- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Joy McBrien’s necklaces hold a few morbid secrets.

What is in her drop-dead gorgeous jewelry once made people actually drop dead.

McBrien sells jewelry made from the recycled refuse of war, fashioned by women in poverty or in war-torn areas of the world, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1RxqFzN ) reported. Women in Ethiopia, for example, scavenge bullet shell casings in their villages, melt the metal into beads, then string them together to make earrings and necklaces.

McBrien, 26, of St. Paul sells the jewelry through a business called Fair Anita, named after an inspirational social worker she met while working in Peru.

“It’s the whole idea of women investing in other women,” said McBrien, speaking from Santiago, Chile, where she is conducting a six-month business-development trip. “Success comes when we lift each other up.”

By providing jobs and money to women, she said, they are lifted out of poverty and can stand up for themselves, which is how entire communities can be helped.


McBrien said her burning desire to help women has its roots in a horrible crime.

As a high school senior in Woodbury, McBrien said, she was raped. She did not report the attack to police, and it left a long-lasting emotional wound.

“I had to figure out how to heal. I wondered what violence against women looked like in different cultural contexts. It was my way of coping,” she said.

McBrien turned a crime against women into a business to help women - almost like turning bullets into earrings.

Another turning point came at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, where she learned how to start and manage nonprofits. But more important, she said, was the training in running a business.

She is proud of the fact that Fair Anita is not a nonprofit, entirely dependent on donations. It is an independent and self-sustaining business, she said.

“I was determined that it would not be based on pity. It would not be, ‘Oh, buy this so this poor woman can have water,’ ” McBrien said.

“A lot of the time, that’s how things are sold, trying to create some empathetic relationship between the customer and the artisan. I wanted to sell cool stuff that people wanted.”


She began to travel the world, visiting with women and searching for the best way to get involved. In Peru, she helped establish a women’s shelter.

“I intended to start a group focused on social work,” McBrien said.

But that sounded like charity to the women, which they did not want, she said. “All the women I met said, ‘That is a nice idea, but what I need is a job,’” McBrien said.

And what was the one job they could do? Making handicrafts.

Wherever McBrien went, she said, local women thrust their handicrafts at her. “They would all say, ‘Take these back to the U.S. and sell them for me,’ ” she said.

McBrien thought it sounded ridiculous at first. She said the items didn’t look like jewelry that American customers would buy.

But the idea germinated. “I went back and thought about it. If I could make some tweaks on the design work, I could sell this,” McBrien said.

She found women in India making jewelry from tightly rolled newspapers. Other women made scarves or adorned shoes with colorful cloth. McBrien is currently working with Cambodian women who use recycled bomb casings to make various items.

Last year, Fair Anita sold about $50,000 in merchandise, said McBrien. She said she has given about 8,000 women in 16 countries full- or part-time work.

She sells about 45 percent of her material through her website, fairanita.com. The products are also sold at Ten Thousand Villages in St. Paul and the Weisman Museum and the craft shop Regala de Oro in Minneapolis.

This year, she said that as she travels in South America, developing sources and markets, one question obsesses her: “How can we empower women around the world?”

“We are getting there,” she said. “I have seen it happen.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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