XS Project is an NGO raising awareness of environmental damage and poverty through education, best known for their innovative product designs reusing consumer waste. Six months ago, American expat Samantha Beach joined the initiative to teach wives of trash pickers how to make colourful jewellery, key chains and book thongs out of trash. These unique creations will start being sold this month at bazaars and directly through XS Project, and sales will go towards the women who make them.
Samantha, is this your first time living overseas?
Yes, this is our first time living as expats. My husband is an IT consultant specializing in healthcare IT and a job opportunity for him in Asia came up which brought us here.
Did you experience culture shock when you first moved to Jakarta?
Yes, absolutely, although I’ve found the people here to be very kind. I feel safer here than in a big city in the United States.
How did you first get involved with XS Project?
I took a tour of the rubbish tip at XS Project in Cirendeu with Retno Hapsari when I first came here. Back home I ran my own wedding cake shop and my friend asked me to join in the tour because she knew I’m crafty. I started thinking that I could come up with some ideas of taking trash and turning it into something that people would buy. Retno tried to see if any of the mums were interested and I now have six mums that I’ve worked with for six months: Ipat, Sani, Sutiah, Nur, Marni and Supena.
What difficulties have you faced when teaching them these skills?
I don’t think they’ve ever done crafts before, so it’s been very hard to teach them how to bend the wire correctly, doing it neatly every time. If I’m watching they’ll do it the right way, but if they’re doing it on their own they start to get sloppy. I explain to them that it’s not going to sell if it’s sloppy; we need to make it this way every time.
How have you overcome the language barrier?
I use Google Translate! Marni, one of the mums who can make everything correctly every time, helps me to show the other mums what’s being done wrong. I’m very fortunate I have Marni, who speaks a bit of English; a bit more every time I visit. She’s also teaching me a little Bahasa.
How is your relationship with the mums you teach?
The relationship has grown; they trust me and look forward to me coming. They laugh, tease and imitate me. I find it amazing how we speak different languages but I can still go there and teach them this skill.
How are you empowering the mums?
My husband and I recently went back to the US to visit. I took some of the earrings, key chains and book thongs with me and I sold US$500 worth. When I returned I gave Rp.1.1 million to each mum and said it was payday; they were thrilled. We also teach the mums that they need to save money, so in the programme we’re trying to do a lot more than just teach a skill.
What’s your goal through your work at XS Project?
I just want it to take off and for the mums to have an income forever. Eventually Karen McDaniels, the project manager at XS, would like to distribute to the United States.
The book thongs are beautiful and very unique.
We have two sizes: ones for hard cover (12 inches) and a shorter one for paperback books. It’s all made of trash; we use an inner tube tire for the string and discarded magazines for the paper beads. Then we added the ‘made with love’ charm to show that it’s from their hearts.
When you first moved to Jakarta, did you notice the litter problem?
I noticed the trash. I thought it was a grungy city and honestly felt very depressed when I first came here; it was a big change for me. Having said that, my friends are very impressed with how far I’ve come. When I go to XS I just shake my head in amazement that these women can live in this kind of situation and still smile and laugh. I don’t know how they do it, but I suppose they don’t know any better. It’s amazing.
How do you compare the level of understanding of recycling and trash here compared to the States?
In the US recycling is mandated and they’ve pulled all the garbage out of landfills because they realize it won’t break down in our lifetimes. Jakarta is very lucky because it has the pemulung; we should be thankful that these people do what they do. You’re not going to change the minds of the older people; the only way things will change is through children and education. It’s not going to happen for many years, but eventually change will come.
What are the aspirations of the mothers you teach?
Every week I ask the mothers two questions, for instance if you could have any job what would you do? Sani said they would like to own her own local grocery store. Ipat wishes she could be a doctor; she said she’s not very educated but she wants to make her country proud. Marni wants to be a famous singer. One day she picked up a plastic bottle and started singing and the mums in the background all joined in!
Asking them these kinds of questions gets them to think that even though they’re in this poor situation now, some day they could get out and do what they dream of.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re going to start making recycled jewellery from inner tubes of scooters. More of the wives in Cirendeu want to join my programme, but right now we plan to do it for a year to get it to the level XS wants the product to be. Eventually we’ll bring three more mums in.
We’ve been paying for the beads and the products so far, but the next level is that the mums have to buy their own beads and be self-sufficient. I plan to take three of the mums to Mangga Dua so they know where they can get the product, and so that the project can continue when I’m gone.
We will also be making a website where people can pick and see what products we have available.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far working with these mums?
What can readers do to help?
I hope people will understand the importance of reusing and recycling.
Aside from that, I’d like people to realize that everybody has talents and gifts in this world. Just because some people are where they live, we shouldn’t look down on them.
What has working with the XS Project mums done for you on a personal level?
It’s a blessing I found them. Before in my cake shop in the States, I worked six days, ten to 14 hours a week, but when we moved here I didn’t have a job or a purpose. Now I try to come up with ideas for the mums during the week and I train them on Mondays. Not only do I try to save them, I think they rescued me.
If you’re interested in finding out more, or in joining in a jewellery-making workshop, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org