Grandmas weave for radical change

Guest contribution by Hallie O’Neill, Lucy Morrison, Alex McGraw

Additional reporting by Courtney Robinson, Bailey Nelson-Grant, Isabel Meads

NA NONG BONG, LOEI- By the flame of a solitary candle, a village elder led an incantation in the prayer circle. Out with the bad, in with the good. A spell to bless the brand new weaving center of the Radical Grandma Collective (Rad Gram), an all-female social enterprise that funds the struggle of an anti-mining group in Loei Province.

The Sunday mood was festive in Na Nong Bong village as the 22 women of Rad Gram celebrated the opening of their weaving center three years after the collective was founded with the support of some American students.

During a student field visit in 2010, Becky Goncharoff was approached by Ranong Kongsaen, known in the village as Mae Rote, to help sell the villagers’ homemade products on the internet. For Goncharoff, it was an entry to Na Nong Bong’s resistance movement.

“These people aren’t scared of anything,” says Goncharoff. “They care about this land and their community and its future more than they care about their own lives, and they are also really talented. We need to support people like that.”

Ranong and a few fellow grandmas prepare for the blessing ceremony at the weaving center. Photo by Hallie O’Neill.

Ranong and her community are locked in a perennial struggle with a copper-gold mine that started operating in 2006 less than a kilometer from the village. She and other villagers claim that the mining operations have poisoned their water supplies and rendered much of their farmland unfit for cultivation.

Weaving is their battle tactic of choice. It is as much a part of their daily routine as the after-effects of mining are. Each thread woven is an action of protest — one that now spans national borders — and every scarf is a message to the world about this community’s resistance. The proceeds not only cover legal fees and protest fines, but they often serve as income supplements for work days lost to protesting.

Prior to expanding their business to a more global market, the Na Nong Bong weavers, made up of women between the ages of 30 and 80, sold their products locally, garnering a small fraction of income to support their resistance.

Today, the collaboration with Goncharoff and two other American students, Zoe Swarts and Katie Mathieson, has enabled Rad Gram to expand their sales to the USA, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Ranong and Goncharoff participate in a traditional Isaan welcoming ritual. Photo by Lucy Morrison.

Organizing and protesting for a decade has been a drain on the community. Na Nong Bong villagers have had to pool additional resources to pay for ongoing litigation costs.

Weaving has become a lifeline, providing them with independent income that covers the cost of living with a little extra funding to post bail and keep the most active protesters out of jail.

Part of the proceeds go directly towards the village resistance fund and the rest goes to the weavers as personal income. This empowers the women to have independent income from the men and enables them to care for their young while working from home.

Though many of the weavers are old, the future of Rad Gram is young. They attracted a 30-year old woman — Ranong’s daughter and the youngest protest weaver to-date — into their group just a few months ago.

Ranong’s daughter, Rotjana Kongsaen, Rad Gram’s newest and youngest weaver. Photo by Hallie O’Neill.

Not only is Rad Gram pro-environmental justice, it’s pro-female empowerment, too. As women, weaving is an outlet for the Na Nong Bong women to non-violently protest using traditionally female skills. Though men are usually seen as the frontrunners in resistance movements, these women prove otherwise.

The Radical Grandma Collective website allows people around the world to learn about the resistance and purchase scarves to support the cause. With the weaving center, they now have a communal space to execute their work, rather than the solitary spaces of their homes.

But the center isn’t just a place for the women to weave. It’s also a center for villagers to organize, share ideas, and pass down skills to younger generations. In a country where any political gathering of five or more people is illegal by government decree, the weaving center provides a space for these women to discuss plans to continue the fight towards environmental justice, as well as come together through culture and tradition. The center features an open-air design and a kitchen area, so the community gathers here to cook, collaborate and celebrate.

Ranong watches over children at the weaving center. Photo by Lucy Morrison.

Contrary to common portrayals of rural villagers — especially women — they are not victims.

“There’s a tendency with these projects, and when people tell these stories, the common angle is the sad poisoned villager who’s struggling against this huge company and they can’t do anything,” said Goncharoff. “You can definitely tell this story here, but that’s not the story we like to tell.”

One of the forward-facing goals for this collective is self-sustainability. Ideally, the women of Na Nong Bong will run the operation themselves, including the website, marketing campaigns and business logistics. Those skills are still developing, though, but with the recent involvement of younger generations, this restructuring may be just over the horizon.

As Ranong says, “We work together, we relax together, we resist together.” The Na Nong Bong weaving center is a sanctuary for all three.

Seventeen of the 22 Na Nong Bong weavers in their new weaving center. Photo by Hallie O’Neill.

Hallie O’Neill studies Creative Writing and Anthropology at Drake University. Lucy Morrison studies Environmental Biology at Georgetown University. And Alex McGraw majors in Public Health and Legal Studies at the University of Rochester.

Additional reporting done by Courtney Robinson who studies International Relations at Pennsylvania State University, Bailey Nelson-Grant, a psychology major at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Isabel Meads who majors in Public Health at Tulane University.

All the writers are currently studying about development and public health issues in the Northeast of Thailand.