Elite para rower Hallie Smith ’16 was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia while a student at Smith, but it was only after she lost the use of her legs that she took up the sport. Smith, a member of the U.S. national rowing team, won a bronze medal in the 2018 World Rowing Championships. Now she is a contender for the 2020 Paralympics.
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Growing a Creative, Sustainable Enterprise
Katy Moonan ’12 combined her interest in microfinance with her passion for the arts and sustainability by founding ArteSana, a nonprofit based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that produces beautiful woven goods, such as tote bags, table runners and pillow covers.
After graduating from Smith, Moonan took a job teaching English to Spanish-speaking adults in Holyoke. Moonan, who is bilingual, was raised in Mexico by her American parents, both musicians. She had seen poor communities in Mexico, but nothing prepared her for what she encountered in Holyoke. “I was shocked that there was so much poverty and inequity in a first-world country,” she says. “But it was inspiring to see the way the people of Holyoke were so resilient and so dedicated to cultivating the future that they wanted for their families despite all odds.”
She started doing rag-weaving projects in her classroom as a way to build community and relieve the pressure of learning English. (Rag weaving uses strips of fabric made from old T-shirts and jeans.) “I thought maybe one day it could be a way for people to make supplemental income or even create more economic opportunities,” she says.
And that’s exactly what happened. What started as a fun classroom project led to a community-based weaving initiative, Tejo Holyoke, and in, 2016, Tejo Holyoke turned into the nonprofit ArteSana.
As executive director, Moonan handles most of the administrative duties, but she is quick to point out that ArteSana is very much a community enterprise with shared leadership. Since 2016, ArteSana has employed 10 women, usually four at one time. Moonan’s work has been as a volunteer; to earn an income, she does a variety of things, including freelancing as an interpreter, grant writer and videographer.
Here Moonan talks more about creating ArteSana and how it is benefiting the community.
"When I started working in Holyoke, the inequity and poverty was a lot to handle, and I actually spent my first year applying to other jobs. At the end of my first year I was offered a Fulbright fellowship and I turned it down because by that time I decided I really loved what was happening in Holyoke. I realized it’s a bilingual, bicultural city, full of potential—and I wanted to be part of what's happening here."
Fun and profit
"We train women to weave and pay them to make products that we sell in our online shop and with a few select retail partners. We also offer free programming to the community here in Holyoke in arts therapy. While we don’t have clinically trained people on staff, we offer free weaving, art and fiber arts workshops to women, catering to women who are struggling with PTSD and depression. Weaving is very therapeutic."
Arts and sustainability
"About 16 billion tons of textile waste go into U.S. landfills every year. So, we do our part by reducing a small chunk of that waste. Our weavers use donations of T-shirts and jeans that are cut up and used on traditional hand-operated floor looms."
A culture of shared leadership
"Every single role is crucial, and we really want to use everything we do as an opportunity to empower everybody involved. We have tried to create a space where everyone's voice matters—whether that's the way that we workshop a new design, have people contribute their ideas, or decide what markets to sell to in a season. It's about acknowledging that everyone is part of the team."
Against all odds
"It wasn’t easy to convince people that we could weave saleable products from recycled T-shirts, that we could do it here in Holyoke, that we could pay people and create opportunities and that it could be a meaningful source of income for women and an experience that would help them build leadership and other skills for future jobs. But gradually we are convincing people and attracting the resources we need."
Something from nothing
"I think I am most proud of the fact that ArteSana exists. We started from nothing and now we're something. The other thing I'm really proud of is the artistic excellence of our products. Yes, we're a social enterprise, but our designs and products stand on their own."
Blood, sweat, tears and a vision
"Our budget has been very tiny. We rely on volunteers. We are still seeing philanthropy play an equal or more important role than our sales revenue right now in keeping us afloat. But our product revenue is growing. I hope to increase our sales and our customers and to keep making amazing products for people."
The Smith message
"I had an amazing experience at Smith. I was so lucky to receive a lot of financial aid and be able to go there and take advantage of so many opportunities. I loved my classes. I loved the friendships I was able to build there, and just the whole experience. Four years in a place that believes in you and everything that you're experiencing day to day—it sends the message that you are worthy and you are able to do whatever you set your mind to. That experience enabled me to create ArteSana."