VCU student Andrea Sledd found a way to combine her interests in sociology and women's studies — she designed a handbag.
The "Andrea bag" is one of many products sold at Carytown's AlterNatives that connect Richmonders and the Mayan women of Guatemala's highlands. The bag is embroidered with a pattern that mimics the tail feathers of a quetzal, a rare and symbolic bird in Mayan mythology.
When she was a teenager, Sledd traveled with her church to Guatemala as part of the Highland Support Project (HSP), a nonprofit that AlterNatives owner Ben Blevins directs. The group's mission is to train young people about creating solutions from within developing communities rather than having them depend on outside aid. Students take trips to Guatemala so they can learn how Mayan women live and offer the women opportunities to learn new skills. Students have taught art, knitting, beading and jewelry making. Blevins travels to Guatemala about once a month. The project has worked with teams from the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, Randolph Macon College, James Madison University, the University of Virginia, Ferrum College and the University of Mary Washington, as well as St. Catherine's School. Clover Hill and James River high schools have contributed funds.
Sledd has continued to participate in the trips throughout college, and she also works the occasional shift at AlterNatives. "The whole thing's really humbling," she says of the exposure she's gained through HSP. "We're not saving anybody. We're working with them."
Blevins and his wife, Lupe, have owned AlterNatives for 12 years. "Our mission is not something the general public tends to understand," he says. A collection of fluffy scarves in the shop is the indirect result of 2005's Hurricane Stan, which hit the Guatemalan coastal community of Xiabaj, destroying all of its housing and crops. What once was rich agricultural land became a sheer cliff. While groups in Richmond wanted to help, Blevins knew that simply donating clothes and other goods could hinder Xiabaj. The villagers who normally supplied those goods would be displaced. Instead, he urged people to donate yarn, and he sent volunteers who could teach these women, who used to work as farmers, to knit scarves. This exchange of knowledge and goods enabled 40 or so women to purchase food with their earnings.
Last June, Linda Lee, an assistant professor in VCU's fashion department, traveled with a group of fashion design and merchandising students to Guatemala. Their mission was to create a line of clothing that could be made by Mayan women and sold at AlterNatives. Lee wanted her students to learn the true meaning of fair trade. "I am in love with textiles, particularly those from indigenous groups," she says.
The trip taught her students to appreciate the sewing methods of Mayan women, and they designed pieces that would incorporate skills the women already had (weaving on foot looms and back-strap looms). The students fashioned a spring line that includes three outfits and one handbag, all of which are slated to be carried by AlterNatives.
The Blevinses are restoring their shop after a December fire destroyed most of their inventory and display cases. They are operating in a temporary space a few doors down until they can reopen, which Blevins says will probably occur by the end of July.
Despite the fire and the aftermath, the couple is excited about their grand reopening at 3320 W. Cary St. "On one hand it's really fun because I'm somebody who likes starting things and gets bored with managing them," Blevins says. He sees the temporary location as an opportunity to edit the inventory, adding new selections and continuing to carry others that have remained popular. For instance, they plan to carry more silver jewelry. They have formed a partnership with artisans who now craft pieces for Tiffany. They tend to be men over the age of 60 and their grandchildren. "They love our support because it allows them to continue to produce as artisans," Blevins explains. "They are engaged in the production of a piece from beginning to end."