By Elizabeth Hazard
When PeaceQuilts founder Jeanne Staples first traveled to Haiti 11 years ago, she had an inkling of an idea. She wanted to learn the stories of the women she met there through story quilts. Little did she know how much this simple idea would impact the lives of the women of Haiti and herself. Stitch by stitch, and quilt by quilt, the Haitian women she has met over the years have found friendship, creative self-expression and financial independence. Here, in her own words, Jean Staples tells us about the success of PeaceQuilts and its impact on the Haitian community.
HT: Is there one story of success that stands out in particularly for one of the women?
JS: As you can imagine, there are many success stories. The overarching success is that the women have built their own businesses – with PeaceQuilts’ help to be sure – but in great measure through their own hard work and determination. Their businesses provide not just income for themselves and their families, but also bring new money into their communities. That’s a powerful source of pride and a force for economic development, even on this small scale. It hasn’t been easy. There have been many setbacks, not the least of which was the 2010 earthquake. And like the development of any business, there are many challenges and frustrations. But I’ve seen firsthand the blossoming of true artists in a place where most of the artists tend to be men. I’ve witnessed how PeaceQuilts’ training has aided the development of business skills critical for success, such as bookkeeping, inventory control and computer literacy. The women have developed the means to work through difficulties and be a generous resource for one another.
HT: Is there one story, among the many stories of success, that really sticks out for you?
JS: Rose Marie Agnant is one of the leaders of Solidarity Cooperative; and at 67, she is the oldest member of her group. Over the years, Rose Marie’s consistent earnings have helped her family maintain its stability, even when her husband was out of work. In addition to raising their own two biological children, she and her husband have provided a loving home to a large number of children whose own parents were unable to care for them. Her job has helped provide the funds to feed and clothe them, and pay their school expenses. That generosity of spirit is transferred to the workplace where it has contributed to the development of a safe, supportive environment. Solidarity is a good word to describe Rose Marie’s cooperative. They understand that trust must be the foundation of any working group in order for it to truly succeed. Under her leadership, the group has developed an esprit de corps which nurtures that trust and supports the needs of the group, as well as the individual.
HT: Is the new-found confidence in the women noticeable?
JS: PeaceQuilts started with the belief that even a small investment in women and their creativity can bring about big change. Denise Estavat is another woman who exemplifies what acting on that belief can achieve. When we first met Denise back in 2007, she was 19 and the youngest member to join her group. She was living in a tiny two-room cement shack with her 11-year-old brother, Hulrick. No running water, no toilet, no school for Hulrick. She was shy, but she was eager to learn and invest herself in the opportunity PeaceQuilts was offering. Everyone soon began to appreciate her skills, good sense and work ethic. The women in her group began to look to her as a natural leader. Before long she was able to earn enough to pay for her brother to go to school. She married and had a daughter. She and her husband bought land, and built a small but improved dwelling. Over time, in her own quiet way, she has developed into a confident, capable and caring leader in her group.
HT: Tell us more about the growth of the organization since 2006.
JS: There is no way PeaceQuilts would have grown through the years without the dedicated work of volunteers and a committed board of directors. Within the first year of the project, I was joined by Maureen Matthews McClintock, a master quilter, who trained the women in the specialized requirements needed to create a quilt and set up a professional workspace. After the earthquake, her expertise as a clinical psychotherapist treating patients with PTSD was thrown into action helping the women to recover from the trauma they had experienced. With the assistance of two grants from the Boston Foundation’s Haiti Fund in 2011, PeaceQuilts was able to hire a part-time US Program Coordinator, Carolyn Stoeber. “Part time” is a poor description for the volumes of time and dedication she has lavished on the project, spending weeks at a time, three to four times a year in Haiti, not to mention all the hours back in the United States.
It’s very satisfying to reflect on the incredible reception the women’s quilts have received over the years. In 2009, the Bennington Museum in Vermont mounted an exhibition of their original folk art quilts entitled “Patience to Raise the Sun: Art Quilts from Haiti and Their Power to Change Women’s Lives.” An art catalogue was published to accompany the show. Over the next several years the exhibit traveled to several other museums including the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. Last November, 19 of the women’s exquisite quilts were featured as a special exhibit at the Houston International Quilt Festival which attracted a crowd of over 70,000. In addition to the quilts, the beautifully hand-sewn bags, home decorating products, and unique jewelry they create are sold online and in shops, both in the US and in Haiti.
HT: Are there plans to take this into other areas that might be economically challenged?
JS: We are always evaluating whether growing the program makes sense for our organization. We are almost entirely made up of volunteers, including myself. We work with about 50 women, some who are full time and others are on an as-needed basis. Most are in the greater Port-au-Prince area, with one group in the western peninsula. Our goal is to provide training and support that leads to fully independent, sustainable businesses. Our focus has been on perfecting that model, with the idea that there may be opportunities in the future for us, or perhaps the women themselves, to replicate that model further.