While living in Kenya, Sylvia NebSa Harmon witnessed poverty firsthand and answered her call to social justice by making beads out of paper and teaching Kenyan artists how to make and distribute them for income. What first trickled by word-of-mouth throughout South African villages became Inspirit Arts, a humanitarian fundraising collective Harmon founded in Africa in 1982.
When Harmon moved back to the U.S. to Dayton, Ohio 20 years ago, she focused her energy on teaching her selling methods fulltime and transformed Inspirit Arts into an “academy” with courses aimed at how to become an expert vendor of signature fair-trade fashion accessories. By spreading the vending knowledge she’s acquired in more than 30 years, Harmon says her mission is to “create a massive army” to eradicate world poverty.
“The reason why I’m encouraging self-employment is so that people can have more freedom economically,” she says.
A climatic point happened for Harmon when her father took a government job in Nairobi, Kenya, where the family moved when she was a teen. There, her father encouraged her to help bridge the socio-cultural gap by organizing festivals in Kenya that introduced them to elements of black American music and art.
“I grew a reputation as somebody who could help artists,” Harmon says.
Through these events, Harmon met Kenyan artists who shared woes of having their original prints ripped off, and she thought she could help them make money by having them sell reproductions of their art as greeting cards. After doing market research by visiting stationery stores, she found a niche market in Nairobi’s hotel and tourist industries. Harmon partnered with women’s organizations and helped them fundraise by teaching them how to make and sell items like the greeting cards.
A friend who distributed magazines led her to another creative way to make a difference that wouldn’t cost her a penny. “Every week he’d have a room full of outdated magazines that would go to the incinerator and I couldn’t stand it,” Harmon says. “I hate that kind of waste. So I started producing paper earrings.”
When 7,000 pairs of her earrings were stolen, they ended up dispersed throughout Nairobi’s shanty towns, which led to a fashion trend followed by a growing demand for the kitschy accessory.
“People in the marketplaces knew I was the one that produced these, and they were starting to get orders for them,” Harmon says. “I had to go and start teaching people how to produce these earrings. One workshop talked me into teaching them and I said, ‘Well, if I teach you, I’ve got to teach everybody.’ ”
Throughout South Africa, Harmon’s “paper workshops” empowered people with a skill to help themselves, especially in challenging economic times.
“(My workshops) created a lot of employment for people who would normally be farming but couldn’t because of the drought,” she says. “So the Swazi government got behind me and started sending me to trade fairs all over the place (to teach vending).”
Now, Inspirit Arts is based around providing knowledge about selling hand-woven wraps as a signature item. “Head wrapping is a one-world culture,” Harmon says. “No matter where a person is from, they have evidence that somebody in their ancestry used to wear head wraps or a hair scarf.”
More breathable, carefree and practical than typical scarves, Harmon says head wraps serve myriad needs, such as complementing hairstyles or as a covering for alopecia. Because of her success selling them as a vendor, the academy entity of Inspirit Arts has a turnkey sales program called “The Head Wrap Vendor Method,” teaching the techniques of developing a sustainable head wrap micro-franchise and booth. Other programs focus on how to sell fair-trade accessories, such as hand-crocheted tam berets, Rasta caps and headbands. Harmon’s academy also offers hands-on demonstrations on how to develop fundraisers or start head-wrapping ventures.
“I believe in social enterprise because you have more control in the community,” Harmon says. “If you’re well-trained, just one vendor could save a village.”
To learn more about INSPIRIT ARTS, visit inspiritartsacademy.com.