A Harvard Graduate, Ashley is the founder and director of the non-profit ArteSana Foundation. Passionate about the environment and sustainable community development, she chose rural mountain living in Nicaragua after growing up in the Bay Area of California. We sat down with Ashley this month to find out more about ArteSana and learn how the foundation is supporting Nicaraguan women.
What inspired you to create an organization like ArteSana?
In 2014, I founded ArteSana as a means of supporting community members and protecting the natural resources of Peñas Blancas. The community of Peñas Blancas is located on the edge of the Bosawas Biosphere Preserve, which is 1 of 7 nucleus zones. Therefore, it is an important part of the world to protect in terms of natural resources.
It seemed to me that there was a lack of employment, with coffee and banana farming being the only stable sources of income. With the changing climate, even those sources of income have fluctuated. I wanted to support community members in developing alternative livelihoods that would allow them to live more harmoniously with their natural environment and improve their quality of life.
I believe in helping people understand themselves and their relationship to the natural world. My inspiration comes from supporting others in deepening their connection to themselves, their fellow humans, and the Earth.
Why is ArteSana different from other nonprofit organizations in Nicaragua?
ArteSana Foundation runs an educational space that operates on the exchange economy. Our class offerings are either free or accessible via trade (fruits, vegetables, or volunteer time), because we believe that tuition fees are an unjust barrier to education. We are also unique in the sense that we live and work alongside the community. This deepens our relationship to community members and ensures that our programming and projects come directly from the community. Everything we do is because we are asked to do it.
How does Artesana support women’s empowerment?
In our monthly women’s group meetings, we hold circle, during which we check-in with each other and build relationships, as a group and with one another. Though it may sound simple, in a culture where women are divided and isolated by traditional gender roles, it is a revolutionary act to build a community of women.
Circle is a space that allows us to, “…acknowledge and experience each other as equals. In a circle everyone can clearly see each other. No one is above, below, in front of, or in back of…In the Circle everyone and everything is equal in importance and value. All life is respected for it’s unique gifts. Everything has a purpose and a place, is Connected to and Interdependent on each other’s existence.” – 6th Sun Ridaz
Once we get beyond the basics of building relationship and community, we support women in job training and with the development of several small businesses. ArteSana is based on taking a holistic approach to community development, so we also offer women opportunities to participate in nutrition/cooking classes, English classes, therapy, financial planning, and other activities that arise to support the realization of their human potential.
Why is Artesana dedicated to “using local resources, being organic, and upcycling materials”?
ArteSana believes that part of realizing our human potential requires living a life in harmony with the environment. It is easy to make money at the expense of others or natural resources, but that does not create a healthy community. Our work is about creating livelihoods where humans and the environment thrive.
Your women’s group is currently developing a line of skincare products. Can you tell us more about this project?
Initially the group formed as a way to make chemical free products for home and personal use. It has since grown into a small business involving nine women. Over the last two years, the group has developed recipes for lip balm, deodorant, soap, and lotion using locally sourced ingredients. They buy beeswax from local apiculturists, coconut oil from the Atlantic Coast, and cocoa butter from a local cacao cooperative.
What are the challenges the women face in marketing their products?
The greatest challenge the women face is being located in a rural area with limited access to transportation and internet. This restricts their ability to find new points of sale, and ultimately the development of their business.
When the challenges are overcome, what do you think the biggest benefit of this project will be?
Once the women develop enough points of sale to support the demand for their products, they will be generating an income from a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. This benefits their families and community because they are supporting a healthy ecosystem and will undoubtedly reinvest their income in providing their families with more opportunities.
When asked about their hopes and aspirations, the women share their dreams of providing their children with more opportunities than they had as children. They aspire to send them to high school and university, and provide them adequate healthcare.
To help the women’s group at ArteSana, we are dedicating all August Pledges to their skincare line development.