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​Tylea Richard '04 holds a poster sold by her company, Holstee, which
sells ethically and sustainably produced products.

Richard ’04 to Research Worker Conditions through Fulbright Award

Providence College alumna Tylea Richard ’04 will use a Fulbright fellowship to study the quality of life of garment workers in the Dominican Republic.

Richard, who was a public and community service studies major and a Latin American studies minor, began researching workers’ rights issues in the garment sector as part of her senior capstone project and has been working in the labor movement or garment industry ever since.

The Fulbright program is a prestigious international education exchange opportunity sponsored by the U.S. government, designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries. Each year, about 1,700 U.S. citizens pursue research or teaching assistantships in more than 155 countries through the program.

Dr. Richard M. Battistoni, professor of political science and of public and community service studies, said he first encountered Richard’s work as an incoming freshman when she applied for a Feinstein scholarship in 2000.

“I still remember that application, because she brought a combination that I’ve rarely seen — strong academics, a wealth of experience in community-based work, and she already was interested in learning more and developing skills for becoming an effective advocate for the developing world,” he said.

He taught Richard, a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar, in the introductory public and community service studies course that fall, and he saw her again for her capstone project.

Richard created a clothing line designed by members of the youth program at AS220, a Providence arts organization. The clothes were manufactured using sweatshop-free materials that were made in the United States or by union workers.

Battistoni said the project idea grew from Richard’s public service major as well as an interest in social justice for workers in the developing world that arose after two immersion trips — to Costa Rica and Peru. The professor said she not only taught a weekly workshop on global social responsibility and socially responsible fashion for the AS220 students, but also how to ensure that production was conscious of fashion as well as workers’ rights and environmental principles.

“It was kind of a model of what we want to see in terms of senior projects out of public service programs,” he said. “It was community-based, working with people in the community, and produced something not only valuable to the community but really meaningful to Tylea.”

Hands-on work

After graduation, Richard worked for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. and a labor union. In 2006, she traveled to Nicaragua to work as a production assistant in a garment factory in the Nueva Vida Fair Trade Zone. Richard spent much of her time there working on quality control, using a tiny plastic magnifying lens and a sewing needle to count the threads in unbleached organic cotton fabric.

She described the experience as “really eye-opening.” Although Richard had spent plenty of time as an advocate, “it was obviously the first time I was working with [garment workers] on the ground,” she said.

“It was really hard work — really hot, really tiring,” Richard said. “It was like no work I had ever done before. It was great. I loved it.”

She later co-founded the Nicaraguan Garment Workers Fund, a nonprofit that sold the factory’s T-shirts and helped market their products with the goal of increasing demand so its worker-owners could be autonomous.

Richard received a fellowship through the Catherine B. Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship to earn a master’s degree in business and labor studies at New York University in 2009, while working for apparel companies. Afterward, the alumna returned to PC several times to lead workshops for global studies and public service students, Battistoni said.

“That allowed us to walk through the global economy of apparel production from raw material through wearing and resale, and to really give our students a sense of how complicated and how difficult it is to think of environmental or social justice in the context of the whole process,” he said.

“Our students came away from it with a much better knowledge, and in a way that’s totally accessible,” Battistoni said.

Now Richard oversees production, administration, finance, and operations for Holstee, a New York-based eco-conscious clothing and accessories company. She deals with factories that produce products and manages vendors. She also coordinates product development — finding producers with good, sustainable practices.

Reconnecting with workers

The Fulbright will be “a chance to step back and get closer to the people who are actually doing this,” she said. “I really want to get closer to factories and workers again, and understand it a little better.”

Richard feels that Holstee is one of the most thoughtful companies in this area, but fears that, at times, other companies’ production does not actually live up to the standards proclaimed by fair trade campaigns.

“There’s really been this explosion of attention to ethically produced goods,” she said. The progress in the industry has been incredible, she said. However, “we have to keep people accountable,” Richard said. “And not only that, but [we have to] establish best practices — what is working, and how can it get better.”

“I’m not convinced that people’s actual lives are improving at the same pace that there are these stamps and seals and marketing promos,” she said.

Richard plans to compare how workers in foreign-owned and unionized factories judge their quality of life, in terms of education, health care, housing, access to food, and other factors. Several Dominican nonprofits have offered assistance, she said. 

Battistoni described her project as “fascinating.” “I think it will test the working assumptions of all sides in the debate over globalization,” he said. “It has the possibility to really inform this entire debate.”

He is also proud of her pursuit of her ambitions.

“The thing that’s really gratifying for me is that this is a student who, as she was graduating, had this sense of vocation that she wanted to create a more just, sustainable world, and that she’s been able to carry it out,” Battisconi said. “She’s been able to be true to this vocation and this drive to be a just citizen, if you will.”

Richard, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, is the third member of the Providence College community to receive a Fulbright this year.  Two PC students received Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships to teach the language overseas. Emma Wright ’12 (Lake Hill, N.Y.), who majored in history and minored in French and German at PC, will be traveling to Germany. Chris Muyo ’12G, who will go to rural Malaysia, earned a master’s degree in education while teaching in Catholic schools through the Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers (PACT) program.

In 2011, two Providence College graduates received Fulbright teaching fellowships: Alexandra E. BetGeorge ’11, who went to Bulgaria, and Leah Glass ’11, who traveled to Turkey.

 — Liz F. Kay

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