton on several occasions
in the past, so the area wasn’t entirely unfamiliar."
Detweiler is a native of Goshen, Indiana, near South Bend, the center
of the Mennonite confession in that state. She grew up in a
church-centered Mennonite community.
Her father Jerry (from Kansas) and mother Jane (from Ohio) met while
doing volunteer work in Philadelphia, married, and then moved to
where he had graduated from college, in the late 1960s. "Dad and
mom are still in Goshen; he teaches high school math, and she works
for a Mennonite health insurance company."
Detweiler is the oldest of three sisters, one of whom lives in
and the other in Ohio. "I went through the public school system
until the end of my sophomore year," she says, "but I finished
the last two years and graduated from a Mennonite school." This
was followed by two years at a junior college in Kansas, and
graduation with a B.S. in business administration from Eastern
College in Virginia.
During her college years, Detweiler worked for a volunteer relief
organization helping the homeless in Ocean City, Maryland. "That
gave me some sense of direction in life — I knew then I would
want to work with people, but more from the business end than being
`in the field’ as a sociologist."
After graduation, Detweiler took on yet more volunteer work in a
housing project in Nashville, Tennessee, then returned to Goshen.
"I met Dan at a summer youth retreat in Michigan. He was a
programmer for an insurance company in Illinois, but was able to find
work in Goshen when we married in 1994."
It wasn’t long before both newlyweds were looking for volunteer work.
"We applied to a number of Mennonite organizations. It was
because it’s far easier for an agency to get a single person into
a volunteer job than it is to place a couple. Finally the Ten Thousand
Villages headquarters in Lancaster notified Dan that they needed a
computer programmer." That was summer, 1995.
"All they could promise me at first was a part-time position in
data entry, but I moved to customer service after the beginning of
the new year."
Over the next four years the Detweilers learned much of what Ten
Villages does — its founding philosophy, its network of agencies
throughout the world, and its program of expansion into community
retail stores throughout North America.
"Dan and I worked at what are called `service workers.’ We
minimum wages for the work we did, plus semi-subsidized housing and
medical benefits. In the end, with the cost of maintaining a car,
we just broke even each year. Those conditions are simply the way
non-profits can maintain their status and provide their services,"
"In 1998, sales through our North American retail stores and gift
festivals totaled $15 million," says Detweiler. "Fair trade
with Ten Thousand Villages benefited some 60,000 craftspeople from
Ten Thousand Villages began in 1946 in response to the needs of
women in various parts of the world. "It was the idea of a
woman, Edna Ruth Byler, of Akron, Pennsylvania," says Detweiler.
That year Byler had visited Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)
who were teaching sewing classes in Puerto Rico. "She saw a way
to improve the lives of those women and their families, many of whom
were extremely poor." Byler brought home samples of the needlework
to sell to her friends and neighbors.
It was soon evident that such handicrafts were popular. Byler added
cross-stitch embroidery made by Palestinian refugees as well as
Haitian woodwork to her informal inventory. From her own neighborhood
she expanded sales to other nearby towns, often using the trunk of
her car as a retail outlet. She made sure that craft fairs and church
socials offered these handmade items to customers. Her own basement
became a warehouse for the imported goods.
By the early 1970s Bylers’ one-person, home-based project had become
an official program run by the MCC under its original trade name,
Selfhelp Crafts. By 1980 MCC had established 60 stores in the U.S.
and Canada; an abandoned shoe factory in Akron, Pennsylvania, was
renovated as its headquarters and warehouse. MCC established another
national headquarters in New Hamburg, Ontario, for its Canadian
Now known as Ten Thousand Villages, craftspeople around the world
contribute to this entrepreneurial adventure. One example is Njah-etuh
village not far from Bamenda in the West African nation of Cameroon.
There a woman’s group of 63 members weave traditional raffia baskets
and bags in bright colors, their only source of cash income. The
(or "Morning Star") Handmade Paper Project in Feni,
on the northeastern border of India, makes an array of paper products,
some of which is used in the printing of Ten Thousand Village’s own
"Widowed, divorced and abandoned women, who were considered social
outcasts, were taught papermaking skills by MCC," Detweiler notes.
"Papermaking revived a craft on the verge of extinction. Now 150
women and 20 men are employed in paper production in a village. That
started in 1984. Two years later, in the same country, Eastern Screen
Printers got started and now employs 17 people — all of whom might
otherwise be out of work."
Through its worldwide networking, Ten Thousand Villages home office
contacts artisans from villages where the jobless rate is high and
opportunities for income of any kind is low. "We find out from
the artisans what they feel is a fair price for the products they
make. We’ll give them up to 50 percent of that agreed amount in
so that they can purchase the needed materials without an expensive
loan at whatever local rates of interest. Sometimes that `start-up’
money is absolutely critical to the whole process," says
Village artisans receive 25 percent of the final product price. If
an item such as an onyx candlestick (from Mexico or Pakistan), or
some decorative capiz shell (Philippines), or embroidered wall
(Peru) or a musical instrument called a balophone (Burkina Faso in
Africa) is sold for $20, the artisan who created it receives $5.
"Ten Thousand Villages pays for shipping these items to our
warehouses (near Lancaster), and then transshipping them to the
outlets," says Detweiler. "The sales price differential then
goes to wages for paid employees, overhead and other business
"Our head office pays the artisans the other 50 percent of the
agreed price at the time their order is shipped to the U.S. or Canada
— we don’t make them wait until it is sold. The whole point of
what we do is creating an income for disadvantaged craftspersons
a huge gap between the creation of the product and the income it will
generate. Further income for them is based on how much we can
"What won’t `move’ in one store are sent to another store,"
she adds. "We like to think that eventually everything we showcase
will be sold."
With the exception of Detweiler, who receives a small salary,
manager Jennifer Hoke, and sales associate Ingrid Pauls, all the staff
of Ten Thousand Villages are volunteers. For the month of December
each year, Detweiler also hires one high school student to work
"When Dan and I moved here to start this store, it was Nassau
Presbyterian Church that provided the local support we needed, and
some members of the congregation work with us as volunteers,"
"I know it sounds like we have an unfair business advantage,"
she says. "The `up’ side of that is it keeps our prices down,
allowing us to sell more, and thereby giving the village artisans
more work, and more income. The `down’ side is that volunteers set
their own working hours and we have more rapid turnover as our staff
comes and goes as it suits them."
"Some volunteers work only eight hours per month, which is the
minimum set by Ten Thousand Villages. But very few work on or near
a full-time basis. So it’s not like having a stable staff or employees
who work on a regular, fixed schedule."
In some ways Cheryl Detweiler’s store is a village fair in itself,
with an "extended family" of staff and volunteers committed
to marketing what other individuals and families have created in their
— Henry Innes MacAdam
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