Greenpoint Gazette

Sweatshop Social: Bags for the People

BY Talisa Chang

Crafting, going green, going local: these are topics that north Brooklyn and beyond has been buzzing with lately, via an explosion of craft and food markets, new entrepreneurs, websites, and blogs, all which tout an eye towards the sustainable, the frugal, and the trendy. But for all the talk and hype, it’s hard to tell if the ideas and the enthusiasm behind them will remain at the forefront once the fads shift and the recession eases.

Glenn Robinson and Lauren Saracene have proven that their passion goes beyond trends, putting their ideology into meaningful practice with Bags for the People, their not for profit organization that began with a simple idea: to give away cloth bags made from recycled fabric at the Union Square Green Market for shoppers to use instead of plastic ones. Now, just about a year later, their modest project has expanded from the Union Square to projects in other boroughs, schools, arts venues, and even Jamaica.

“Last winter, Glenn was pain stricken with the amount of plastic that was given out,” Saracene, 27, said. “It’s supposed to be a green market—everything environmental, local foods—and then you have all this plastic getting out which is completely counter productive to the idea of the green movement.”

Since they’ve begun, Robinson, 28, estimates that close to 9,000 bags have been made—all from recycled fabric, all given for free. And, aside from handing out bags at the Green Market, the program has expanded to workshops at places like Spacecraft and Etsy Labs, where people can make bags for themselves and to donate, as well as a regular workshop, Sweatshop Social, held monthly at 3rd Ward.

“The strive to take something old and make it into something unique is definitely a movement in itself,” Saracene said. “We have an intensely consumer-based society. Everybody has old clothes. So to be able to take people’s trash and make something that’s useful and good for the environment—people really respond to it. It’s a huge selling point for us.”

“We get a lot of people who are unemployed and bored [at the workshops], and it’s great because they get socialize and network and have fun,” she continued. “People get the chance to be creative no matter what they’ve ability level is. We have a lot of first-time sewers who feel really empowered by coming here and doing something they wouldn’t do normally.”

The workshops are a great way to bring craft and creativity to people, as well as to encourage recycling and environmentally- friendly practices without being overly preachy. However, Robinson and Saracene acknowledge that the audiences at the North Brooklyn venues are a relatively homogenous population— moderately well off twenty and thirty somethings, much like themselves.

“It’s easy for us to access people in our own demographic, but [the program] is most useful and most utilized in other areas, versus hipster Brooklyn,” Saracene said. “Our goal is to be able to work with the elderly, people with physical and mental disabilities, things like that, to really make it a program that gives access to all people. We’ve been working a lot in the Bronx and at low-income schools, which is nice because it’s a demographic we’d like to be working with. The craft scene is pretty big in Brooklyn and that’s cool, but it’s really been an interesting experience working with people who will use it and keep it as a skill, versus some people who don’t really need to.”

That’s why they’re most excited about how they’ve expanded their programming—to workshops for the elderly as well as for K-12 students. Press for their organization prompted teachers and after-school programmers to approach Robinson and Saracene to do three-day workshops with the students. The first day, they teach students how to make a their own bag, the second day they make extra bags, and the third day the students give the extra bags away at their local market, where they educate shoppers about what they’ve learned. In the future, they’re hoping to develop a more in-depth curriculum, hold school workshops more frequently in more areas, take fieldtrips to recycling centers and landfills, as well as run a summer program.

“Having the kids out there in public interacting with their community—I think they’re very proud of what they’ve made,” Robinson said. “They’re very receptive to the idea; it makes sense to them and they’re excited to give bags back to the community. It’s empowering for them.”

Bags for the People hopes to create self-sustaining satellite groups in other areas, even as far away as Jamaica, a country they’re approaching with the help of iJamaica, an organization which talks to communities to determine what their needs are and creates initiatives to help the community combat the problem. In this case, the organization is addressing the problem of garbage and plastic bags, which are affecting the fishing industry in Jamaica.

“We’re hoping with our experience working here, as well as setting up a sustainable bag-making group in the Bronx, we can set up a similar thing in Jamaica where we’ll have leaders running workshops, trying to make it sustainable there in their own way,” Robinson explained. “We want to help set it up, give them the necessary tools, and show them that it’s possible to do. That’s kind of the overall goal, to have these groups continue the mission.”

Bags for the People is self-funded. For Robinson and Saracene, the project has come to be their main occupation. They are currently raising money to get their 501 ©(3), which will give them non-profit status and eligibility to apply for grants. The organization accepts both monetary and in-kind donations at bagsforthepeople.org

“We’re doing it pretty much full time, because we believe in it and feel it’s necessary,” Robinson said. “So far it’s great—people seem to dig our workshops, and the kids love it when we go to the schools.”

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