Have Faith: Linda Cohen’s fair trade philosophy

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Linda Cohen owns Olive Branch Fair Trade, a fair trade store in Vineyard Haven.

Fair trade is a movement the goal of which is to help producers in developing countries get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices, the Internet tells me. There are faith communities on the Island, likely most of them, who support this practice.

Linda Cohen, a semi-retired architect on the Island and a member of the Hebrew Center, grew up in East Providence with other students from a variety of faith backgrounds, so she’s been an ecumenical-type person her whole life. Now she’s opened a nonprofit fair trade store, Olive Branch Fair Trade, in Vineyard Haven’s Woodland Center, where Heath Hen Yarn & Quilt Shop used to be. I dropped by for a delicious cup of mint tea on a chilly morning a couple of weeks ago. The shop is filled with handmade jewelry, ceramics, textiles, olivewood kitchenware, and more — all in vibrant colors, and almost begging me to buy them. I held off, but I’ll be heading back before the holidays. Beyond the pretty colors and fine craftsmanship, though, I wondered why fair trade was important to Linda, and I found out social justice goes way back in her lifetime. 

Linda graduated from Providence’s Classical High School in 1968, and she was a founding member of R.I. High School Students for Peace. She protested against the Vietnam War, and at anti-nuke demonstrations. Linda told me she made the decision to become a vegetarian in 1969. I got the impression that she is mindful about her decisions, no matter what they are.

A few years ago, Linda explained, she was recovering from serious advanced-stage cancer, and decided then that she wanted to take more concrete steps forward to help bring about respect for the human rights of Palestinian people. She’s a member of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, and they were offering something called a “Palbox” that would help support the group International Solidarity Movement. She subscribed, and when the box of Palestinian-crafted goods arrived, she got the idea that maybe she could sell these items and more in support of agricultural and craft endeavors there. She’s a firm believer in getting a better understanding of a place by knowing what the people there make.

Besides, she said, “I don’t believe you can win anything in an argument. We can hear each other say what’s in our hearts, and possibly see things from each other’s point of view. This is what’s in my heart.”

She eventually connected with Canaan Fair Trade, which, according to its website, “uses fair trade practices to empower marginalized Palestinian rural communities, caught in conflict, so they can sustain their peoples’ livelihoods and culture.” Linda requested to become an interfaith partner with Canaan, realizing that all their other partners were religious groups.

“For the first two years, I would give it as gifts,” she said. But then she thought of West Tisbury artist Marsha Winsryg, whose daughter attended the Charter School with Linda’s youngest. Marsha works tirelessly to bring women’s empowerment in Africa to the forefront through various craft events, including the summer’s World Market Mondays at the Grange Hall. Linda began selling the Palestinian crafts at World Market Mondays, and that led to her forming a nonprofit corporation, and nonprofit store, Olive Branch.

“I had zero idea that there were so many beautiful crafts still alive in Palestine,” Linda said.

Along with a heart for peacemaking, she has a deep desire to stay mindful by nurturing her decades-long meditation practice. She says her goal is to have her heart, mind, and body all in the same place: “We have a soul, and it is the inner silence of meditation that nourishes the soul … I’m having 10,000 thoughts when I’m meditating, but I get something out of it so I keep doing it.”

Linda told me that she hopes people will come into the shop and see beauty — I know I did. 

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It’s CROP Walk season, folks, and this year’s event is set for Sunday, Oct. 20, at 2 pm, with registration beginning at 1:15 pm, and as usual, the CROP Walk kicks off at St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven. Here’s the bonus: One-fourth of the funds raised stay in our community, and the rest supports families in the U.S. and around the world. These walks are a real community event, especially on our Island. This year’s CROP Walk is held in honor of Island Grown Initiative, in recognition of its mission to build an equitable food system on the Island.

Libby and David Fielder from the West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church sent the info to me, along with an invite to support them as they walk — their seventh time.
Even here, amidst the homes of the wealthy, at least one family in 10 needs help,” the Fielders wrote. “Thirty to 40 percent of Island schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches. We’re also inspired by the way these walks involve our youth, raising their awareness of and compassion for the millions of people who experience food insecurity every year.”

For more information about the CROP Walk, contact Woody Bowman at 508-693-7240 or visit crophungerwalk.org/marthasvineyard.

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The Order of St. Luke presents “Healing for All in Hard Times” at Grace Church, Vineyard Haven, on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 9 am to 4 pm. The day will include worship music, a regional speaker, and workshops, prayer, lunch, and an afternoon healing service. The public is invited to attend any or all of the day’s events. For further information, call 774-563-3907.

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The United Methodist Church invites you all to a Harvest Supper on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 6 pm. The chefs will create a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings — Thanksgiving in October, folks! Apple crisp for dessert, along with hot and cold drinks. There is only one seating, so get your ticket soon either at the Parish House or at Phillips Hardware. Adults/$18 and children 12 and under, $7. For more information, email umcmvEvents@gmail.com.