COLUMBIA — An experience in Peru, as well as other travels, gives Jessica Penner confidence that fair trade can make a difference.
“I think fair trade can work with our current system,” Penner said. “We can modify our system to make it work for people.”
Penner is the director of Mustard Seed Fair Trade, a local nonprofit located at 25 S. Ninth St. The store sells home decor items, jewelry and clothing. All of the products are fair trade, meaning artisans and producers are fairly compensated for their work. The Mustard Seed purchases items from vendors that work directly with artisans in developing countries who have decent work conditions.
A normal business is about profit or the “bottom line," according to Penner. A fair trade model is different.
Penner remembers when she met Yvonna, one of her artisans, and her family who were living in one of the poorest sections of Lima, Peru last year.
“Basically, they’re living by a dump,” Penner said.
“They have just one daughter, and they put everything into her daughter,” Penner said. “They were giving all the resources she needed.”
The 17-year-old girl is studying environmental biology and environmental engineering and has dreams of traveling around the world, Penner said. Penner said that Yvonna's daughter told her that she hoped to be successful and contribute to fair trade efforts in the future.
About 70 percent of fair trade artisans are women. “Statistics have shown when women get money directly for their family, they are a lot more likely to spent it on education and feeding the families,” Penner said.
Penner’s parents met in South America as volunteers for the Mennonite Central Committee in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Penner was born in Pennsylvania, but lived her first four years in Bolivia. Her parents brought her along on volunteer activities in impoverished communities.
“I remember always noticing the poverty around me and understanding that some people didn't have access to a lot of things," she said.
Her desire to help those in need is something she attributes to growing up in a Mennonite community.
Jessica's mother, Faith Penner, remembers a trip to Cuzco, Peru, when Penner was in fourth grade.
"We were headed out to eat one evening and passed a mother begging on the street with her young daughter," Faith Penner said. "Jessica refused to eat her dinner until we bought an extra meal that she could take back and give to the mother."
But it wasn't until later on, at college, that she actively involved herself in social justice. Penner’s passion concentrated on fair trade, she said. In her senior year, she interned at a Ten Thousand Villages store, a nonprofit fair trade organization that was launched by Mennonite women in the 1940s.
Apart from Peru, Penner has traveled to Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Guatemala, Canada, England, Belgium, Poland and Germany.Penner is open to new cultures and meeting new people, she said.
“I want to work for something that I am really passionate about,” Penner said. “My parents always tells me, ‘Don’t go to work because you need the paychecks. Go find something you really have passion about. And do something what you feel it is right.'”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.