It’s a perfect Spring day, and on the Tea Shop steps of Mills College, amid ASMC elections and a book drive, students are stopping on their way to lunch to crowd around a table of purses.
But these aren’t just any purses, and these students aren’t just looking to spend. The purses, made out of recycled newspaper and twine, come from the student-run Project Potluck, brought to Mills by students who traveled to the purses’ hometowns in the Philippines, where some of the country’s poorest mothers are developing a micro-enterprise to be invested in by those more fortunate like Mills women. “We’ve been telling everyone who buys a purse ‘remember the woman who made this,’” said Mari Villaluna, a senior and one of the students that brought the purses to Mills.
She said that although they knew they could make significant profit elsewhere, they wanted to know that they were also giving voice to these women. “That story of struggle, and the spirit inside [those women], is in some ways in that purse…It’s past economically benefitting the community, we also want to see the power and the agency in these women, the resistance and the struggle,” she said, “When you put your money where your mouth is and say ‘let me support these women in this way,’ that’s a lot of love.”
Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila is a garbage pile, once the biggest in the world. At over seven stories high, it is home to 25,000 people and over 7,000 families. Families forage daily to find recyclables to sell, making up to three U.S. dollars on a good day, according to papermade.org, the official Web site for the purse project. With access only to toxic water, and no electricity or medical facilities, people die each day.
On a rainy day in Smokey Mountain, the toxic, smoke-like fumes that gave this site its name are starting to emanate from the mound. To stay safe from a slide or any number of deadly illnesses, residents will have to return home, unable to search for their livelihoods.
This “garbage village” is the most economically disadvantaged community in the Philippines, and the women are working to establish steady employment for themselves and their families, receiving low interest loans and skills training from organizations like the InterVarsity Christian Coalition.
The IVCC sends students like Ginny Murphy and Villaluna on trips to live, learn, and work among poor communities as agents for change. Project Potluck was developed by students because of their time in the Philippines, and Murphy and Villaluna also wanted to bring something back from their experiences.
“I think it’s important for us to have a space to tell our stories,” said Murphy, “and for the community to see that faith is not a negative, [conservative] thing, that it is linked with justice.”
They feel that support from the Mills community was strong, having sold 165 purses and raising over $3,000.
“To know that it’s going somewhere, especially to support women who don’t have the means where they are, definitely persuaded me,” said Melody Ferris, a junior who bought a purse, “not that I needed to be persuaded.”
“It was more than a financial exchange…more than buying a purse, it’s about sharing resources,” said Murphy, “and the better that we can be rooted in our philosophies, the better off we’ll all be.”
“Here, it’s like ‘oh, I’m going to Mills and what’s important now is finals,” said Villaluna, who said it’s important to remember that “women everywhere are struggling…and what we do here affects them.”
Kasey Lindsay, a senior who bought two purses, said they are “a physical reminder of my place in the world and the work that needs to be done, that I’m living a privileged life and I have the time, energy, and strength to do something for someone else… Like, don’t go shopping — do something!”