For decades, organizations dedicated to relief and aid work have relied upon heart-wrenching tales and images to drive empathy and donations. However, it is increasingly becoming understood that that kind of approach is not respectful to the dignity of the people it is most meant to help. A more ethical kind of storytelling is needed. Today, we have Kate Davis, Founder and Executive Director of Collective Humanity, an organization that partners with women artisan groups in Cambodia, speaking about why she signed the Ethical Storytelling Pledge, and what telling story ethically means to her. Here is what she said!
ES: Tell us about your work and brand.
KD: Collective Humanity is working to empower women to overcome extreme poverty in Cambodia through dignified employment and access to education. I was inspired to start Collective Humanity after my eyes were opened to what life could be like for a young woman growing up in extreme poverty, during a backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia. My time in Cambodia had such a huge impact on me that a few months later, upon my return home to America, I felt compelled to do something. I felt called to help raise awareness about the reality many young girls living in poverty face, and to do my part to help facilitate a new reality, one where Cambodian girls have access to education, opportunity, and basic human rights.
At Collective Humanity, we are focused on sustainable socio-economic development for women living in extreme poverty. We currently partner with over 40 female artisans in Cambodia to help them create demand for their products and generate sustainable, consistent, and dignified sources of income. We invest all profits from our sales, along with donations and grants, into education scholarships and skill training programs for our artisans and their families.
We want at-risk women, throughout the developing world, to be empowered with a strong foundation of economic opportunities, education, and community support, from which they can choose their future and transform their own lives.
ES: What drives your brand: the product, or the story? How do you find that balance?
KD: The story definitely drives our brand. Our products feel like a vessel through which we can get the results and implement the change and empowerment programs that we’re truly invested in. The story behind WHY we are producing these products is what is so important to us.
We want everyone who encounters CH to feel connected to the REAL LIFE stories of women in Cambodia and how their lives are being positively impacted by what we all collectively do. We believe that love is in the details, so we pay attention to the subtle ways we can draw on that connection for our customers and for the women in Cambodia. For example, we hand write the name of the women who weaves each blanket on a patch sewed onto each piece. We do this so that every time a customer picks it up they think of Net or of Naht, and they imagine their lives and the lives of their children flourishing, in part, because of their purchase of this blanket. I think there is something so beautiful and circular about that and it really speaks to the heart of Collective Humanity – which is that we are one. We are all interconnected and it is our job as a “collective humanity” to care for and support one another. The blankets themselves tell a story of hope, change, and progress for women in Cambodia. Without the story of what these blankets symbolize, they would just be a beautifully handmade throw for your home. Understanding the impact these blankets have on the lives of our weavers and their families is what motivates us and truly inspires the drive behind everything we do at CH.
I think there is something so beautiful and circular about that and it really speaks to the heart of Collective Humanity – which is that we are one. We are all interconnected and it is our job as a “collective humanity” to care for and support one another.
ES: Why did you connect with the ES pledge?
KD: Ethical storytelling is SO important. For a global organization working to connect cultures from across the world, authentic and respectful representation is vital. I want everyone who interacts with CH to get to know our partners in the best possible light, to see their resilience, their joy, and their strength. I want people to feel connected to and inspired by the work we do. Once I really sat with the reality of that responsibility, I realized how mindful we would need to be in order to consciously tell a story of hope and empowerment, rather than poverty and despair.
It can be really tempting to share personal details about the Cambodian women’s lives and daily struggles to help paint a picture for people back home, about what life is like for women in their country. But, over the last year and half since starting Collective Humanity, I have developed a true bond with our partners and the women we serve. Telling the stories of the women I meet and the people I partner with, sharing intimate details of their living conditions, how much money they have in their bank account, how educated their children were or were not, suddenly felt like as much of a betrayal as if it were my own family, as if I were telling you about one of my closest friend’s most intimate stories without their permission. Nevermind the stories of serious trauma. I was so excited and grateful when a colleague of mine introduced me to the Ethical Storytelling Podcast and your organization. It is SUCH a powerful and truly life changing message that needs to be spread throughout this industry. We have a professional and moral obligation to protect AND prioritize the dignity of the people that our organizations represent.
ES: Ethical Storytelling isn’t just for NGO’s. How have you incorporated the pledge into your marketing and storytelling?
KD: This was such a great learning exercise for me and for everyone on our team. We sat down and really brainstormed on this concept. We basically asked ourselves: How do we get people excited about what we’re doing and connected to our cause in a way that inspires, informs, and empowers? This concept definitely drove us crazy for a while, because it is SO tempting to share some of the harsh realities of the lives of women in Cambodia, knowing that it will pique interest. But we knew we didn’t want to evoke pity. One of our board members helped us draw out all the emotions that humans can connect around, instead of pity. Then it all became obvious. Once we realized how WE connected with these women and how they inspired us, we knew that we wanted our marketing to revolve around stories of resilience and joy. We are in the process of launching a campaign this month on how the women in Cambodia have helped us cultivate joy, so check out our Instagram to learn more!
Once we realized how WE connected with these women and how they inspired us, we knew that we wanted our marketing to revolve around stories of resilience and joy.
ES: What does the term ’empowerment’ mean to you? Does it imply that you have the power and they don’t?
KD: ‘What is Empowerment’ is a never ending question. It feels like a journey we are on and discovering more about each day. We take a holistic approach to socio-economic empowerment because we believe that if we can “teach a woman to fish”, AND teach her children to read, AND teach her about her rights, AND help her community develop infrastructure, THEN she eats for a lifetime, and generations to come don’t repeat the same cycle. When you look at generational poverty, it is extremely complex. One doesn’t overcome it simply with a job, as nice as that would be. There are so many other factors keeping that woman and her family in a cycle of poverty that need to be addressed. We try to bring all of the tools that we can to these women. We have brought in everything from alternative healers, to accountants, to financial advisors, to lines of credit, to access to education, to knowledge on women’s health and nutrition, to fundamental lessons on morals, ethics, critical thinking, and self-worth. We want to connect the communities we serve with all of the tools possible and empower them with information, and then allow them to decide what happens next. I believe information and opportunities are the truest forms of empowerment. Once you empower people with knowledge and access, they can decide their future for themselves and make different choices to break chains and cycles. At Collective Humanity, we believe empowerment comes from within and is ultimately a choice. We like to say, “we facilitate empowerment” by creating a strong foundation of economic opportunities, education, and community support, from which they can choose their future and transform their own lives.
Thank you, Kate, for sharing your perspective with us! To learn more about Collective Humanity, visit their website at: https://collectivehu.org/