One of the things we love about our series on Great Kiwi Families is the way that we get to meet so many people who are following their dreams. This month, we spoke to Jess Berentson-Shaw, who founded muka kids – a social enterprise to help make beautiful ethical and sustainable clothing more accessible.
Let’s start with telling us a bit about you – what do you do and what are your interests?
Hi – my name is Jess. I think how I would describe myself and how others would describe me would be quite different. I see myself as a scientist, and a concerned human and parent. I like to divide my life into a few different parts (because that is absolutely how life with kids works eh? Neat compartments… Ha!). Anyway, at the moment I research and communicate which policies work to prevent and counter family poverty, to improve well-being in kids in NZ. I run a social enterprise (Muka Kids) to provide one small solution to the problems of the global clothing industry. I have a fantastic partner – Paul – who I try to laugh with, more than moan at! We have two full-on vibrant daughters, and live in a tiny house ‘with potential’ (read – we were silly enough to think we could renovate with kids!).
Tell us a bit about what makes your family great.
My partner is a scientist too so we LOVE enquiry and science, and questioning assumptions about the world. It means we have loads of hard conversations, and kids who are not what I would call ‘biddable’. I am proud that my girls will always look at the world and ask “what am I really seeing?. Is what someone tells me ‘the truth’? Can we do things better or differently?”. I hope we are raising great citizens of the planet.
What are your family’s favourite things to do?
On a blustery day in Wellington, when the wind is whipping up the white caps on the south coast, we love to run about Lyall Bay chasing seagulls and doing a bit of rock pooling. We have moved from the side of a steep hill to somewhere relatively flat, so having sorted out a bike seat for the 2 year old, we are loving the ‘family bike ride’ – something I loved in my childhood. A Sunday morning spent eating pancakes (thin ones only allowed by the kids!) in our PJs looks pretty good too.
Our feature at the moment is about following your dreams. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve followed your dreams?
I was always interested in the idea of ‘fair trade’. How women, especially, in the developing world could be empowered through the actions of women (like me) in the developed world. I feel that as women there is massive potential for us to connect with other women to achieve a more positive experience for women and children globally. I knew the clothing industry was a pretty dire industry for environmental and ethical practices, but once I started doing some in-depth research and realised how many women were involved in it (about 70%), i felt appalled at the role that I – a buyer and wearer of these clothes – had in other women’s exploration. Anyway, I am a big believer in positive action – see a problem, don’t spend too long making people feel bad about it because mostly they are just bystanders that are caught up in it; rather dare to offer a positive solution for them to take action (based on a good understanding of what works of course!). So I went to India and followed the garment production chain right from the cotton farms through to the garment makers, and as a result of what I observed on that trip, I developed the Muka Kids model – which is about empowering three groups of women – those who make the clothes in poorer countries, those who design and sell the clothes, and those who buy the clothes – to change the nature of the industry. It is slowly coming together ( slower than I would like at times), and I have only just started up the first piece of the solution, which is the shop to trade preloved clothes that have been accredited as ethical and sustainable. But as a parent, this is the way is has to be. Not all social enterprise (especially those started and run by women) need to fit the same business start-up model of ‘fail fast’.
How has following your dreams affected your life? And your family’s life?
I have always been quite pragmatic about dreams – sometimes you follow them and they change, sometimes you follow them and they don’t work out; always following dreams is hard and has compromises, and still requires you to ask: “Is this working?”. But I really enjoy what I do. I always felt there was more I could do with my privileged life but did not have a passion for any particular ‘thing’. Finding that passion is deeply satisfying but, as I say, has challenges. Mainly I find that it is the first to go when the kids need more from us, or my paid work (which I also LOVE!) needs more from me. Being really careful that I am not following my dream and ‘saving the world’ at the expense of raising the stress in the family is important. Having said that, I believe it is great for kids to learn that family life is about everyone’s compromise at times; being able to judge the right level of compromise for everyone is important though and there have been times when I have just had to let the dream go for a while, and that is ok too.
What advice would you give other people about following your dreams?
First of all, I would say don’t stress if you don’t have a dream. Sometimes I think we put way too much stock in this idea of ‘following your dreams or finding a passion’. Dreams can come out of the blue; they can change; they can be small and may seem unimportant. There is no ‘right dream’ – just living purposefully I think in whatever it is you choose to do. While I am not a ‘quote’ kind of person, I do love this one by Sarah McDonald as I think it is way more accepting of the value that the contribution everyone can make to the world no matter what it is they choose to do:
‘happiness is a nebulous and elusive goal and it shouldn’t really be a goal at all, more a by-product of a useful, ethical, purposeful and loved life.’