From its inception, Ock Pop Tok in Laos has been about more than weaving and art.
A big part of the collective’s mission is fair trade, says co-founder Jo Smith.
In addition to sharing in the net income, the women who work directly for the weaving collective in the historic town of Luang Prabang are provided benefits such as health insurance, retirement funds and vacation time.
Veomanee Douangdala, the collective’s other founder, who grew up in the Lao weaving tradition, said Ock Pop Tok also has a program where weavers can receive interest-free loans for personal expenses, like building a home or buying a motorbike.
While long-term benefits are often provided for government workers in Laos, according to Smith, they are not as common in the private sector, which is where most women in the country find jobs or have their own businesses.
“There’s so much more to life than this bottom line,” said Smith.
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing. And that needs to be afforded to everyone, not just yourself. The thought of going to work for anyone and not enjoying what you do is such a crime against our short time on the planet. Part of that enjoyment comes from working for a mission you believe in, enjoying the opportunities you get in the workplace, the opportunity to be creative.”
And the idea of fair trade goes beyond financial security, said Douangdala.
It’s important, she said, “that people really feel connected and not just feel like employees (and) they feel like they work within the same family.”
“The artist’s job is not working like a factory.”
She said it’s significant that Ock Pop Tok’s women weavers and other team members can bring in a steady income and provide for their families, something that her own mother was able to do with weaving. She mentioned that the collective’s head weaver has been able to put her two children through school with the wages.
“It definitely gives them (the women) a better voice in the family,” Douangdala said of the Ock Pop Tok artisans.
When they join the collective, most employees say they dream of travel, Smith said. Each year, she brings two different team members to Santa Fe for the Folk Art Market.
“We really see the weavers and the people we work with as cultural ambassadors,” Smith said. “The fact that they’re given this opportunity to go out into the world or out into Santa Fe and represent this unique individual culture and be put in a spotlight, on a pedestal, and people come and appreciate the work they do, is so amazingly fulfilling for us and these women.
“Obviously coming back year after year, the organization starts to feel like a global family of artisans.”
The best-seller at the Folk Art Market is often the group’s indigo-dyed cotton jackets that are embellished with silk embroidery and weavings, Smith said, The jackets are “representative of the deep ethnic diversity that you find in Laos.”
The Ock Pop Tok group also uses the trip to see more of the country.
“We always do a road trip,” Smith said. “We go to the Grand Canyon. Last year, we went up to Moab (Utah). This year, we’re going camping in Yosemite. We always do something fun together on the road.”
Smith and Douangdala never expected their company to grow as it has. Both have dreams of expanding their international reach. Smith mentioned some day taking the “East meets West” idea to the next level, opening another center so the collective can educate groups and showcase the art form in a new country.
“This sense of travel and opportunities outside of Laos is something I’m passionate about,” she said.