The Story of Elevāt: Difference-Making Begins with Ordinary Stories
By Amy Weiss
When Mary fled Burundi, she had no idea that jewelry would save her life. With gunfire flying through the air, she left her job as a professor and gathered her three children. They left their home, trying to live on the run. Survival came when Mary joined a jewelry-making cooperative. She was able to reinvent her life and support her family, working hard to take a hopeless situation and create something beautiful.
People like Mary are why Elevāt exists. Her story–and many others like it–affected Julie Johnson’s life, leading her to found Elevāt, a fair-trade marketplace empowering women around the world to support themselves and their families. By selling their handmade goods, Elevāt enables them to thrive. Difference-making can begin with an ordinary story.
Johnson, the ensemble tour director at a small Christian university in St. Paul, Minnesota, was not expecting to start a fair-trade business when she arrived in Belize for a mission trip–her first trip to a developing country. Heartbroken after seeing extreme poverty and mothers who couldn’t provide for their children, she told God, “I don’t want to go back to my normal life and forget what I know and understand now.” She asked God to show her how to empower these people–some of more than 950 million living in poverty around the globe.
And He did. In Belize, she met a woman named Dolores who made beautiful jewelry by hand. Selling her products for a low price, Dolores barely made enough profit to support her family. Knowing the jewelry could be sold for a fairer price in the United States, Johnson started Elevāt. Now, Dolores’ children are in school, Elevāt is almost five years old, and stories continue to drive Julie and involve people with Elevāt.
Connected with missionaries across the globe, Julie is often a middle person, linking the friends of missionaries to Elevāt and the marketplace in the United States. Because her husband is a pastor, Julie has been able to travel on missions trips and meet artisans in different countries. Traveling has shaped her passion to be part of these women’s stories. “Through travel, I’ve come to realize that even though we look different, sound different, and act different–we’re all the same,” she encouraged. “There’s more that connects us than divides us. Our heart values don’t change because you live in an Ethiopian desert.
Despite this inspiration, there have been moments Johnson has questioned: What am I doing? How am I doing this? Is it worth it? In these moments, God has reminded her that every sale makes a difference. An ordinary story is still a significant story, and Johnson believes even one empowered life is worth it.
In fact, something as small as a bracelet can connect the story of a mother in Minnesota with a mother in Haiti. Johnson explained that many Haitian women have to put their children in orphanages because they can’t afford to feed or provide for them. Motioning to the bracelet on her wrist, she elaborated: the income from these bracelets allows them to keep their children. Sold around Mother’s Day in the United States, a gift to your mom can empower another an ocean away.
When customers connect their stories with artisan’s lives, Johnson believes change happens. “They’re given a sense of their own ability to change the world,” she mentioned. “They’re connected in ways they wouldn’t have been connected before.”
Connecting these stories in new ways is one of her dreams for Elevāt. Someday, she hopes her role directing choir tours and Elevāt will combine to create trips, allowing women to visit the artisans who made their products. They will see each other’s stories firsthand: Guatemalan women weaving scarves, ladies doing embroidery work in Jordan, and Syrian women creating earrings in refugee camps may someday meet people helping their stories thrive.
In the meantime, Johnson is happy to do what she can. Traveling to Spain this month for her job, she’ll meet a missionary to pick up bags embroidered by a Moroccan woman. After all, our lives are connected. We can make a difference by living faithfully, weaving our stories with other’s lives along the way to create something beautiful.
“When Mary from Burundi told me, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to feed my family if you didn’t send the money...’ I know that actually made a difference,” she smiled. “And I’m just a little cog in it all. I’m just being faithful to the vision God had given me.”
Simply being obedient to God’s call has led Johnson to new places, and she encourages everyone to do the same. Sometimes our society emphasizes big, dramatic difference-making, but the best place to start is with what’s around us–with our simple stories. Look at the people in front of you: reach out and make a difference in the ways you can, right now.
Her best piece of advice? Just do it. Step out and make a small difference. Even a simple step in the direction God may be calling you to use your story is better than doing nothing because you waited for something big. The stories of Julie and Elevāt impart wisdom for our own lives: common, small things matter, too.