An Interview with Chicago Fair Trade Executive Director, Katherine Bissell Cordova

An Interview with Chicago Fair Trade Executive Director, Katherine Bissell Cordova

A Day at the Museum: Interview with Katherine Bissell Cordova,
Executive Director of Chicago Fair Trade. 
By Aliya Segura

Katherine Bissell Cordova has been the Chicago Fair Trade director for nine years but has worked in the fair trade industry for sixteen years. Before getting to work in this alternative business market, Katherine has a fierce background working in social justice work. She focused on helping human, immigrant, and worker rights in Central America. Katherine learned about fair trade as she continued to work to achieve just and equitable wages. “A common theme I saw was people needed income and a way to support themselves. Fair trade allows people to support themselves while also passing down their traditions. Fair trade principles attracted me to this line of work, and it is incredible to be a part of this movement today.” Katherine states when asked what motivated her to get involved in fair trade. In this exclusive interview with Katherine, she discusses the history of fair trade and the unique aspects of education the new Chicago Fair Trade Museum provides.

What was your first introduction to fair trade? 

“I was an executive director at ARISE (a non-profit that helps fight workplace injustice), specifically helping Chicago immigrants. I was introduced to fair trade by two amazing interns. One intern asked me what I thought about fair trade as I knew some aspects about it, but not the entirety of fair trade. As for the second intern, they had told me about fair trade coffee in the early 2000s, which also piqued my interest in this business model. Since then, I’ve been invested in learning about fair trade, and now being a director of Chicago Fair Trade has been a tremendous opportunity because of two phenomenal interns.

I then started to learn more about fair trade living in Guatemala to advocate for human and worker rights. When I went to the markets, weavers said they needed help selling their products. I also met with loggers who made money off of selling furniture. Their hands were tied as logging is not beneficial for the environment but is one of the few ways people could make money. From there, I started to think more about what my interns told me as I was in Guatemala. Soon enough, loggers found ways to manage forests to make money while maintaining forests, and weavers could collaborate with vendors to sell their baskets. I saw fair trade as an opportunity. No one wants to leave their home just to make money. Fair trade allows traditions to be kept alive, allowing producers to earn an income in this type of market as they make enough to live a life of dignity, which is ultimately fair.”

Katherine was a Peace Brigades International volunteer in Guatemala in 1995.  Thank you, Katherine, for your service!


How did CFT (Chicago Fair Trade) get its start?

Two prominent people started the CFT initiative: Shayna Harris and Nancy Jones. Shayna Harris worked at Oxfam International, a global organization that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice. Shayna was based in Chicago and primarily focused on connecting volunteers interested in fair trade. As Shayna advocated, many social justice movements at religious institutions were discussing fair trade. A committee for fair trade was then put together by professors, pastors, and different businesses as they began to meet monthly to discuss how to initiate a fair trade movement in Chicago. 

Over time, the leadership at Oxfam International was convinced by Harris and others to create a grant for their grassroots efforts. In the early 2000s, Harris received a $25,000 grant to start CFT. Nancy Jones was a field organizer for Oxfam then and was named the first executive director of CFT. Jones was the director of CFT for eight years as she advocated for fair trade all across Chicago. She dedicated all her time to letting people know about it, as most discussions were by word of mouth during this time. Social media was not what it was compared to today’s world. Due to the efforts made by Shayna, Nancy, and dedicated Chicagoans, Chicago Fair Trade became independent in 2006. 


How did CFT grow into opening the world’s first fair trade museum? 

“In 2006, we only had three businesses, but now that we have 60+ members, it is fantastic! I would consider us the epicenter of fair trade in the US. Chicago has the most fair trade business in the US. I believe it is because of how fair trade is promoted due to our pride and spirit in Chicago. Initially, trying to establish CFT felt isolating, but each member of CFT shares the same passion and mission. That makes CFT special, and now the museum has allowed us to grow even more. I’d say that fair trade keeps growing because of how people learn about it and share it with others. It inspires others and allows fair trade to grow organically, as we started with the pop-up shop for part of the year. The more we began to grow, the more we saw the opportunity for others to learn about fair trade.

Nancy Demuth, the director of outreach and engagement at CFT, had asked for my help in seeing what we could do with this space. We decided to keep it as a shop and add the museum. We wanted people to educate themselves while also reaching more audiences. Our aim with the museum was to share fair trade principles with education at this movement's core. At CFT, we try our best to be creative and fresh as we hope it attracts all people, which younger people have primarily responded to remarkably. Generation Z has the whole world in their hands with their cell phones. Seeing them attend events is refreshing and allows us to get more input on what we can do to make the museum appealing. Opening the museum is a community effort that continues to grow significantly in the US as fair trade has been prominent in Europe for a while.”


There are 60+ business members of CFT.  Why do you think Chicago is such a hub of Fair Trade?

“I love to think that there are two reasons for this. I would say Chicago’s rich history with fair trade and labor unions, and another being the community within Chicago. As much as people say, “There is no place like Chicago,” I have to agree! There is pessimism surrounding conversations about capitalism, as corporations can be greedy. From Walmart, fast fashion, or any place we shop, people have accepted that this is how things are. In Chicago, that is not the case. People see fair trade as an opportunity to help, which has been the most significant vehicle for bringing every aspect of fair trade together. A highly supportive network of fair trade businesses, nonprofit institutions, and individual consumers exists. Even though we started small, the more people saw what there was to fair trade, shared that information with others, and saw it for themselves, the more they believed that fair trade made a difference.”

As for the more historical aspect, we are the epicenter as we have been the birthplace of the modern labor movement. For example, on May Day, also known as the Haymarket Affair, workers protested for an eight-hour work day from May 1st to May 4th. Another important aspect of the labor movement was the rotary club, a philanthropic group in Evanston. Even community organizations in the 1940s were set up by Chicagoans for people to learn how to be better consumers. Chicago has been the center of it all which is phenomenal. Compared to more trendy pop-ups in other parts of the US, Chicago has always been about upholding fair trade values and cementing community. The more people come to the city they can see that. That is why I truly believe that Chicago has a lot of pride in fair trade. Here, we know fair trade to be long term due to its establishment and how we maintain community.” 


The museum is very interactive. How does that help people learn about fair trade? 

“We do not want people to feel like we are lecturing them when they come to the museum; that is why we hope it is interactive. At CFT, we want people to see their place in this movement as we tackle heavy issues like discussing slavery or climate change. We tie these topics into how they impact today’s world. It can be overwhelming every day to think about how our choices have an impact. With customers or anyone who comes in, we emphasize how they can be a part of the solution with their choices as consumers. 

People tend to consume, so we hope they make choices they know are making a positive impact. With the Wounaan baskets from Tulia’s Artisan Gallery, yes, the baskets may be expensive. Still, they can be passed down to their families instead of going to other places to buy baskets that may be cheaper but will not last. We know consumers may not always be able to afford certain products. Having 60+ plus members makes it even better as we have many products consumers can try, like candles, chocolates, clothing, or ornaments, within the shop to make consumers aware of being a part of the solution.”

You coordinate events at the museum. What do you hope people gain out of those experiences?

“We always want our events to be engaging, appealing, and helpful for students or people who stop in to incorporate fair trade into their life. We always get students asking what they can do to help, so we remind them they are already doing what they can daily. We collaborate with an After School Matters program and high schools to hold events for teenagers to learn about fair trade. For example, we hold clothing swaps and remind students that thrifting is something they are already doing. We had someone teach students how to plant their vegetables so they could try for themselves. We want clothing swaps or gardening to be fun and within their comfort zone. Not only are they saving money, but they are doing their best to be a part of the solution to climate change.  

What helps as well is how easy fair trade is to understand. Sometimes people attempt to feel this isolation or void of what they see happening with retail therapy. People are overwhelmed, scared, or feel like there is no other option when feeding into the problem of contributing to child slavery. Corporations make it seem like there is no other way to get clothes. We want people to feel a part of the solution as it is an easy concept to sell as people are open-minded and attracted to fair trade. We know people will not be against something fair as they find fair trade appealing. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something fair?” 

What is next for Chicago Fair Trade?

“One of the biggest things we have planned is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our pop-up business, as all members can participate. Every year for our pop-up, we do it around Thanksgiving to Christmas with 30 to 60 of our members. We are happy to announce we are moving into a bigger space as we can become a full-time fair trade store and museum in Chicago instead of only doing pop-ups. Now, we are doing the pop-up from October 1st to December 24th! In Chicago, people tend to shop a lot around the end of the year, so this can be their chance to learn about fair trade. Businesses also tend to sell out since this is a busy time, so they can set up at our pop-up as we have staff that helps our members sell during the pop-up. We are incredibly excited as we can do more fundraising and educational experiences in our bigger space.”

About the Author: Aliya Segura is a Communications major at Columbia College and an aspiring lifelong fair trade consumer. Photo curtesy of the author, pictured with CFT executive director, Katherine Bissell-Cordova.  

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