June 06, 2011 | Andrew Steiner

A group of Calvin students spent the last week of May in Panama with the Calvin chapter of Global Business Brigades (GBB), whose mission is to educate business people in the developing world.

On June 2, four days after Brendhain Reid returned to Grand Rapids, the berry-dye tattoo that ringed his forearm was fading. He guessed it would last another 10 days.

The henna-style tattoo was given to Reid by the men of the Embera tribe, who cover themselves head-to-foot in the laced patterns for weddings and other ceremonies, he said. The cultural traditions of the Embera, along with their language, which the government of Panama does not permit to be taught in schools, are being gradually erased by Western influences.

An artisans' collective

Reid, a business major entering his senior year, along with seven other Calvin students, had spent the last week of May in Panama with the Calvin chapter of Global Business Brigades (GBB), whose mission is to educate business people in the developing world. The brigade divided its time between two communities: a cooperative microfinance, savings and credit bank in Tortí, a village three hours southeast of Panama City, and Piriati Embera, home to the Embera tribe.

The students worked with 50 Embera women who founded an “artisans’ collective” as a means of preserving traditional crafts like basket-weaving and jewelry-making—and as a source of income. Aided by two translators and two coordinators, the students analyzed the collective’s practices and offered a business plan that addressed the importance of collaboration between the artisans.

In addition to working with the collective to set a price floor, create a set of goals for the coming year and lay plans to build a roadside stand, the brigade also helped the women articulate a vision for their business that reflected their goal of cultural preservation. While the Embera value their baskets for their usefulness, Reid explained, tourists and missionaries value them as cultural objects. “It’s not just a basket,” Reid told them; “it’s an Embera basket.”

Knowledge is the currency

The challenge for Reid, external president of Global Business Brigades at Calvin, comes from GBB’s commitment to education. Instead of a “top-down approach,” Reid said, GBB uses a “bottom-up approach,” meaning the Calvin students could not simply mandate solutions to communities’ problems.

“One of the things we’re really big on is no handouts …,” Reid said. “It’s more about presenting them with the right questions so that they themselves can come up with the right answers.”

In Tortí, the students offered three days of workshops for the bank’s board of directors. The bank was on strong financial footing, Reid said, making profits and paying dividends to its members. What it needed was a stronger definition of leadership roles, an issue the students were able to address with the knowledge they had gained in class.

The students conducted similar workshops for the artisans’ collective. In addition, they presented the collective with an $800 gift, but with a condition: it could not be accessed until the collective had put their business plan into place and were ready to begin construction on their roadside stand. (Because the collective had opened an account at the micro-finance bank in Tortí, Reid said, the $800 gift assisted both businesses.)

Since 2004, Global Brigades, the non-profit umbrella organization of which Calvin’s GBB outfit is a part, has sent thousands of students and professionals into the developing world to provide legal services, combat environmental degradation and install water-purification systems, among other projects.

In 2008, Brendan Snyder, Ashley Luse and Trevor Deters brought GBB to Calvin. On his first brigade in May 2010, Reid traveled to Caledonia in the San Blas Islands off the northeast coast of Panama. There, he worked with members of the Kuna tribe to establish a communitarian restaurant. After his return to Caledonia in January 2011, Reid was asked to begin leading GBB at Calvin.

“It was great to take the business knowledge I’d acquired through 90-some credits at the time and actually apply that in a real-life situation, and not only to apply it, but to apply it for someone else’s benefit. ...,” Reid said. “The reason I’m involved still is because I want to make sure the younger classes of students get the same opportunities I was provided.” (Seniors Kristin Selvius and Marshall Bakker also serve as leaders in Calvin’s GBB. Business professor Steve Van Oostenbrugge will take over as the faculty advisor this year.)

Faith in practice

Global Brigades is not a faith-based organization. “They want to make sure that all the students at all the schools have the same opportunities,” Reid explained.

Even though GBB’s goals are economic, not spiritual, Reid has found that the subject of faith has come up on every trip. “What I found out this time,” Reid said, “is that all the board of directors (of the bank in Tortí) were members of the same church. Sometimes we would open meetings with prayer. Sometimes that was at our request; sometimes it was at theirs, which was really great. Working with Global Business Brigades, their values line up with our faith.”

Reid’s experiences with GBB have complicated his post-graduation plans. He is strongly considering going into not-for-profit work, potentially with Global Brigades in Panama and Honduras. “I think every student is faced with that decision,” he said. “Do you do what makes financial sense or do you do what you honestly feel called to do?”

Brendhain Reid with his Embera tattoo

Members of the Kuna people group on Caledonia

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