04 - james hopkins
“It started in kind of a cynical way, because, well, you know, I worked for 23 years on Wall Street, so I was ‘business guy’ and I came over here completely sceptical, completely sarcastic,” James tells me as we sit on the cement floor of a tiny, smokey room, tucked in the slums on the outskirts of Kathmandu. “… And that’s when I thought, ‘oh wow, this is really something. I’m talking about actually helping people, here are the people, you know. Now what are you going to do?’“ James opens up in an incredible candid interview, from what generosity really means, the difficulties of start-ups in a foreign country and the biggest life lessons he’s learnt as we celebrate 10 years of non-profit Quilts for Kids Nepal.
Walking down a dusty back lane in Kathmandu's Boudhanath district under the picturesque backdrop of the worlds highest mountains, we are greeted warmly by Ravina, the young woman who runs the day to day workings of the project, Quilts for Kids Nepal. Her family fled civil unrest on the border of Pakistan in northern India to make a better life in Nepal, but they landed in abject poverty. Then, one afternoon, in a chance meeting, Ravina met James Hopkins, a former high-flying New York banker who threw in Wall Street and bought a one way ticket to Kathmandu to study Buddhism.
Ten years later, it was a chance meeting that would change not just Ravinas world, but also the lives of the entire community she lives in through the power of creative business.
We sat down with James and Ravina in the village in Kathmadu for a very candid chat about the incredible impact of Quilts for Kids Nepal over masala teas.
Lilli: Ten years is impressive for any business, especially a non-profit, especially in Kathmandu and with all the challenges you have come up against, so firstly, congratulations! Can you talk to us about the evolution of the project over the ten years.
James: It started in kind of a cynical way, you know that I worked for 23 years on Wall Street, so I was “business guy” and I came over here completely sceptical, completely sarcastic. Then I went into monastery school and for 3 years I was sitting on the floor learning about philosophy and the history of meditation and I kept hearing about in the Mayhanaha form of Buddhism, we’re doing all of this to benefit other people; “To benefit all centium beings” is the phrase that’s used. Any time they talked about what people actually did to help others, they kept bringing up Mother Theresa - and I would raise my hand and say ‘Why do you keep bringing up a Catholic nun?’ And they had these kind of bullshit answers, frankly, like ‘oh we’re poor in Asia and we can’t really help people the way we want to’, or ‘well, holding the philosophy of Buddhism is more important than feeding people because that’s what saves people in the long run’.
And as a brainwashed American, I thought ‘that’s total bullshit, you should be opening soup kitchens and doing clinics for the poor’. Well, actually, we should, in a certain way. So I kept pushing and pushing on this idea until one day we had a Saturday teaching. My Rinpoche, he gave a great teaching and again I asked an annoying question like “I hear you talking about saving all centium beings but who’s actually doing that in the Tibetan world, nobody’s doing it”. And he said “Look, all I’m talking about is you go outside, and whoever appears in front of you, you help them, with whatever skill you have, you help them.”
And I thought, ‘Oh, finally somebody’s making sense!” So I went outside - this is after 3 years of being in Kathmandu studying - and one of these little begging girls came up and asked for some money and I’d always said no. But then that day I said, ok, sure, here’s 10 rupees. We started talking and she said “Do you want to come to my house for tea?” And of course I would ordinarily have said no, I don’t want to do that. But then, that day, I decided I’m going to say yes to everything and try to help whoever I can, that kind of terrible attitude! (laughs)
So then she lead me down to this village, the old village that Lilli first visited, it’s down this sort of hidden pathway and even people who have been here for 30-35 years have never seen this place. And I thought, ‘oh wow, this is really something. Ok well, now it’s James’ turn! I’m talking about actually helping people, here are the people, you know! Now what are you going to do?’
So I started just hanging around down there, everyday, I’d go down and I’d say ‘I’m not giving anybody and money, but what do you want me to do?’ So I started helping people fix houses and sorting through medicine, things like that, and my girlfriend would say “What are you doing with these begging people?” (laughs)
“ I’m talking about actually helping people, well here are the people - now what are you going to do?”
So then, after about 3 months, I realised I was sitting on this incredibly beautiful, hand stitched item. And I would see the women in the corners of the huts stitching these blankets and they sit on them.
I come from Virginia, which is Quilt Territory, all my grandmother’s friends were quilters and I know from quilting - ‘as we say, I know from quilting’ (laughs) - then my Wall Street thinking turned on, that’s a product. If we can create some kind of marketing system then these ladies who are making these amazing quilts can actually have a way of making some money, otherwise they’re just sitting there all day waiting for their husbands to come home and give them money. So, I bought one of the quilts, the first one I just made up a price. I went back to the US for Christmas and I sold it to my Mom ..
Lilli: I think that’s how all business’ start (laughs).
James: It’s the low hanging fruit (laughs). So she gave me $150 and I went back to the lady and I said, here’s $150, what do we want to do with it? You know, I’m not giving it to you, it’s our business, it’s what we did by selling your product, what do you want to do? There was some confusion, but finally she said “My daughter wants to go to school, maybe my daughter can go to school?” And so then I took the girl to a school near by and I asked the principal how much it costs and he said it was $140 and I said - “$140 per month?” He said “No - $140 for the whole year!”
That’s when I thought, ok, this is really interesting. This lady made a quilt, I sold it for $150, school costs $140, let’s do that again. And then we did it 3 times. And then we called it Quilts for Kids.
So the women make quilts and 100% of the money puts the kids in school. And I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m just making it up as I go along. I didn’t know anything about MicroFinance - or social entrepreneurship or whatever it’s called - all I know is these women have a skill but they don’t have any way to market it. And I know something about marketing and I have a lot of very very sweet friends all over the world. So we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way.
Mina: What kind of hurdles have you come across?
James: At first, the big hurdles came from me being an outsider. One of my friends described it so well, he said ‘White people are ATMs.” and they know if they push our buttons the right way, money will come out. And it’s true, and people were trying to push all my buttons in all the right ways, you know? Including the people that I was starting off with, I would say ok, let’s make some of these quilts, how much does the fabric cost? How much do we need? And they’d say, we need 20 metres of this, 20 metres of that, 20 metres of this. And I’d be thinking, we’ll I’m from the US so I don’t know what metres are but that sounds like a lot (laughs) but anyway here it all is and the next week I’d see children walking about with the cloth that I’d thought I bought for the quilts and all the kids had new clothes (laughs). And then on and on, just things like that. Then people would say ‘Oh I really want my child to go to school please, that’s my dream. And then you’d put their kids in school and we’d buy them school uniforms and shoes - and then they would leave - they just wanted the free clothes and free shoes. It took forever to figure out what was happening. I was just seen as an immediate opportunity to take money. But they didn’t count on me sticking around! I stuck around, and then they had to deal with that, and I had to deal with them, and we had to deal with each other! And slowly, slowly, they stopped trying to rip me off and I started trusting them. And now I trust them completely.
You know, you just saw I gave somebody twice as much change as necessary, I already forgot 30 seconds later, then a kid taps me on the shoulder, ‘Here’s the change.’ So now we all trust each other and we all help each other. But it took many years to get there!
Mina: Who was the girl you first met?
James: The first girl I met was Bimila, she became my first assistant. She worked with me for maybe four years and then she got married and had kids and was taken back to India. So then I have the good fortune of finding my new assistant which is Ravina, how many years have we been working together now?
Ravina: Almost 6 years now. I was only 13 or 14.
James: She was just a little punk! (laughs). A little punk who spoke 5 languages, and very calm and helpful. And an excellent translator because nobody here spoke any English, not a word. Only the people who had been begging spoke a little. Only the people who had been begging spoke English, Bimila is a world class begger! She’s so good, she can talk to everybody in many different languages. But Ravina had a sponsor since she was a kid, so she also spoke English because she was going to school. So for the last five or six years Ravina has been my assistant, but first was Bimila and she’s still around. And it’s very sweet because her oldest boy is now in school.
So it’s something that we’ve been working with. It’s hard to quantify what we’re doing, are we being effective or not? You can’t be sure.. but we’re pretty sure we are. Number one, everyone speaks English now and that can’t hurt.
Mina: It looks like the community is thriving, definitely benefiting from having you here.
James: Well there’s definitely a vibrant economy now here for the women, they have thousands of dollars circulating in this community now because of Quilts for Kids, and between the women only, not the men.
“There’s definitely a vibrant economy now here for the women, they have thousands of dollars circulating in this community now because of Quilts for Kids, and between the women only, not the men. ”
Lilli: Can you tell us a little more about that, about how the camp has changed gradually over the years from when you first arrived?
James: I think there’s been good and bad change. On the good side, when we started I think people didn’t really understand the value of education, or very few people understood. They understood they were getting something for free, ‘Oh, this person is sending our children to school for free and we get free clothes, and then my wife gets some money some times’, but they didn’t really know what any of that was. Now, I think people are really understanding it’s important, they see their kids changing, becoming something that they never could have been, aren’t, because no-one in this community had ever been to school. Nobody!
So they see that, all these kids running around speaking English, speaking Nepali, integrating with the other kids in the neighbourhood. So that’s been positive. So Bimila who's son is going to school now .. Um, they say - ‘they’ being the people who do this for a living and not me who searches on the internet to find out how to run business (laughs) - these NGO’s say that you may not change anything in the first generation. All of these girls may end up getting married at 18 and pregnant by 18 plus nine months, but their kids will never be begging, they will never send their kids to the streets. They will send their kids to school, and that’s exactly what we see with Bimila. Although Bimila still begs sometimes, as soon as Krishna was old enough she put him in school. So that’s what happens.
Lilli: So it starts breaking the cycle for the next generation.
James: It takes time to break cycles like this, so I think that’s been our biggest success, that people start to value education in a community that didn’t even know what education was. And I think these women are quite proud of what they do now.
Lilli: They should be!
James: Yes! I bring them back a lot of pictures, pictures of their quilts in art galleries in London and at yard parties in Martha’s vineyard and quilts in .. ah what’s the very tip end of Florida where everyone watches the sunrise?
Lilli & Mina: Ahh……
James: Key West! We had a big show at an art gallery in Key West. They see things like our quilts at the beach, our quilts by Big Ben, and then they laugh and laugh but they really love it and they understand that people really value what they’re doing. And they get a sense of dignity, a sense of worth, a sense that’s more than just chopping vegetables all day and breastfeeding kids.
Mina: It’s the empowerment. Everyone like to know that what they’re creating is of value and people are enjoying it. It’s encouraging.
James: And they’re getting better and better all the time. But maybe the biggest success we have is .. (gestures to Ravina) is sitting right there! Ravina is someone who has had the benefit of getting a good education and managing the children since the age of 14, and her dream is to let her run the project. And of course, my dream is to let her run the project.
Lilli: What was it like when you first came to Kathmandu?
Ravina: I was born in India and when I was 2 months old, my parents bought me here. I have grown up here. They didn’t have much work in India, so they came here for work. They like the climate here.
At the stupa was the first time I met James, my sister had so many quilts and then she wanted to sell her quilts to him. I knew about James, but I didn’t know what he does exactly, I was very nervous the first time, me and my sister went to the Stupa
James was doing Kora there and I told him Karma has some quilts do you want to buy them, and he said, ‘yes, of course’. She had 8 quilts and he said come to an open place where we take the quilts so he can look at them and they were very nice, weren’t they.
James: Yes, very nice!
Ravina: And then he said ok, I’ll buy them. After some months, he has been in the US, he came back to Karma and said ‘do you want to be head of quilt makers?’
Lilli: Where did Karma learn to make quilts?
Ravina: She learned from my Mom, when she was younger.
Lilli: What about the meaning of the patterns on the quilts?
Ravina: They don’t really mean anything, just patterns the women come to mind. Some of them are things, like stars, peacocks, airplanes, pinwheels, now, whatever they like.
James: We never tell the women what to make, they started out very basic, very simple kind of patterns. And now they’ve evolved into really complex patterns. We bring magazines from the US sometimes and they look at pictures and we bought a woman up from Thailand 4 or 5 times to teach the women how to make better stitching and things like that, and so naturally the quilts have become much, much better and more complex and you don’t see the simple patterns so much anymore.
Mina: Do your friends at school know about your job? What do they think?
Ravina: Some of them! They think it’s great, they also want to do it!
Lilli: So Quilts 101 (laughs).. how does it all work?
James: One way of saying that is that it’s a really grassroots project and we think we’ve got a system down now that works, it works well in this community. But there are only 2 of us, Raivna and James, but we’re not the greatest in the world at marketing so the way this project has grown is by the help of other people. Yes, we have a website and people buy quilts on the website from time to time, but mostly how this project works is an amazing network of friends and acquaintances from around the world who just kind of want to help but don’t know how to help. So we connect with people here often and they come down here and see the project. And mostly how we sell the quilts is those people go back home to wherever they live and they engage with their own community, usually by throwing a party and it’s very simple and very fun. Someone says, hey, we want to support your project and we send a box of 21 quilts, because 21 is a kind of lucky number. And the person then lays the quilts out in their living room and invites their friends over, and says, we’re having a party and if you buy a quilt it sends a child to school for a year, if you don’t, we’ll have a good time! And usually I spend the summer going to these events, these parties and talking for 5 minutes. So basically, complete strangers from around the world in little communities are supporting this project. Thats how it works, and it’s really beautiful. I mean, we’ve had amazing connections with schools in Vancouver, and little 10-year old girls who throw Nepali dinner parties in their Mom’s restaurants, and kids in Brazil, yoga classes in Tokyo. All over the world people just say ‘We want to help’. And we sort of have this model that says if you buy a quilt, 100% of the money goes to putting a kid in school, and it’s quite simple.
We have a lot of expenses now, of course, but those come only from donations. That comes from people who donate money that helps us cover things like shipping costs, and all the costs that come along with running the program. But this very simple idea of a network, or you can say a ‘patchwork’ of people from around the world who want to help, that’s who Quilts for Kids is, we’re just putting the pieces together.. Stitching the pieces together (laughs).
Lilli: So there’s obviously the education side, can you talk briefly about the other things Quilts for Kids does? When I first came to the camp in 2014, the kids had just been for dental check ups for example.
James: Our idea is not to grow this project to, you know, get more and more kids in school and more and more jobs for women and someday be the biggest NGO in Nepal. Actually it’s the opposite. We’re following a philosophy by someone named E. F. Schumacher, a sort of Buddhist economics, who had a wonderful book called ‘Small is Beautiful’. So we’re following a kind of ‘Small is Beautiful’ rule where we’re working here, in this community, this is where we work, this is our backyard. So we’re trying to do the best we can here. So as we’ve been successful, at this point we feel like we have almost all of the kids in school that want to go in school, they keep getting born I guess (laughs). So with the kind help from a lot of people all over the world we receive a lot of donations, we decided that taking care of the community means taking care of the community - so when people need medical care - we sponsored a very expensive and life saving kidney operation for someone 2 years ago; a kid had a problem with his eye and we sponsored a long treatment for that; we sponsor lots of small things along the way, treating cuts and scratches and bruises, tuberculous, kidney stones, whatever shows up here, we try to take care of whatever pops up here. When we can we buy bags of rice and distribute that at certain times, and when people die, we pay for funerals, when people get married we try to make financial offerings to them because it’s expensive. So we’re just trying to take care of the community, isn’t it (looks at Ravina).
We’ve connected with a dental camp, a group of dentists from the South West in the US who come to Nepal every year, so last year we had 65 kids get their teeth checked and cleaned and filled and everything. So every 2 years. This year we put another 23 through, it’s a 2 year cycle. And we’ve run ladies health clinics, gynaecological health clinics with women doctors, a woman doctor from France.
What else have we done… When people need things we take a close look at what it is and we run it past our board (motions to himself and Ravina, laughing), which is not that difficult, we’re always looking for ways to help. And then we try to help. So we’re just working in this community, trying to make a difference.
Lilli: It would be really nice to hear about the impact the project has had on you, that the project in general has had on you since that first day.
James: It’s always difficult for me to talk about… Yes? (to Ravina)
Ravina: Tea? They’ll bring tea!
James: Yes please! Um.. It’s easy for me to tell you the stupid things I’ve done! (laughs) Here’s a nice one, there was this lady who had this great kid, you know, this 10 year old kid only had one jacket, but it was like a boarding school jacket with a crest on it, so this formal jacket but no pants on. So he was hit by a truck and killed when he was in India, and it was so sad. It was in my third year of doing this, and it was such a horrible thing. And so this lady was really annoying, his mom, I loved the kid but the mom was tough. And so she came in and asked me for money to go down to India to go to court to try to get a settlement for what had happened, and I was doing this through a translator, and I was thinking, I don’t want to give money to that lady, she’s always so annoying, and I was only thinking about my relationship with her, I wasn’t thinking about the fact her kid has just been killed. And finally, my assistant at the time, Bimila, said, ‘What’s wrong with you? This ladies son is dead! Give her the money!’ And Bimila was 13 or 14 at the time, talking to me like this. It was 80 000 rupees, so US$80, and I gave it to her, and I put it down on the table like that (slams it down), like ‘arrgh’, and that kid said, something like “Don’t give like that, God doesn’t want you to give like that.” So I took it back.
Then the lady said “Not Nepali rupees, Indian rupees” which is, like, twice as much!! And by now I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’(laughs)
So like that, that’s the kind of lessons. Let’s just say that’s how I was. You know, now I can’t say no to anybody! (laughs) It’s just getting over your own complete fixation on what you think generosity is. We think generosity is self and other, that I’m rich and they’re poor and I help them and they thank me and all of the conditions need to be right, preferably with a smile and a cute child.
Lilli: Wow… It’s so true.
James: That has nothing to do with generosity. Generosity is the action of giving. And that manifests in many many different ways. Best, when it’s the person who never thanks you and holds out their hand for more. That’s what I’ve learnt, that that’s what generosity really looks like.
So it’s hard for me to talk about most of the time, I don’t know why. Also there’s another level of a guy who has been living in another country for 12 years with no family, well, this is quite a lovely family (smiles), you know, if you don’t mind 8 to a room, total chaos and things on fire all the time (laughs). You know, which I love! So I have a family here, a really nice family, a sweet family. And also I’m someone who never had children, kind of be choice, kind of by the choice of my partner, you know, it’s not that I didn’t like children, I love children. And now I have a lot!
Mina: And growing all the time!
James: So that’s also been a benefit. And also the simple things that I was being taught in the monastery. Generosity, patience - a lot of patience! - discipline, now I’m quoting what are called the six parameters, the discipline of generosity and giving and showing up and making things happen, all of those things that a little bit of meditative concentration, keeping calmness of mind amongst chaos, all of that. It’s my workplace for my practice. So that’s how James comes out the main beneficiary in all of this.
(Speaks with Karma, Ravina’s sister)
James: This is Karma’s medicine, she has an ear problem, I will just check her medicine and make sure it’s ok and how often to use it.
Mina: Did you ever think you would be living in Nepal surrounded by women making quilts?
James: Well, I grew up in Virginia, in kind of the middle of the state and my grandparents were farmers. They had quilts, but my Grandmother was not a quilter. But it was weird, in high school, as a high school kid, I asked my grandmother how I could buy a quilt from somebody. And that’s an odd thing for a 16 or 17 year old boy to, who shoots guns and is learning how to chew tobacco, but I asked my Grandmother where to buy a quilt. If you walk up to the monastery, they would call that karma (laughs). The karma of a 16 year old boy asking his Grandmother ‘where can I buy a quilt’? So she took me to this ladies house about 3 miles away, she drove me there and my Grandmother could barely reach the gas peddle, and she introduced me to this lady who made me this quilt and she said what colours do you want? I said purple and black, you know, so I guess it was a weird age and a weird time, but I ended up with this purple and black quilt. So I’ve always had a fascination with quilts, for some weird reason. So I grew up around people who knew how to make quilts, you know, small, roadside signs about quilt making.. and living here, in this part of the world, I immediately recognise that as a connection to home.
Quilting in general is a universal craft. You find quilt making in Africa, in America, in Europe, in South America, to some degree. It’s a way that women express themselves, almost never is it men.. although I did meet a guy once, this is a total side note, I was in a quilt show at the Smithsonian and some guy with a real country accent said, ‘You know, I make quilts’. He kind of looked around to see that nobody was looking. I said, ‘what kid of quilts do you make?’ He said ‘I make hound dogs quilts.’ I said, what? He said ‘I make quilts with hound dogs on them. Wanna see?’ And he opened up with book with all these pictures of quilts with Bassit hound dogs on them that he had made. Like hunting dogs, you know? He was from North Carolina, he was awesome. But anyway, that’s a side note!
So anyway, it’s women’s work, it’s an opportunity for women to gather without men around, to share stories and share skills and to create community. And that language, the language of needle and thread and cloth is a universal language, and I’m sure it shows up in Australia, and in every country in the world. And tapping into that language is one of the great joys of this project.