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One tote at a time: Waynesville woman takes aim at human trafficking — by selling tote bags

coverTwo short years ago, Fay Grant was living on the other side of the country, a professional music editor for film and television shows in Los Angeles’ bustling entertainment scene. It was a different world altogether from the sleepier mountain town of Waynesville, where she and her husband Ben now make their home. 

She doesn’t regret the move. 

Something was missing from life in L.A. She wanted to do something different, something that made a difference. So, Grant took a few months off for a road trip across the country, and that drive, she said, “led me to The Tote Project.”

Grant co-founded the fair trade tote bag company with her best friend Michelle Fergason, intent on making the difference they both dreamed of — giving hope and providing healing to the millions of people worldwide who are victims of human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery. 

With four months ahead and no commitments to keep, Grant found herself steering the car through the desert, along the Colorado River, and into Western North Carolina, where she stopped to take in a quiet moment on the banks of the Nantahala River. 

“I remember sitting on the river and thinking, this is exactly where I want to be for the rest of my life,’” Grant recalled. 

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Totes with a purpose

Life has a way of turning on its head in unexpected places. Before long, Grant was planning a wedding with an easterner and quitting her job in L.A. Newly arrived in North Carolina, she took up sewing tote bags as a hobby. She’d buy vintage fabric at thrift stores, sell the designs on Etsy and donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations that helped women and children rescued from human trafficking. 

“I wasn’t really making the dent I wanted to,” Grant said of the anti-human trafficking donations that first foray into tote sales drummed up, “so I called my best friend to see if we could join forces and make a bigger difference.” 

Fergason, who still lives in L.A., wrote her undergrad thesis on human trafficking and had an equal passion for empowering survivors. She’d become involved with the issue after watching a documentary called “Call + Response.” The undercover footage of children forced to work in brothels, Fergason said, “broke my heart.” 

The two launched The Tote Project, a company that sells tote and cosmetic bags, giving 20 percent of the profits to one of the multiple safe houses they support. 

“We want our entire business to be a cycle of empowerment,” Grant said.

The Tote Project purchases its fair trade tote and cosmetic bags from FreeSet, a business in India that employs women rescued from Kolkata’s sex trade, offering fair wages, health insurance, retirement plans and education. The tote designs are printed in Asheville using eco-friendly inks on organic fabric, and they’re designed even more locally, at her home in Waynesville. Grant is the artsy and creative one in the Fergason-Grant partnership, staying “on my mountain” with a watercolor brush, planning upcoming lines and focusing on graphic design, while Fergason takes care of the networking and business deals in L.A. 

They launched their first line, called The Freedom Collection, in 2014 after running a successful crowdfunding campaign. The money they raised bought a shipment of blank totes to start printing their designs, which center around phrases like “free to learn”, “free to grow” and “free to love.” An expanded group of designs launched last weekend. 

“Sometimes people can take their freedom for granted,” Grant said. “When we did our campaign to raise money, someone wrote us just to say, ‘I bought a “free to learn” bag because every time I’m in finals and feeling sorry for myself, I can look at the bag and it reminds me of all the girls in the world who don’t have the freedom I have to learn and get an education.’ 

“It was wonderful knowing that we were spreading awareness and sparking conversation about these important issues.”  

In June the company will release its Hope Collection, featuring totes with art hand-designed by rescued trafficking victims. Half of those profits will go back to the safe houses The Tote Project partners with.  

“Doing art therapy is not only healing for the survivors we work with,” Grant said. “It gives them a voice.”

The Tote Project is looking to strengthen that emphasis on hope this year with a branding overhaul that will incorporate everyday women and their stories into the company’s advertising campaigns. The idea is to find women who have stories of hope that they would like to share and to use those people, rather than professional models, to model the bags. 

“We believe that everybody is beautiful in their own way. Everybody deserves to be free. Everybody should feel important and loved,” Grant said. “We want to make sure that our business sends that important message by focusing on the women who support the cause and the empowering stories of hope that they carry, instead of focusing solely on their looks.”

 

A personal mission

For Grant, that mission comes from a very personal place. There would have been countless ways to pursue the vague desire to “make a difference,” that drove her from her editor’s chair in L.A. But combating human trafficking stuck out as the cause to champion, because Grant could personally connect with the survivors’ feelings of vulnerability and heartache. 

Grant has only talked publicly about past abuse in her life since last year, when she spoke in New York at a social justice-focused Christian music festival called SoulFest. 

“It was terrifying to get up in front of a large group of people and share my deepest, most painful secrets, but once I stepped off the stage, I was approached by countless women who had been through similar experiences,” she said. “It made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and that it’s so important to never let fear or shame prevent myself from doing what I can to make the world a better place.”

Making the world a better place for others is undoubtedly the goal of The Tote Project. But her work with the project has also provided healing for Grant herself. 

“The Tote Project became an unexpected way for me to face a lot of the things that I experienced and helped me to cope,” she said, “while also giving me the opportunity to help others see the light in their darkest of moments.”

Grant is excited by how far The Tote Project has come in less than two years of existence. But she doesn’t want her cause against human trafficking to end with selling tote bags. 

The Tote Project is a strong source of fundraising to support organizations combating the issue, but Grant finds her greatest reward in working with victims directly and pursuing projects to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. She wants to do more of that locally. Grant recently joined the board of directors at KARE, a Waynesville organization dedicated to preventing child abuse, and she’s also working toward a special studies degree at Western Carolina University in subjects surrounding the work.

“I went back to school,” she explained, “because I hope to one day open a safe house or nonprofit organization for those who have been trafficked, and give them the love and resources they need to have a fresh start.” 

 

A local issue 

Moving to North Carolina from L.A., Grant was surprised to find out just how prevalent trafficking is in the state. According to the most recent statistics available from Polaris, which operates a hotline number for human trafficking cases, North Carolina ranked 12th in number of calls, with 624 in 2013. In first place was California, with 3,083 calls. 

Locally, Grant said, she’s spoken with social workers who have directly dealt with trafficking issues here in the mountains. 

“They’ve talked about cases where they’ve gone in for a truancy issue, where a child wasn’t coming to school, and the social worker found them in the middle of a prostitution ring,” she said. “You wouldn’t think that these things are happening locally, but they are, and more people need to be aware of it.”

Human trafficking is a profitable endeavor for people looking to make an unscrupulous dollar, Grant said, because unlike a hit of cocaine, a human trafficking victim can be sold again and again. 

“Pimps and traffickers are starting to realize, ‘If I sell a person’s body, it’s much more profitable than selling drugs,’” she said. “It’s much easier to hide. Victims many times don’t speak up or admit that they are being sold against their will because they fear abuse, deportation or even death at the hands of their traffickers. It’s up to people like us to give a voice to these voiceless victims.” 

Some people argue that Fergason and Grant’s work is but a drop in the bucket, because even if one, two, three or even 100 girls are rescued from this modern-day form of slavery through The Tote Project, multitudes more are still out there. But Grant and Fergason get to see the faces and hear the words of those who have been rescued, and that puts things in perspective. 

“At SoulFest, I spoke about how people used to tell me as a child that, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” Grant said. “It was frustrating to hear it coming from someone who hadn’t walked in my shoes.

“But as years went by, I realized that there was some truth to that, and I had control over that reason. That reason was to bring about positive change. I knew that the trials I went through had a purpose, despite how hard it was to see through the darkness sometimes. They gave me the strength and heart I needed to bring more light into the world.”

 

 

Need a bag?

The Tote Project expanded its offerings of tote designs. Check them out at www.thetoteproject.com.

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