Educated Expectations Ask

Posted to The Huffington Post on Dec. 20, 2011:

Questions are the currency of students. That isn't new. What is new is the expectation students have that they can locate answers online in Google time. If the answers are assumed to just be "there" then what is the value of asking? Is there such a thing as an answer or are there only responses? Of Rags is looking at what happens when young people, budding consumers, ask questions of their wardrobe and cannot find the answers.

On November 3rd and 4th we ran a workshop with Mrs. Clarkson's 6th grade class at Sidwell Friends School in DC. Google it.

On the first day the Of Rags team explained why we produce in Ghana, who we employ and how, the struggles we face, and the beliefs we work with. You can Google Of Rags, too. The students had already done this, of course. Despite the info available on the web, the students had plenty of questions. Their questions inspired a very mature discussion about our responsibility as consumers in the "developed" world. Their teacher Kimberly Clarkson has done an amazing job of encouraging them to look beyond the information they are given. You can call this critical thinking but what I saw was imagination.

This led us into their homework assignment. Their instructions were to find a shirt from home that they don't wear anymore, research the company that made it by asking the same questions they asked of us and bring both the shirt and their research into class the next day. If they couldn't find answers Branson and I encouraged them to email the company. We explained that Of Rags would take their shirts to Ghana where our team would mix them up into new fabric, make new t-shirts out of this fabric and bring them back for their class to market and sell in their school store. We are calling this The AFUTU Project, which means "mix-matched" in Ga.

The students were excited that their shirt would help provide jobs for our team in Ghana but we wanted them to understand that the material they were contributing already provided jobs somewhere to someone. Clothing begins with textiles and even the intentions of recycled materials deserve recognition.

The students came to class the next day with very diverse findings. Some found a great deal of information (seven pages) on everything from the fiber to the wages. Others found nothing beyond what it said on the tag. One young woman emailed Old Navy inquiring about their labor standards because she couldn't find it online. Another student was frustrated and embarrassed that he could not find information about any of his t-shirts. We assured him he did not fail the assignment and to consider that finding no information can be an answer also. The group began to express their confusion. Why would information not be available to them? How can they trust a company that does not provide the answers to their questions?

Later that day, Branson and Mrs. Clarkson's class presented the work we had been doing with them to the entire Middle School at assembly. To close, the students invited the entire school to participate in the AFUTU project. They explained that the research they did led them to some "interesting" information regarding child labor in the cotton industry and they encouraged their peers to look into the labels on their clothing. When we were packing up to go a student came up to Branson and I to ask "Which companies use fair labor practices and which don't so I know where to shop?" We gave her a few resources to use but also told her that many companies might have the information but no one has ever asked for it. Now that she knew what answers she was looking for she could ask the right questions of any company.

Of Rags is not suggesting that each company needs to show every step of their process and I certainly don't expect my t-shirt to come complete with a 40-page pamphlet. But I don't believe that students should feel embarrassed because they cannot find information. We weren't sure of what the students would find in their research, but we hoped that if they didn't find an answer through Google they would feel like they could ask the company for a response. With all of the technology available to these students searching for information is simply the beginning of a conversation. For Of Rags there is nothing more valuable than taking part in that conversation and we wonder if anyone can afford not to.