A note from Hands Up Not Handouts founder, Tess Sager.

Charity sucks. Just giving people money can be crippling, it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves and it’s not sustainable. I’m sick and tired of people looking at the poor as somehow being poor because they’re not smart or not willing to work. My experience has been exactly the opposite. Usually the reason they are poor is simply because they have not had an opportunity. My project, Hands Up Not Handouts, provides women with an opportunity to use their traditional handicraft skills to make funky new products that can be sold in western markets. The women and I work together to create funky brightly colored accessories – colors that remind you of the women’s incredible spirit.

Over the last 10 years (since I was 10 years old) my family and I have traveled to some of the most desperate places in the world doing the work of the Sager Traveling Foundation and Roadshow. A few years ago we were in Palestine visiting a women’s handicraft cooperative in the Qalandia refugee camp.  We went into their show room and it was heart breaking for me to see so many unsold embroidered tablecloths and pillowcases. So much hard work just sitting and collecting dust.  They had a special expertise and they were working so hard but they were making the wrong product. So many hours were put into those products that it became so expensive and the aesthetic did not appeal to western taste. By working together with the women we figured out how to reapply their embroidery skill to make super cool $45 bracelets that are now flying off the shelves and now over 300 Palestinian women are working on this project.

In Rwanda the women and I transformed their traditional know how of weaving sweet grass baskets that look cool but lets face it – how many grass baskets do people need in New York, Paris, or Dubai? Instead we used the same weaving technique to make a line of big trendy sweet grass earrings.

After developing the products the next step in creating value was to share the stories behind the women making these accessories – to take the buyer on a journey that really connects them to the women’s lives, challenges, and dreams. I use my photography to tell the story of how buying this jewelry impacts women’s lives. They are not anonymous, they are real human beings with real challenges and real smiles.

When women make money they have more say in their family and their community, more kids go to school and families eat better. Those are the life changing results that come from empowering women with this opportunity.

In Rwanda the women who work together are the widows of the genocide and sometimes the wives of the murderers. They have turned their back on the hatred of the past because all they care about is making a better life for their kids.  They often dance before they weave and chant that they are building their country to be a paradise.

As a Jew helping the women of Palestine, I have had to tune out lots of Jewish friends saying, “How could you help the Palestinians?” I had to tune out all the stereotypes and all the prejudices. What I found is that the Palestinian women are some of the warmest, most considerate, and smartest people I’ve ever met.

I founded Hands Up Not Handouts as a way to empower women. When I wear my jewelry, especially when I touch it, I can feel the hands of the women who made it. I smile when I think about the how good they must feel about being given an opportunity instead of charity. Not a handout, but a hand up. YOU GO GIRLS!