UC Undergraduates form Women’s Initiative for Local Livelihoods to Foster Community Empowerment and Sustainable Development

W.I.L.L. members at youth scholarship ceremony with tie-dye women's group

During our June-July 2009 Travel Study program (directed by Dr. Michael Silverman, co-taught by Dr. Rebecca Shipe and facilitated through UCLA International Education Office), our research group was immersed in the livelihood practices and environmental challenges of Muslim and Buddhist communities along Thailand’s North Andaman seacoast, an area struck by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. At “Din Dang” on the border of Chumphon and Ranong Provinces, we learned about permaculture and engaged in earth building – a process utilizing local resources to build durable, affordable, and eco-friendly adobe houses. At an island called Koh Rah, the EcoLodge conducts biodiversity surveys of keystone species (i.e., hornbills), and uses solar-powered technology to achieve environmental sustainability.

Like many places in the world, economic development has benefited few while disenfranchising others.  We bore witness to many Thai communities that still actively pursued livelihood improvements amidst systemic, social and environmental challenges. A partner in this project is the Royal Thai government. The nation’s King is revered for his benevolence and diplomacy. He promotes a “self-sufficiency” economy that prioritizes sustainability and village-based autonomy. This ideology empowers current grassroots organizations while incentivizing new ones to sprout. Some institutional programs specifically aim to fuel economic growth through traditional handicraft trades.  An example is One Tambon One Product (OTOP), was initiated by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006). It is a marketing network for Thailand’s districts, where residents share ideas and information that sprout competitive creativity locally and extend market reach nationally, regionally, and globally. OTOP selects one product per Tambon for international promotion, with selection criteria as uniqueness, high standards and efficient production.  These programs jointly promote local initiative and entrepreneurship.  Our primary research involves two groups that benefit from these government initiatives.

As one component of our academic program, we spent a week with two Thai-Muslim women’s groups in Kamphuan, located in Suksamran District, Ranong Province. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami took away family members and flattened local industries that previously employed them (e.g. fishing). To get back on their feet, these women formed and managed groups as means of social and economic support. The women openly revealed their attitudes, concerns and relationships with the natural environment, society, economy, and religion. For example, the women deeply wove religion into their lives. They explained how Islam cushioned sudden misfortunes and motivated them  to pursue various goals. The religion teaches reciprocity, which is why the tie-dye group runs a scholarship fund for disadvantaged youth and donates to HIV/AIDS relief. Furthermore, though the women expressed concern for their personal environmental impacts, Kamphuan is rural and relatively unpolluted.  Their efforts towards sustainability included recycling and reusing local materials, properly disposing of waste water, and aiding other organizations’ mangrove forest restoration projects. These local efforts were achieved despite initial criticisms from community members who said the women were too ambitious. Despite such economic and social gains, many women stated they did not feel powerful enough to induce systemic changes on aforementioned issues. While their handicraft activities provided supplementary income, many felt they need jobs in more established operations, e.g., clothing design, restaurant management, and (village) government administration.

Inspired by the women’s optimism, entrepreneurship and persistence, our research team has formed Women’s Initiative for Local Livelihoods (W.I.L.L.). We aim to spread knowledge about the women’s resilience and resourcefulness in sustaining their livelihoods. We link their handicrafts to people beyond Thailand’s borders, starting with the UCLA community. This extends their market reach, which they stated as a primary concern. W.I.L.L. offers handmade batiks and tie-dyed key chains, t-shirts and tote bags to UCLA through Net Impact Undergrad, a student organization supporting social entrepreneurship. All proceeds go directly to the artisans and other microcredit enterprises initiated by W.I.L.L. and our supporters.  W.I.L.L. is fundamentally about willpower — a capacity held by all individuals (regardless of ethnicity, history, age, gender, etc.) that can be strengthened by community and institutional support. Development requires collaboration among all those involved: government institutions, the international community, the marketplace, and most importantly, the local communities themselves. Ultimately, W.I.L.L. is not merely a vehicle for selling and distributing unique handicrafts. It is an awareness-raising project that strengthens community-based women’s participatory development.

Kamphuan research project presentation

W.I.L.L. Founder Bios:

Amy Ta is an International Development and Communication Studies double major of UCLA’s class of 2010.  She is involved with the UCLA Burkle Center, Daily Bruin Radio & Photojournalism, and Bruin Runners. She has volunteered in New Zealand and studied in the Czech Republic. She plans to attend out-of-state graduate school and possibly work in broadcast foreign correspondence.

Christina Hughes is a Sociology major of the UCLA class of 2011.  She aims to broaden her worldview and establish connections with other eco-minded citizens through her travels in East Africa and Southeast Asia.  In her experiences abroad, she has pursued her interest in social research focused on community empowerment and participatory development.

Christine Nguyen graduated UCLA with the class of 2009 with a Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental Science and Environmental Health Science concentration. She plans to apply her knowledge and experiences received from her travels and studies to her professional career. Eventually, she hopes to attend graduate school.

Elizabeth Lam is an Environmental Policy And Analysis Planning major of UC Davis class of 2011. She plans to pursue a career in Public Health, potentially with the California State Department. She hopes to gain more worldly experience through study abroad, as well as attend graduate school.

Terri Chan is an Environmental Science major and Geography/Environmental Studies minor of UCLA class of 2010. As the Community Impact Director for Net Impact Undergrad, she liaises with green organizations to promote socially responsible initiatives. She hopes to combine her love for travelling and sustainability in her future career endeavors.

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