Sylvia Dang started volunteering for Senhoa in 2011. In 2013 she started working as our Office Manager. She has since become our Director of Operations in 2014. Here she recounts her time in Cambodia last year and an important lesson she learned.
Last year I was given the privilege to lead the jewelry program in Cambodia for 6 months. I eagerly accepted and am forever grateful for the experience. Beyond living in a new place, being immersed in a new culture daily and seeing our work as it is on the ground (and not just through daily emails and Skype calls to the field team), the intimate interactions with our field staff and service users and what I learned from them will always stay with me.
Acclimating to Third World conditions amidst a growing tourist town was a lesser challenge; cultural differences--how different from what you are used to in the Western world is not necessary worse or needs improvement--was slightly more difficult to grasp.
Even more intimidating was maintaining the delicate balance between catering to our artisans' needs, extending continual grace and being sensitive to their situations AND managing a productive and efficient business and teaching the girls to be good employees and not coddle or debilitate them by allowing irresponsibility or bad habits to develop.
Leading the girls was an amazing, fun and challenging experience and there were many lessons to be learned. Possibly the most important one was a reflection of the girls' own experiences: it is crucial to accept the past but to truly heal and one must focus on the future.
In our descriptions of what Senhoa does, we had always written that we support survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We said that we are in a fight against modern slavery. We use bold and dramatic language that get our point across. We know that donors and supporters, particularly in the West, need to feel connected to a cause; they want to hear about the brutal stories. They want to feel like they are helping bring change to a harrowing cause. In short, we needed these strong words to sell and market our cause, to bring awareness to our mission. Being in Cambodia, I felt differently. Those strong, dramatic words, describing the "victims" that we worked with and their situations, however true, were not helping us move forward. They were holding us back, continually labeling and exploiting the girls (although not deliberately), reminding them that this is who they are and where they've been.
It is okay to acknowledge the past, but we must make efforts to move forward and look to the future. We need to focus on the girls' accomplishments, how far they've come, the dreams they want to pursue going forward. We need to empower them. More than that, the girls were beginning to be more involved in the business, helping with sales, talking to customers at a weekend market we started selling their jewelry at. Visitors were coming into the design studio to see their artwork, to see them working hard at their craft, watch these amazing jewelry pieces being created by these talented girls. How could we continue to use the language that we used in front of the girls, whom we were teaching English to?
Last July we had a launch event in Siem Reap for Senhoa Jewelry. Our artisans were all there, dressed to the nines and beautiful, so excited to watch the first-ever live fashion show they've ever seen. Better yet, this show showcased their work, their art. It was an incomparable experience watching the pride and sparkle in their eyes as 250 people gathered for an event to celebrate their work and their accomplishments. We needed to do a short presentation before the fashion show which included a speech on what the Senhoa jewelry program was all about. It sounds rather silly now, given all of the different challenges I've faced since being in Cambodia, but I remember thinking in that moment of preparing for the presentation, I felt that THIS was the hardest moment. Figuring out what to say about the girls and this program when they are right there in front of you. In the past we have many scripts prepared, all utilizing the descriptions that I've provided above. But now, what to say to describe what we do and who we work with, when the girls are watching and listening to you?
We decided to say the truth, we work with young women who have gone through many hardships and have had few opportunities growing up. We are here to provide them with the tools they need to move forward from their pasts and live independently and take care of themselves and their families. And more than that, to live out their dreams. Dreams are difficult to live out when you constantly hear these words about yourself. We cannot shield our artisans from the words we use to describe our programs.
Therefore, we are making efforts to change the language on our website and marketing channels. Going forward, this language will reflect change and moving forward and focus less on victimization and labeling. We are not perfect and are constantly learning, but we strive to make the girls in our programs feel comfortable, safe, happy and free.