Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Karen Sparacio. The Heart and Brains behind Project Have Hope.

Karen in Uganda
It seems I'm always talking about Dunitz & Company and our fair trade jewelry collection. Over the years, it has also given me great pleasure to share the stories of some of my fair trade friends and colleagues. There is so much we can learn from their talents and experiences.  One of those people is Karen Sparacio, the heart and brains behind Project Have Hope. Thankfully for all of us reading this, Karen was a willing participant when I asked to interview her. Keep reading here to learn what she shared.

NANCY: Like many of us, you stretch yourself thin so you can make a difference. You operate an incredible fair trade business working with artisans in Uganda and you also manage to find time for wedding and journalistic photography. I'd love to know more about both. And I think people reading this blog post will as well. I'll do my best at asking you a bit about both.

Can you tell me what inspired you to get involved with fair trade? How did you come by working with artisans in Uganda?

KAREN: As a professional photographer, I first traveled to Uganda in 2005 to volunteer for several non-profits to provide them with high quality imagery for their fundraising and marketing efforts.  During that trip, I was introduced to a woman who brought me to the Acholi Quarter. I ended up spending two weeks photographing in that community and learning more about the families who had been displaced because of the war in northern Uganda.  It was there I was first introduced to the craft of paper bead making. Inspired and awed by the strength and endurance of the people I met, I simply wanted to find a way to help. In that spirit, we started the non-profit, Project Have Hope, which has been a collaborative entity in which I help find a market for their artistry and we use the profits to further educational opportunities for their children and the artists themselves.

NANCY: Tell me a few more specifics about the work you do in Uganda.  Is there a type of product that Project Have Hope specializes in?  Do you have a favorite items you sell?

KAREN: The work I do in Uganda has a lot of elements beyond products and craft-making. Although the crafts are what makes it possible to fund our work, my primary focus is helping the artisans become financially independent. Much of my work has to do with overseeing our child sponsorship, vocational training and loans programs and developing new programs that will help the artisans find ways to support themselves. Although I have many ideas, ultimately, it is the artisans and the community that knows best what they need, so it's imperative that I spend time talking and listening to them and helping to implement their ideas into living, breathing, effective programming.

Alice learned Tailoring
Project Have Hope is definitely known for our high quality, inspired, paper bead designs. We spend a lot of time developing new designs to ensure that our jewelry is on trend and fresh. With so much competition in the paper bead jewelry industry, we stand out for our high quality and unique artistry.

Over the years, our product line has greatly diversified. We invest heavily in vocational training and have trained more than 25 women as tailors.  These tailors have helped us to expand our textile offerings to cloth napkins, tote bags, aprons, oven mitts, headbands and plush animals. The most exciting part of our crafts is the collaborative process. By sharing ideas, skills and strengths, we have been able to create a versatile line of products that have been very well received.

NANCY: Is there something you feel particularly good about when you think of your work in Uganda. An accomplishment? A life you changed? I'd love to hear a story or two.


KAREN: Oh gosh, we're going on 16 years now, there are so many stories. I guess there is one that stands out more than the rest. It's a story of little Gerard.  I still remember when he first came to our community center for a workshop to paint peace tiles and he looked so sickly.  I asked one of the women what is sickness was. "Malaria? HIV? TB?" They responded with words I didn't understand. And then they translated. "Lack of protein." Gerard was slowly being starved to death. There's a long, ugly story around that situation, but the result was that we stepped in, got him medical treatment and found a home where he would be well taken care of. Now, more than ten years later, he is thriving and you'd never know that there was a time that no one expected he'd survive. He is my shining light. So often it's easy to think of all the things I cannot do, I cannot change. Gerard is the reminder that we all have the power to make a difference in the life of one person. And even if we accomplish nothing more, we've done well.

NANCY: Another aspect of you that I really admire is your photography work. Your Instagram feed is loaded with wonderful product shots and amazing artisan pics. Here's a technical question you might be able to answer for me. Sometimes you have background items such as flowers that help you show off a pair of earrings. The flower is a bit blurry and the earrings are crystal clear. These kind of photos always interest me. Is there a "tip" for how someone manages that effect? Answer as technically as you must.

Camera Focuses on Bracelet
KAREN: It's all about focus and depth of field. Focus on the area you want to be sharp and use a shallow depth of field to keep the rest soft. I'm old school. I don't use post-production editing tools to change the photos I intended to take.






NANCY: Wow. You'll need to be even more specific for me. Can you baby-sit me through the process?

KAREN: I typically use F2.8 to keep a shallow depth of field and a moderately fast shutter speed of 125. I also generally stand on a stop ladder so I'm above the subject and can tilt my camera to focus in on one specific area. This helps to naturally blur the background. 

NANCY: And your people pics are extraordinary. I adore how you've had relationships over many years with some of your artisans and their children. In many cases you document their growth. It's obvious to me they admire and trust you, allowing you to take and share these images. Can you tell me a bit more about how you've changed some of their lives?

KAREN: I think a better question is how they've changed me.  I'm exceedingly impatient; they've taught me patience, among so many other things. They've taught me the benefits of interdependence, collaboration, the importance of being still, present and truly listening. They've taught me that someone's educational level or financial status does not in any way represent their net worth and their value, nor does it lessen their impact, nor make their voice any less worthwhile and strong. (Wow! Love this!) They've taught me more than I could ever impart on them. I've been extremely fortunate to be the connector - connecting their stories and artistry to others.

NANCY: I view you as a photographer extraordinaire. Do you have any tips for a small business person when it comes to producing good photography? Go out on a limb here. You can share tips for product pics or people pics.

KAREN: Producing good photography, whether it's products or people, is all about the lighting. For product pics, even if you're not using a professional set up, you can easily get a piece of white board or foam core and position that to bounce light back into a product so the light is more even and the shadows are reduced. For people, photography skill is minimally important. It's the time you put into building relationships and the trust you develop. There are many times when being a photographer takes a back seat. There are times I'd love to just start shooting, but I know the real value comes from  being patient, making sure everyone is comfortable and respected and is able to share their voice in how their story is told.

NANCY: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

KAREN: I think I've already said too much. (said with a big smile.)

--end of interview--

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I hope you learned a useful thing or two by reading this interview with Karen. I know I learned quite a bit from our conversation. Project Have Hope and Dunitz & Company are both vetted members of Fair Trade Federation. That means you can feel secure and good about supporting our organizations. Definitely take a closer look at Project Have Hope's website. There you can learn more about their mission and score some great gifts. By supporting fair trade businesses like ours, you are making a positive difference in lives. -ND