Doug Dirks of Ten Thousands Villages tells Hesston students about Fair Trade, alumna Edna Byler’s legacy

Ten Thousand Villages Public Relations Director Doug Dirks speaks to Hesston College students in David LeVan’s Exploring Business class.

Students can make the world a better place for everyone by choosing to purchase gifts and coffee that are fairly traded and by pursuing careers that will open and expand work opportunities for people around the world.

This was the message that Doug Dirks, Akron, Pa., public relations director for Ten Thousand Villages, conveyed in his presentations at a Hesston College chapel service and meetings with business and anthropology students, Nov. 22 to 24.

Dirks, a native of Abbotsford, B.C., Canada, has traveled to some 36 countries to meet with artisans and business leaders participating in the Ten Thousand Villages fair trade network. Along the way, he has learned their stories and cultural and business practices, which, although unique to each individual, often have universal applications. No matter where people are when they begin to improve their livelihood through their work with Ten Thousand Villages, they all want to do work that gives them dignity and hope; provides opportunities for their children to get an education; is sustainable; and, ultimately, leads to a fair world. Dirks illustrated how these goals that result from implementing fair trade practices are being achieved by telling the artisans’ stories and showing photos of fair trade workers in Bangladesh, Egypt, Peru, India, Laos, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Edna Ruth Byler, a native of Hesston and alumna of Hesston Academy, led the fair trade movement that has become Ten Thousand Villages. In 1946 Byler saw the need for poor women in Puerto Rico to earn income so their daughters could go to school. She purchased their needlework and marketed it to friends back in her home community in Pennsylvania. Later she traveled across the U.S., telling the stories of the artisans whose needlework she sold out of the trunk of her car.

Her individual efforts provided the impetus for what is now one of the largest fair trade organizations in North America. Ten Thousand Villages has also been recognized as one of 100 most ethical companies in the world today.

If Mennonites had saints, “Saint Edna” Byler would be one of them, Hesston College social science department chair Dwight Roth said.

Roth knew Byler when he was a boy growing up in Pennsylvania. His visit to the Mennonite Central Committee and Ten Thousand Villages headquarters this past summer prompted him to find a way to honor Byler’s memory and bring the story of fair trade to Hesston College during its centennial year celebration.

Jim and Belle Boyts, also Hesston alumni and current residents, provided much of the funding for Dirks’ college and community presentations.

Jim Boyts says that exposing students to the stories of people such as Byler, who “just looked at an opportunity and said, ‘let’s do something about it!’” can stretch their minds and expand their vision.

Ten Thousand Villages has 75 retail stores in the United States and 50 in Canada. Items are also sold at festivals and online. In 2007, the volume of fair trade totaled $2.8 billion.

There is room to grow – the market is hardly saturated, Dirks said. Only about one dollar of every $5,000 is spent on fair trade.

Fair trade businesses try to establish long-term, sustainable relationships with producers and artisans. They offer cash advances and prompt final payment in contrast with other marketers who pay by credit after the products are in the North American warehouses.

This effort includes educating artisans so they value their labor and skills and realize that even though they don’t pay for grass to make baskets, their efforts to collect it should be included in the calculation of prices they receive for products.

Students majoring in business, social sciences, communication, art, and technology will find many ways to use their education and skills in working with fair trade organizations. Fair trade needs leaders who can show and teach entrepreneurial skills; buyers and product designers to help artisans adapt their traditional jewelry and handicrafts to appeal to shoppers in the Northern Hemisphere; and people skilled in advertising, research and graphic art. Cross-cultural communication skills, business ethics and a willingness to serve others with humility are important qualities for all fair trade workers.

Dirks uses skills his degree in commerce and his story-telling ability give him to promote Ten Thousand Villages. In his presentations at Hesston College, it is clear his sense of curiosity and adventure, and deep appreciation for others makes his job rewarding.