Global Exchange was founded in 1988 with an ambitious goal. As co-founder Kirsten Moller explains, "We're not trying to create an institution. We're trying to build a movement, making a difference in the world." Moller, now the group's Executive Director, describes Global Exchange as an activist human rights organization. "We want to bring together people, empower them and inspire them to engage in an internationalist movement."
A trip to Haiti led activists to form new group
Global Exchange grew out of a visit to Haiti that Moller took with Kevin Danaher and his wife, Medea Benjamin. They were all members of Food First. The activist organization supports the idea of growing food to feed local populations rather than for export markets. Like Food First, Global Exchange is a frequent and fierce critic of U.S. foreign, military and trade policies.
As they traveled around Haiti, Moller, Danaher and Benjamin took note of the beautiful artwork and crafts. They thought if they could sell that art in the United States, they could use the profits to support human rights campaigns in Haiti. Then, Moller says, they decided they could do even more: link all the groups around the world working for social and economic justice under one banner - Global Exchange.
Promoting the concept of fair trade
"I think Global Exchange creates tool kits for people to do things, we encourage people to do things," Moller says. "We're happy when people take things and do it on their own. It was really a way to create engagement. That's what we were trying to do and I think that's what we're still trying to do."
Global Exchange's slogan is 'Resist Injustice, Build Alternatives, Take Action.' An important way they do that, Kevin Danaher says, is to promote the concept of fair trade. Fair trade is a market-based approach to development assistance, which works with local farmers and artisans to help them get a higher price for the crops and products they export to the developed world. It also supports stricter labor and environmental standards.
Global Exchange has three stores as well as an online site, where it sells fair trade products made by artisans around the world, including a disabled group in Kenya, a women's group in El Salvador, and a peasant's group in Indonesia. "These are people that don't want charity," Danaher stresses. "They just want a market for their products. They want to earn their way out of poverty. It has more dignity. So we provide an outlet and because we're a non-profit we can give them the profits. We can pass it on."
Promoting a green economy
Each year, Global Exchange co-sponsors a green festival in San Francisco. Danaher, the event's executive producer, calls it a match-making experience where certified green entrepreneurs and vendors, non-profit organizations, speakers, and activists come together to promote a green economy, which Danaher notes is already growing at a rapid rate.
"[It's] the concept of, 'Let's do business in a way where we get our salary but we don't [take advantage of] other people and we don't [harm] Mother Nature.' And that that triple-bottom line model of social justice, environmental restoration - not just conservation because we've done so much damage - and then financial sustainability, all linked so that they're strengthening each other," Danaher says. He adds those three principles can co-exist. "They shouldn't be like reservoirs where you have to take away from one to do the other. They should strengthen each other and once you get that business model right, which these people at this show are doing, you're in a different rule book then, that's a tipping point, you're into a different system," he says.
Reality tours connect people around the world
The founders of Global Exchange also believe in the value of experiencing something first-hand to gain a better understanding of the problems facing other cultures. So, for 20 years, Global Exchange has been taking Americans on reality tours to more than 30 countries, including Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Kenya.
Kirsten Moller says that participants have a chance to meet with local activists, as well as learn about the country's history, culture and politics. "We send people on these 10 day trips to other countries where they make that heart connection to another people which will make them lifelong activists. Once you've been on a trip and you've fallen in love with a family in another country, you're not going to let our government bomb that country."
Global Exchange's reality tours, fair trade stores, and green festivals pay for themselves, but the non-profit group also brings in more than $1 million each year from fund-raising. The money helps it conduct its many social action campaigns, from slowing climate change and opposing wars, to fighting inhumane labor conditions and building a green economy.
Kirsten Moller says the activists in Global Exchange's movement do not harbor any illusions that success will be easy.
"We're not going to win economic justice, peace, social justice in our lifetimes. But we have to [try]. If we're not doing it, it definitely won't happen. You have to keep doing it and you have to make it fun and accessible for people or people will just give up."