A Women Who Changed the Rules: A Recap of Maria Isabel’s Road Trip

Courtney Lang October 28, 2011

“When I finish life I am going to be remembered by the things that I do, not by the things that I have.” – Maria Isabel Balbuena

It’s not everyday that we get the chance to interact with a Fair Trade producer, and at that, a woman with a vibrant story such as that of Maria Isabel Balbuena’sFair Trade Towns & Universities was honored to hit the road with Maria in October, where she shed inspiration and vitality to campaigns across the northeast by sharing her first hand experiences with Fair Trade and her wealthy appetite for woman’s empowerment.

Maria’s Work in the DR

Maria serves as Marketing Coordinator for FEDECARES, a coffee coop in the southern region of the Dominican Republic, which was the first to be certified in the country circa 1985.  Most notably though, Maria is President of the Dominican Republic chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) and is country Director of Cafe Feminino.

The IWCA is a global network of women in coffee that advocates for the reduction of barriers for women in coffee producing countries by providing access to resources and creating a forum in which to connect with other women throughout the coffee chain,  As Maria mentioned, “I love to be a mother, but I understand that it is important to be in a state of life with opportunities.”  That’s why she dedicates most of her time to helping women understand at a young age that their youth is the time to be trained and educated for a successful future.

Cafe Feminino is a social program for women coffee producers in rural communities around the world. More than 1,500 women in Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru are active in the project to achieve empowerment, build social and support networks, and earn incomes through the production and sale of the Café Femenino Coffee. Each country works within to strengthen and fortify a sense of self esteem for women in coffee and to re-evaluate the development in the base of their coffee organization.

Maria founded the Dominican Republic chapter of Cafe Feminino, which is a nucleus organization of  FEDECARES, and consists of approximately 120 Dominican women.  Through the formation of Cafe Feminino, women in her community have established a much stronger voice in all aspects of the organization, and they advocate strongly for equal education opportunities of female children and young women.  As Maria would say, “In the Dominican Republic, our children are our social security,” and their education is the key to gender equality in the future.  Maria and her associates at Cafe Feminino have been able to advocate for 44 college scholarships in their community, of which 28 were women.  The following link will help you source their coffee in the states so that you can support the work of Maria and her colleagues at Cafe Feminino.

Take a Photo Journey of Maria’s Northeastern Tour

When we think about producer tours, we are certain that the opportunities are rich and inspiring for organizers here in the states.  But, we also recognize that it is extremely helpful for producers to learn about the great campaigns that Fair Trade enthusiasts organize around the country.  So, typically each event began with a presentation by Maria and was followed by a meeting with the steering committee, or interested parties involved with a campaign, to provide more of an intimate experience. Check out a few stops along the tour here, or visit the Fair Trade Towns Flickr page for an extensive look.

Emma Willard High School – Crystal, Fair Trade Club President and Kevin, Manager of Dining Facility for Sodexo at Emma Willard School with Maria.

Emma Willard School – Educating women and making a difference in the world are two common passions held by Maria and the students of Emma Willard School – the First Fair Trade High School in the United States.  After Maria delivered her story to the young women of the Fair Trade Club at Emma Willard, she was filled in on the work being done to raise the awareness and presence of Fair Trade on campus.  Here are some engaging ideas and highlights you may find useful:

  • Every time a student buys a piece of chocolate at Emma Willard School it comes with a Fair Trade Fun Fact card.
  • The Emma Willard Dinning Facility uses Fair Trade banana’s, quinoa, coffee, sugar, rice, tea and chocolate. The infirmary uses Fair Trade soap, shampoo and lip balm.

Maria loved being around enthusiastic students. This photo captures her excitement with Fair Trade University lead organizers at Keene State College, Emma Kash and Kelsey Bumsted.

Keene State College – The Keene State College Fair Trade University campaign is well underway and Maria had the opportunity to meet with steering committee members, Kelsey Bumsted and Emma Kash, who shared a few successful strategies that have helped them gain recognition on campus:

  • Fair Trade Keene State formed a relationship with Mayan Hands, a non-profit organization that distributes Fair Trade goods from Guatemala.  The campaign sells fashionable items such as belts, wallets and headbands from Mayan Hands at campus events to fund raise.
  • Adopted an Alpaca as their mascot, which grabs tons of attention at events.
  • They have maintained mutually supportive relationships with other clubs on campus so that there is a lot of cross pollination to their constituencies.

One of the Bridgewater State University’s favorite accomplishments was getting Alta Gracia in their book store!

Fair Trade Burlington declared itself in August 2009 and has recently been working with the University of Vermont and Saint Micheal’s Collegel





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Courtney Lang, National Organizer | Fair Trade Campaigns

Courtney Lang brings over 5 years of community organizing to Fair Trade Towns USA, building both the Local Food and Fair Trade networks in Vermont. As Local Food Coordinator with City Market/Onion River Cooperative, Courtney worked with local producers, institutions and consumers to grow the local food system and organize a strategic model for community engagement through farm tours, workshops, and local food challenges. Like many in the Fair Trade industry, Courtney was inspired to take action in Fair Trade when she witnessed child-labor first hand in Costa Rica. As a founding member of Fair Trade Burlington, she has worked with economic development organizations, businesses, and consumers to build awareness of Fair Trade among Vermonters. She also worked with a Fair Trade USA licensee, Vermont Coffee Company, as Friend Ambassador where she united the story of Fair Trade to every purchase of coffee.