Perspectives: Amanda Klassen — Stronger than a super typhoon

As a designer, Vancouver’s Amanda Klassen was excited to support a group of master weavers in the Philippines. But when she arrived, she wasn’t sure she could do it. Here is part of Amanda’s story, as told from her perspective.

It all started last year when I began my placement as a Business Development Specialist, working with a team of rural weavers in Basey, Samar, Philippines. My professional background is product design and I’ve helped clients internationally develop new product categories or improve existing products to grow their business.

I was placed at Basey Association of Native Industry Growth (BANIG), a social enterprise supporting the livelihoods of rural women weavers. These expert women weavers became famous for making mats woven from tikog reeds, which are indigenous to the area and sustainably grown and harvested. Banig literally means mat in English and is a style of Filipino weaving considered a national treasure.

From the start, this placement felt like it was the ultimate win-win; an opportunity to contribute to the social good and for me to learn new sustainable techniques. But my preliminary research didn’t desensitize me for the harsh realities of poverty. The hardest aspect of the project was having to face this daily.

Many of the women only started to claim their rights and build financial independence after Typhoon Haiyan. One of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, the 2013 typhoon killed more than 6,300 people in the Philippines, injured more than 27,000 and displaced more than four million. It also damaged or destroyed more than 1.1 million homes.

After the typhoon, women were the first to organize in response to the destruction. Seeing women take charge and get results, many husbands began to trust their wives with much larger responsibilities. Now with more than five years of re-development experience, there’s been a remarkable cultural shift.

The women of BANIG have fearlessly seized on the new opportunities. The president of the organization told me, “When we ask for help and someone says no, we just move on to the next person.”

These rural women are agents of change and are some of the most adaptable women I’ve met. Every month the leaders are in seminars or teaching workshops. They’re thirsty to learn and network. These are powerful leadership qualities that I believe can lead their organization into transformation.

Growth, Sustainability and New Beginnings

Prior to my arrival in the Philippines I had many big ideas I wanted to pursue, and I was losing sleep with excitement. I quickly learned most of them were not possible. During my first weeks in placement, I tagged along on many of the team’s regular activities and acted as a “fly on the wall,” observing the cultural context in which exchanges were happening and noting the behaviours, actions, demographics, needs and pain-points. I found out why flexibility and adaptability are so important for a volunteer.

I had to rethink how to run a business, one that is primarily “off the grid.” I had to make my own map of Basey to document BANIG’s various operations, which consisted of 23 barangays (neighbourhoods), many with different specialties. Early discoveries like these reminded me to pause and be more open to learn where I really needed to start. So, I revised my work plan. There became this fluidity to the project. I like to describe it as a current. I needed to flow with it or risk exhaustion trying to go against it.

Cellular data is a luxury in Philippines. However, some weavers have basic smartphones and avidly use Facebook because it offers a data-free mode of communication. Together, we chose to launch BANIG’s first online distribution channel using the social media platform. The sales inquiries that first day online led the women to the nearest post office to price out shipping options.

They now have a full product catalog, as well as team images, for their recent media coverage and proposals. Beautiful meditation mats have been sold and shipped to Vancouver and the organization has secured international trade buyers who order custom work. Observing them grow and delegate new orders on their own was one of my proudest moments.

But these amazing women weren’t the only ones who experienced growth. Soon after I returned home, I applied what the weavers taught me and launched my own small business—Amenda (amenda.ca). It’s a combination of the word amend (to make better) and my name. The first products on my site were beautiful woven mats from the women of BANIG. My goal is to have this small initiative inspire other meaningful and sustainable designs.

These women taught me more about building resilience and perseverance than ever before. It was truly a gift to experience their resourcefulness and vibrant attitudes. The experience opened my eyes to possibilities that I didn’t see before. Now I truly believe nothing can stop me from moving forward, with the right attitude.

Perspectives is a new, regularly occurring feature as told by the author. If you have a story for consideration, please email editor@cusointernational.org.