We had the pleasure of sharing coffee and a little women empowerment with Jamie Johnson of Prodigal Pottery, a nonprofit dedicated to employing disadvantaged women in Birmingham, Alabama. Learn about her personal journey with this mission and how she believes we can all take part in such change in our own daily lives.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT WHAT PRODIGAL POTTERY IS?
Prodigal Pottery is pottery handmade by women fleeing homelessness, domestic abuse and sex-trafficking. We work directly with a women's shelter outside of Birmingham, Alabama and provide employment to the women who are residents of our shelter. Our mission is to provide a safe and therapeutic work environment for women in need that develops healthy professional skills, interpersonal relationships and spiritual depth. We transform the lives of at-risk women by providing them with meaningful employment, while equipping our staff with the entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed.
HOW DID PRODIGAL POTTERY START?
Prodigal Pottery started from a really unique donation to our non-profit. King's Home is the organization Prodigal Pottery is under and has several homeless and domestic abuse shelters for women around the Birmingham area. In 2014, an industrial sized kiln was donated to King's Home and they weren't quite sure how to use this donation. For years, the board of King's Home had been trying to come up with ways to provide employment within the safe walls of our ministry to the women in our homes. We face several issues in helping our women find gainful employment, including lack of education, felonies on their records, and emotional instability. The board realized that if they could provide jobs to our women within the safety and comfort of King's Home, we might really be able to train them, give them opportunities to be in school, and give them the freedom to get the emotional care and counseling they need, while still holding down a rewarding job. The kiln was an answer to that! So in the spring of 2014, I was contacted about starting this program...which originally was going to be an art therapy program with a social enterprise component hopefully catching on later. I designed a line of pottery and taught two women how to start making it. I had no expectation that we would sell much in the first year at all, but the Lord had other plans. The social enterprise piece definitely took off faster than we ever could have fathomed. In November of 2014, we had our first big sale which catapulted us as a small business, and the rest is history! We have been able to employ over 70 women since we began in 2014 and have sold all over the world, including in 50+ retail stores across the US.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE MOMENT IN WHICH YOU REALIZED THAT THERE WAS THIS NEED FOR CHANGE, AND IT WAS YOU WHO COULD TAKE ACTION TO ENACT IT?
I lived in Rwanda for a year working with women's craft cooperatives and underprivileged women in need of employment, so I always knew the need in third world countries for this type of work. But I definitely did not understand that there were people in need in this same capacity a walk down the street from me. When I did realize that, it was after I had already taken the job with Prodigal Pottery, and I realized in a different way that need is everywhere, and we can evoke change from anywhere...we don't have to fly to Africa or India or Haiti to love people well and provide for them.
HOW DID THIS PARTICULAR CAUSE BECOME SO IMPORTANT TO YOU PERSONALLY?
You know it's funny because I didn't realize how important it was to me until I actually started working with these women. I was asked to start our pottery program in conjunction with the homeless and domestic abuse shelter we are partnered with four years ago, and the thought at the time absolutely terrified me. I had worked in Africa for several years and had experienced poverty in third world environments, but I had never experienced poverty or need in my own hometown. Of course, I knew poverty was a deep issue domestically, but it was easier for me to ignore. It was easier to stay safely inside the walls I had built up of comfort in my life...until the Lord knocked those walls down all around me! I said no several times to the job offer to start the program before finally saying yes...and the yes was strained and very unsure, but I knew the Lord wouldn't let me keep saying no. My first day on the job, I met a woman who had come to our shelter straight from eight years in one of the harshest women's prisons in the southeast. I had nothing to say to her, no way to understand her pain, no way to relate...but the Lord bridged that gap. I hugged her and she told me how few hugs she had gotten in her life, and it was then that I knew that my whole world was about to be turned upside down for these women. Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated that I would be working with former addicts, with women coming right off of the streets, with women literally stepping out of the gates of prison....but it has been the greatest privilege and blessing of my entire life!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE BUT AREN’T SURE WHERE TO BEGIN?
Just say yes! No one knows where to begin or what to do...I certainly didn't. But that is what makes ministry such a gift, we do not have to have any of it figured out because that is the Lord's job! We just have to say yes to Him and He will lead our steps.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT SUPPORTING DISADVANTAGED WOMEN IS SO IMPORTANT?
Jesus's heart was for the hurting and the disadvantaged. We don't get to say that we are committed to Jesus if we aren't committed to those who are disadvantaged and in need. It's the great commission, and we are called to walk that out daily.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN THIS JOURNEY?
That relapse is a part of recovery. When I first heard those words, they were from a woman who runs a home for over 200 women coming out of prison and going through varying types of recovery. And I remember hating that statement because it broke my heart, and I did not want it to be true. But I have realized now, over the years, that her statement was about so much more than just addiction. Recovery happens in every area of these women's lives, and so does relapse. Relapsing into old ways of coping, old ways of communicating, old ways of acting. These women are fighting a daily uphill battle to choose a new path forward, and when they fall back into old ways, I am prepared for it now. It used to deeply wound me..."But I thought we had worked through this? I thought you were in a healthier place?" I have realized now that recovery with these women is going to be a lifelong battle. Emotional recovery, physical recovery, spiritual recovery. And the only way for me to survive the emotional ups and downs of this job is to know that there is no easy fix, and relapses will happen. But I have committed to stand beside these women and wade deep in their hurt and despair, and a part of that is realizing that we will not always succeed at first. But doing this job is also knowing that when change does happen, it is the Lord's victory and it is a gift from Him that I get to share in it.
IN STARTING A BUSINESS OR A MOVEMENT, WHERE DO YOU RECOMMEND PEOPLE START? WHAT ARE THE VERY FIRST STEPS?
Without a doubt, creating your team! And I don't mean a team of people that you are serving...that is also important of course. But I mean a team of people who are supporting YOU. This work is exhausting and hard and if you do not have people praying over you, pouring encouragement on you, asking you how you are when things are hard, you will undoubtedly burn out. I am terrible at asking people for help... I never want to be a burden. But in this job, I have realized that isolating yourself in the work and emotional strain of it all will swallow you whole. You need a team to carry some of the weight with you and spur you on when you feel like you literally have no more to give.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE PRODIGAL POTTERY GROW IN THE COMING YEARS?
In the past I would have always said "More jobs for more women." And that is still very much my heart...if I could gather 500 women under my wing and give them gainful employment, I would stop at nothing to make that happen. But I know that pouring into a few instead of spreading ourselves so thin, means more lasting, powerful change in the long run. So the Lord has shifted my heart from quantity to quality...I want quality in our products, I want quality in our customer service, and I want quality in our ministry. Whether that is with the 10 women we employ now, or with 20 women based on growth, we will always focus on the quality of how we serve our women.
WHAT STEPS CAN PEOPLE TAKE IN THEIR DAILY LIVES AND IN THEIR COMMUNITIES TO HELP WOMEN WHO ARE IN BAD SITUATIONS FEEL SAFE AND SUPPORTED?
One huge and very simple thing I have learned in this job is to just give people dignity. Several women who I have employed have told me in times when they were living on the streets, they would go months without making eye contact with someone...without experiencing any human contact! If you walk by a homeless woman or man on the street, it is easy to stare and give shocked looks, or even avert your eyes. Instead, look them in the eye, smile at them, ask them how they are...that might be the first time they have experienced human contact in days. In addition, when you talk to someone who is less advantaged than you, speak to them with dignity, like you would any other person that you meet. We work a lot of shows selling our products, and I always bring my staff with me to train them in sales and customer service. Something I have noticed so often over the years is how people talk to my women. They speak to them as if they are less than...in soft, childish tones and dumbed down vocabulary because they think the women won't understand. Speak to people with dignity, and be reminded that many of us are just a few paychecks away from being exactly in the same situation as many of these women...living on the streets begging for someone to reach out to us.
Visit www.prodigalpottery.org to shop the collection, and to learn about how you can get involved.
Written December 11, 2018