Social Entrepreneurship: A New Tool in Building up Our Partners

A good investment is measured by its return.

This is a basic principle of entrepreneurship. While a traditional business measures return in terms of pure financial profit, the last couple of decades have seen a number of creative, committed people use tools of entrepreneurship as a way to find solutions to extreme poverty in communities all over the world. In doing so, such ventures, often dubbed as examples of “social entrepreneurship” help us expand our understanding of what constitutes a return.

Week of Compassion works with partners that work to change lives through social entrepreneurship. For these partners, Equal Exchange and Prosperity Candle, return might look like a co-op that gives coffee farmers leverage in a negotiation, allows them to support schools and other community needs, and provides mechanisms for democratic decision-making. It also might look like a small business that not only gives a refugee an opportunity to support her family, but to earn pay for her labor for the first time-ever. In other words, return may include financial profit, but is more comprehensively measured, including a focus on how the partnership empowers people on the margins.

Equal Exchange and Week of Compassion partner together on the Disciples Coffee Project, a great partnership that provides our congregations and church members an opportunity to buy expertly roasted, ethically grown and traded coffee to serve at church’s coffee hour or at home, support small farmers, and support food security projects of Week of Compassion. As part of the Disciples Coffee Project, Equal Exchange contributes 15% of all Disciples purchases to a Small Farmers Fund which helps us support a number of agricultural development projects in Central America, Central Africa, and other areas where our partnerships and Equal Exchange co-ops overlap.

Our relationship with Prosperity Candle is quite similar. Working with women in Iraq, Burmese refugees in the United States, and soon launching a venture in Haiti, Prosperity Candle empowers women by training them in all the aspects of candle making, providing them with hard and soft skills, and by marketing beautiful gifts that allow these women to earn a living wage, helping them to support their families and finance their dreams. Gifts purchased through Week of Compassion’s partnership with Prosperity Candle help support the Women's Empowerment Fund.

Because both Equal Exchange and Prosperity Candle share Week of Compassion’s commitment to accompany communities affected by poverty, war, or violence, and partner with them as they utilize their own human capital to build their communities, these partnerships have been a natural step for Week of Compassion as we continue to search for new ways to live out the Gospel.

When you choose to support The Disciples Coffee Project or our Prosperity Candle Partnership, you’re investing in our brothers and sisters. You’re investing in families, in communities. You’re helping people all around the world achieve dignity.

You’re not just buying a cup of coffee or a candle.
You’re making change.

- Brandon

MEE MEE: A Story from Prosperity Candle

Mee Mee heard that the soldiers were coming. She took hold of her son and frantically joined the rest of the villagers who were running toward the Thai-Burmese border, where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was located. Her husband was in another village running in the opposite direction, Mee later learned. After the soldiers’ pursuit ended, Mee returned home to her small village in Koechi, Burma.

Between 1997 and 2000, Mee Mee and thousands like her lived under the constant threat of violence from Burmese soldiers. Many people would take temporary refuge in the jungle, and return home to their village after soldiers left the area, only to do it all over again days later. About once a week, Mee and others would be on the move to avoid capture, rape, or death by soldiers.

During one incident, Mee’s husband ran ahead of his wife to secure food for his family. Her husband was spotted by soldiers and shot. The bullet shattered a portion of his ribcage, leaving him severely wounded as he journeyed toward the jungle with his family for safety.

For three months, Mee’s husband hid and moved the family with a debilitating wound at his side. He received no medical care, except for Mee’s tending.

“I was afraid to return to Burma,” Mee said through an interpreter. “I feared dying. I cried and cried every day,” she continued.

Mee’s husband eventually drew enough strength to walk five days toward a small village in Thailand where they learned the location of a hospital and a refugee camp. When Mee and her husband finally arrived at the hospital, he underwent immediate surgery and later recovered.

Life in the jungle for those fleeing Burmese soldiers was indeed terrifying and difficult. Makeshift bamboo tents with only roof and floor coverings became suitable temporary dwellings. Many women including Mee gave birth to children in the jungle. Mee’s then six-year-old son assisted in the delivery of his sister named Eh Ku Hser. Her name means love - cold - sweet. “Cold” in Burmese culture means so as to not pass through the fire of life, as heat represents troubled times.

“I hoped my daughter would be free from difficult and troubling times,” said Mee. “I did not want her to go through what I had experienced,” she continued. For Mee, the birth of her daughter in the midst of darkness, torment and fear, was a symbol of hope for a new life to come.

With the help of UNHCR, Mee and her family were able to resettle in West Springfield, MA. There, Mee met Moo Kho Paw, another woman who emigrated from Burma, and who was working with us as a candle-maker in Florence, MA. Prosperity Candle helps refugee women who have escaped areas of conflict rebuild their lives through the art of candle making. Moo Kho recommended that Mee join the organization, and Mee gladly accepted.

“I was excited to be out of the house,” said Mee, “I was raised to believe that because I was a woman, my role was to remain at home and raise my family,” she continued. “While many Burmese women want to do more for themselves, they are often encouraged to remain homemakers.”

She has become a talented candle-maker with Prosperity Candle, and her strength and resilience continue to be an inspiration to many.

Adopted from Judith Santiago’s Hope in a Time of Crisis: a Mother’s Day Story, originally posted here