The Business of Cultural Exchange

“Look at your tags—do you know where your stuff comes from?” When the manager of Atlanta’s Ten Thousand Villages posed this question to TNS students several weeks ago, their answer was a resounding “No.” Since then, we’ve explored the topic of fair trade from various perspectives, including talking with the CEO of a fair trade company (Pro Pueblo’s Nadia Bredthauer), designing products that showcase fair trade principles, and collaborating with artisans in rural Guatemala.

We’ve centered our study on trade between the US and Guatemala. Through our partnership with Santiaguito, a small school in the town of Santiago Atitlán, students have explored the stories of artisans who were affected by the Guatemalan Civil War and the families that they work to support.

This has been more than just a research project, though. Our partners in Guatemala have gotten to know TNS students as well, through a series of videos, letters, and Skype conversations. As students have cultivated relationships with high schoolers in Santiago Atitlán, they’ve critically examined the similarities and differences between those lives and their own.

In order to put the principles of fair trade into practice, students have set up a small fair trade exchange of artisanal products with the families of students at our partner school. TNS students conducted market research, visited local fair trade vendors, and ordered specific items. The exchange necessitated a lot of real-world financial work, including calculating expenses, converting currencies, gathering pricing data, and valuing products.

Partnering with real artisans means that students develop and invest in real relationships with real people. The artisans’ stories are featured prominently on the students’ own product designs, from fair trade coffee cups that showcase the steps of the fair trade cycle to an interactive fair trade game. Through all this, TNS students seem to have figured out that, at its heart, economics is a human-centered endeavor.