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June 6, 2005

Sociology major wins grant to fund U.S. speaking tour of Chiapas artisans

By Jennifer McNulty

For sociology major Kara Deyhle, economic empowerment isn't just a catch phrase. Watching Mayan women in Chiapas, Mexico, organize to save their families and their culture brought textbook lessons to life and inspired Deyhle to join their work.

Deyhle (pronounced "dial") recently won a $10,000 scholarship to bring two women from Chiapas to the United States for a speaking tour that will give them access to U.S. markets for their artistic textiles.

Deyhle's work in Mexico began during a six-month internship in Chiapas, the southern state of Mexico where the Zapatista-led army of indigenous peasants rose up in 1994, calling for land reform, Indian rights, and democracy. Home to a large population of indigenous peoples, Chiapas is rich in natural resources but one of the poorest places in Latin America.

Women are at the forefront of efforts to build economic opportunities, however, and Deyhle worked closely with a weaving cooperative run and organized entirely by Mayan women.

The cooperative of 350 weavers from six highland communities in Chiapas, Jolom Mayae'tik was formed in 1996 in the wake of sharply declining wages and rising costs of living to give indigenous women some economic and political autonomy. Their work re-creating ancient textile designs and natural dyeing techniques is revitalizing an endangered cultural identity.

"It's really amazing, what these women are doing," said Deyhle, describing how women move to the city from their remote villages, where strict gender roles are the rule and residents have little contact with the outside world. "It takes such strength to move the city, where they are confronted with racism and have no role models or people who understand what they are going through. It's revolutionary."

Under the auspices of UCSC's Global Information Internship Program (GIIP), which brings the skills of the information age to nonprofit and grassroots organizations around the world, Deyhle helped the cooperative computerize its data so members can identify and evaluate trends in sales and production. She produced a digital inventory of JolomMayae'tik's store in San Cristobal de las Casas and is working on a digital catalog of weaving designs that will help the cooperative market its artistic textiles internationally.

"I feel like I have learned so much here that I can't even explain how valuable it has been," said Deyhle. "It puts into perspective all that I have learned in the classroom. I feel like in the classroom I was getting half of the picture, and coming here and seeing everything filled a huge gap in my understanding and learning process."

Deyhle had an inkling that bringing cooperative members to the United States would be more effective than impersonal Internet marketing, at least initially, and she applied to the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation for funding for a senior-year project.

This spring, Deyhle won a $10,000 scholarship that will underwrite her dream. A member of Jolom Mayae'tik and a woman from a nongovernmental organization called K’inal Antzetik that helps women’s collectives and cooperatives with administration and organization will spend three weeks in the United States, giving presentations about their work, grassroots organizing, and alternative business models while making direct connections with more-affluent U.S. markets for their products.

During the "cultural exchange" tour, the women will visit UCSC, University of New Mexico, University of Florida, and Hartwick College in New York.

"I want them to be able to pass on their knowledge and experience, and have an opportunity to sell their artwork," said Deyhle, who will use a small portion of the funds to buy crafts from the cooperative to sell on the tour; profits will be used to purchase additional products to sell in fair-trade shops in the United States.

Deyhle learned that she had won the scholarship via e-mail while she was in Mexico. "I was so surprised and was in total shock," she said of receiving news. "I felt my whole life changing in one moment as I replanned everything. It took a few days for it to sink in, and I was walking around in a daze for a while."

Each year, the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation awards at least 14 scholarships to California college juniors who have proposed public-service projects for their senior year. Donald Strauss of Newport Beach demonstrated a lifelong commitment to public service and education. He died in 1995 at the age of 79; his widow, Dorothy M. R. Strauss, established the foundation in 1997 as a tribute to her husband.

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