Michelle Chavez is the co-founder of The Tote Project, a passion project that began with a belief that there is hope for the millions of victims of modern day slavery worldwide. Built on a kinship of empowerment, restoration, and freedom – she shares about how these values shaped her journey from a music director to now.
From a music director to co-founding The Tote Project, how do the dots connect to now?
When I graduated from college, I was confident that I would be able to get a job fighting trafficking full time, either at an NGO or at the State Department, but then reality sunk in. I had loans to pay off and I couldn’t accept a minimum wage job or a volunteer position. Although my plans changed, I had initially gone to school for music business, and I ended up getting a job as a Music Director of a website. Around this time I met my best friend Fay who also worked in the music industry. We both loved our careers, but we’d always talk about doing something together that would make an impact. It was only talk for several years, because we could never find something practical to do that we had time for. She eventually quit her job and moved across the country to pursue something new, and one day she called me and asked if I wanted to start The Tote Project with her. I enthusiastically agreed, and now for the past four years we’ve had the privilege of using fashion to support human trafficking survivors around the world.
Throughout this journey I’ve learned a lot about the link between human trafficking and manufacturing. Once you know, you can’t un-know, and I finally reached the point where I couldn’t keep ignoring the truth, so I made a pact to do my best to only buy ethically made (and fair trade when possible) products. The key part being “when I could”, because I wasn’t confident that I’d actually be able to find these items in my price range very often. But I was quickly proven wrong, thanks to The Tote Project tradeshows I attended.
At these events we were always put in a booth next to other conscious companies, and I found super rad home goods, fashion, beauty products and food items that were all ethically made and affordable. Friends who knew that I changed my spending habits would tell me they wanted to do the same, but they also didn’t know how to start. That gave me the idea for MichelleForGood.com. I already had a list of brands that I shopped from, and I wanted to make it a public reference for anyone looking to join the conscious consumerism movement. I love sharing these company’s stories and putting together guides of my favorite products, and I hope that by providing this resource I can help curb the demand for human trafficking. If people don’t want to buy products from companies with slavery in their supply chains, there will be less people trafficked. It’s simple economics and it all ties together!
The hardest part of The Tote Project journey so far? Proudest moment?
Getting our products manufactured overseas is challenging, especially since Fay and I were new to the process when we started out. Quality control is different in every country, and coming up with new designs takes lots of trial and error. Although it’s often hard, getting to play a part in meeting the needs of trafficking survivors makes it all worthwhile.
Our proudest moment was getting to meet several survivors we support at a local safe house, and doing an art therapy exercise with them. Getting to hear their stories firsthand, and seeing the genuine joy on their faces, despite the unimaginable horrors they experienced, was unforgettable.
The Tote Project is grounded on the perseverance of holding onto hope; with everything going on in the world now, how do you hold onto hope?
There is a lot of negativity in the world today, and it’s easy to get depressed and feel hopeless, but feeling hopeless is the opposite of feeling empowered to change the status quo. Holding on to hope is essential to making an impact in the world. I find hope by seeking out good. For every depressing headline on my news homepage, I can find a positive story if I scroll a little further. My favorite human rights journalist, Nick Kristof, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times recently called, “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.” In it, he explains that people assume he must be gloomy after writing about war, famine and disease, but that he’s actually upbeat, because along with the negative he has witnessed transformational change. Similarly, the more I learn about sustainability and see shifting consumer behavior, and the more I meet survivors of human trafficking and hear their inspiring stories, the more hopeful I become.
What would you like to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
My dream is to make MichelleForGood obsolete. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I would love to live in a world where shoppers don’t need to do extensive research to find ethical brands. I hope that 10 years from now, it will be the norm for companies to pay fair wages, provide safe working conditions and adopt environmentally friendly practices.
I’m happy every time I hear about a brand making a positive shift, like replacing cotton with organic cotton, or using reclaimed fabrics and eco-friendly dyes. This should all be celebrated, even if there is more that needs to be done. We can’t expect perfection, or for everything to change overnight. Ultimately though, we can’t let it end there. The real change we are striving for is holistic. Safety and Rights Society just reported that there were 426 workplace deaths in Bangladesh last year. This is unacceptable. True #ChangeBeyondTextiles is improving the working conditions of garment workers so that they won’t have to live in fear. We want to see their lives and the lives of their families transformed because of the positive impact from the fashion industry.
What is one thing you stand for and believe in, and why?
One day I prayed that God would give me His heart for people; I wanted to feel what He feels and care about the things that matter to Him. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that later that day I would be invited to watch a documentary about human trafficking. I cried the hardest I’ve ever cried in that theater, and I had to walk out at one point to regain composure. I was burdened with sorrow like I had never experienced before, and my roommates at the time can tell you that I cried myself to sleep for a week afterwards. At the screening, I received information about what we can do to fight trafficking, and as soon as I got back to my college campus I found ways to get involved. I believe that my passion for social justice comes from God, and I believe that what I felt and experienced can be only a fraction of what He does. My faith is the one thing I stand for above all else, and I try to do my best to let it guide me.
How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered for my love. I want to be there for anyone who needs my help, and serve graciously, not begrudgingly. It’s weird to think about what people will remember me for after I’m gone ha! So I have to add that I hope people think of me that way in my lifetime too.
We are inspired by Michelle’s belief that holding on to hope is essential to making an impact in the world and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring individuals that test MATTER products in their everyday journeys of passion, to help us improve durability and design. Michelle is wearing the Sideswept Dhoti + Mobi Burgundy in Size 1.