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After Making A Name For Herself In New York’s Fashion Scene, Salvadoran Designer Ariela Suster Is Giving Back To Her Own Country

Sequence

Growing up in El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Ariela Suster witnessed gang rivalry-driven violence firsthand. It’s partly why she decided to move to the US to study and build a career for herself in New York’s fashion industry. But as she climbed the ladder in women’s magazines, she still couldn’t shake the grisly memories and current conditions back home. Suster felt compelled to do something about it, so she founded Sequence, a handcrafted accessories company that employs young Salvadorans who are vulnerable to gang recruitment.

The brand, which Suster created in 2011 with the help of local artisans Oscar Bautista and Natali Orellana, aims to disrupt the cycle that breeds violence in her native land by providing young men with design training, tools and paid working opportunities.

“I didn’t want to just be in New York living my life and not making a difference in my own country. Even if it’s a small difference, I wanted to create something,” Suster told FIERCE.

Credit: @sequencecollection / Instagram

Currently, Sequence employs 40 men between the ages of 18 and early-20s. After engaging in lengthy handcrafting, screen printing and sewing training, the men produce knotted and beaded bracelets, necklaces and tote bags for worldwide consumers. Each bracelet is made-to-order, and customers can customize their jewelry, choosing which colors they want their threads and tie to be, or they can purchase items from collaborative collections with high-end designers like Diane Von Frustenberg and Jonathan Simkhai. Last year, their handcrafted earrings, necklaces, belts, handbag straps and handbag charms were on the catwalk of the Furstenberg’s spring 2018 runway show during New York Fashion Week.

Sequence also frequently teams up with big brands like Universal Pictures and Microsoft to create corporate products for events and conferences. In 2015, for instance, during a partnership with Microsoft, the men added NFC chips to their creations that when tapped against the back of smartphones played a short video that shows how the bracelet was made.

For Suster, who continues to work and live in New York while running her business in El Salvador, these opportunities don’t just help sustain her company but also allows the young men to witness their own potential.

“It’s been amazing watching people not know their own talent until someone shows it to them. One of the things that is unreal was to see the level of the product design and everything,” she said.

Credit: @sequencecollection / Instagram

According to the Sequence website, every purchase made has a social impact. For instance, for every 1,000 additional products sold, the company is able to employ, train and empower another at-risk youth. With paid work, employees have been able to build homes for their families, attend or finish school, or create small businesses of their own.

For Suster, though, Sequence’s mission goes beyond employment. She wants to instill bigger visions in the minds of marginalized young people. Through the Sequence Academy, a project for children and adolescents in Tepecoyo, El Salvador, the company offers free workshops in the arts and technology, hoping that the skills these young people gain will allow them to become agents of change in their own communities and country in the future.

“We don’t just want to affect the lives of the men that work with us but the communities overall,” Suster said. “To do that, we need to provide young people with role models, with workshops, with programs.”

Being a female entrepreneur comes with challenges, especially for women of color, but the work is uniquely difficult in violent environments. While Suster brainstorms ways her business can thrive, she also has to consider the ever-changing conditions in El Salvador and the welfare of her employees.

Credit: @sequencecollection / Instagram

“One of the most challenging things I continue to battle with is pace of growth, which is different when you’re in an environment that doesn’t foster growth, when the ecosystem doesn’t support you, especially as a woman entrepreneur inside a community tackling the issue of violence,” she said.

But she remains determined, seeing changes, even small ones with vast possibilities, as potential to disrupt the cycle of violence in El Salvador and create a new reality for her country and its people for tomorrow. Suster’s confronting it through fashion design and technology, but she wants others, both in the Central American country and beyond, to know that progress and transformation can be made through almost any means.

“You can create change with any skillset you have. For me, it’s fashion, making bracelets and necklaces, but this can be applied to any industry and can be tailored to make a difference in your own communities,” she said.

Read: Why This Latina Started The Bloomi, The First Digital Marketplace For Clean Intimate Care

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She’s Running: Social Justice Leader Erika Almirón Is Ready To Represent Philadelphia’s Most Marginalized In Public Office

Fierce

She’s Running: Social Justice Leader Erika Almirón Is Ready To Represent Philadelphia’s Most Marginalized In Public Office

She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed for correction. An earlier version inaccurately stated that Almirón would be the first elected official of Paraguayan descent in the country. She will be among the first, and the first in Philadelphia, but not the first nationwide.

Philadelphia has a powerful history of political activism, and in recent years, Erika Almirón has been considered one of its biggest social justice warriors. Now, the Paraguayan-American is vying for a seat on the city council, where she hopes to create change for the people of her city in new ways.

Almirón already has a history of impactful change-making, though. As the executive director of Juntos, an immigrant rights group in the city, she helped make Philadelphia the most progressive sanctuary city in the county. Before then, as assistant director of the Philadelphia Student Union, she pushed back against the criminalization of young people.

“I’ve been doing social justice work for 20 years,” Almirón told FIERCE. “It’s time to be a voice inside city council representing the people accurately.”

Currently, more than 40 candidates are trying to get on the ballot to run for city council at-large in Philadelphia, but should Almirón win, she would be among the first elected officials of Paraguayan descent in the country and the first in Philadelphia.

We chatted with Almirón, a first-time candidate, about her run for office, the biggest issues impacting Philadelphia today, how she’s prepared to tackle them and more.

FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for Philadelphia City Council?

Erika Almirón: I think that there’s this moment right now. I’ve been doing social justice work for 20 years. In the last eight years, I was leading Juntos, an immigrant rights group in Philly. It became apparent that there’s an opportunity right now for someone like me to run. After all my years of building coalitions, it’s time to be a voice inside city council representing the people accurately.

FIERCE: I know that your three priorities are tackling housing justice, decriminalization and police accountability as well as education equity. Why are these issues currently crucial to your city?

Erika Almirón: I’ve spent the last two decades doing social justice work, both in education reform and immigration as it intersects with criminal justice work. I’ve been working in Black and brown communities. So it’s very natural for these issues to be important to me. I’ve watched people in high school get criminalized. I know what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like. I spent eight years battling the deportation machine locally and across the country and watching policing and racial profiling. Those two issues are super important to me. And, naturally, as someone from this city and has seen how it’s gentrifying so quickly, especially Latino communities, housing and stability has been one main issue. Landlords are evicting tenants, rent is doubling in one year, neighborhoods are gentrifying so fast. And it’s not just impacting Latinos. It’s across the board and city. Being able to push for something like rent control in Philly would transform our ability to stay.

FIERCE: Your campaign slogan is “Fighting For All Of Us.” How do you intend on doing that on city council? What does fighting for all look like for you?

Erika Almirón: I’ve spent years building coalitions and fighting at intersections. I fought to have a DA that reflects our values, and Philly now has the most progressive DA. I fought to make Philly the most progressive sanctuary city. I was able to do this through coalition work. That’s how we win, when we build communities together, especially communities you don’t expect to work together because the powers that be want to keep us separated. Building citywide coalitions that are fighting for all the issues that matter and pushing that forward is what fighting for all looks like.

FIERCE:  In your first campaign video, you stated you would not be taking corporate money, PAC money or real estate development money. Why?

Erika Almirón: I want to run a campaign that’s reflective of my values. I don’t want it to be different from who I’ve been my whole life. I don’t want funds that guide my desire and I don’t want this city to think that’s happening. When you talk to me, I want you to know I’m guided by what the people need and not money.

FIERCE: As a working-class woman, Latina and child of Paraguyan immigrants who are small business owners, what do you think these identities, and the perspectives and experiences that come with them, can bring to Philadelphia’s city council that is new or needed?

Erika Almirón: I say it all the time: I was born in Philly to immigrant parents. I understand intimately what it means to be a working-class woman, what most of the city is going through. I know the struggle of putting food on the table, job access, college access for poor and working-class people of color, trying to understand processes as first-generation people. I know what people are going through. Philly is the poorest of all the big cities in the country, and it’s also majority-people of color. That’s not a coincidence. There’s a stark divide of people who have and don’t have.

FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your identities. You’ve worked directly on education reform as the assistant director of the Philadelphia Student Union and you have successfully fought on behalf of immigrants and the decriminalization of Black and brown bodies as the executive director of Juntos. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for this office?

Erika Almirón: I think all of those experiences. I understand what it takes to move power. I understand what movement-building looks like and how to do it effectively. That requires building coalitions, drafting policies, making legal arguments. It’s not just about knowing what the right thing is but about challenging power. I feel very prepared to be in city council.

FIERCE: You have been doing social justice work around Philly and the US-Mexico border for the last 20 years. How could holding a seat in public office allow you to carry this work forward in new ways?

Erika Almirón: I think what it does is it creates space for a woman of color, a Latina, to have a voice on the city council. I also think Philadelphia has shown ways it could be the most progressive in the country. I just see how in these dark times, when we have such a racist oppressive man as president, that Philly can be a beacon to show the country what is possible when you come together.

FIERCE: On that, it’s often said that the biggest and most effective change is done locally. What are you prepared to do or work on locally to combat the policy and rhetoric coming out of the White House?

Erika Almirón: I think it’s doing what I’ve been doing. Even recently, I’ve been fighting to get the accent on my last name on the ballot, because that’s never happened for a Latino candidate, and they originally said no but just recently, just this morning, they said they’ll fix it. This is a win. We are making sure our identities are not erased, which is exactly what we are seeing from our federal government. Trump is actively trying to criminalize and erase our people. There’s a lot of policies I’d like to push forward, but I’d like to start with rent control. Undocumented communities are being hit hard. They don’t have access to loans for homes, they’re being pushed out of their communities quickly and rents are rising. If this is not tackled, our immigrant hubs will disappear.

FIERCE: Finally, as a first-time candidate, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?

Erika Almirón: I would say that it is time for women like us to take the seat that we rightfully deserve in power. Everything seems scary until you do it. Everything I know about Latinas is that we are a resilient bunch, and it’s so important that people find strength within themselves to do what they know they can do and fight for what is right and get those seats we deserve.

Read: For 160 Years, Denver Hasn’t Had A Woman Mayor — Lisa Calderón Could Change That

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