Meg Nelson leads by example, while empowering women to play instrumental roles in their societies. Her organization, Acacia Avenue Designs, whose motto is “We Make Shirts,” provides oppressed Ugandan women with opportunities for personal and professional growth. We admire Meg’s passion and charisma and are happy to introduce her today.
Can you tell us about the mission of the Acacia Avenue organization?
Our mission is to provide oppressed Ugandan women with an opportunity that will empower them as individuals. We work with Ugandan women who were exploited in the sex trade as little girls. For three years, each beneficiary makes organic Ugandan cotton shirts that we then sell in South Africa. In exchange for making the shirts we provide a fair wage, vocational school tuition, as well as other benefits that you can find on our website. At the completion of their three-year contract, we will assist each beneficiary in finding permanent employment.
While we are a non-profit, we manufacture clothing in a way similar to that of a for-profit in order to simulate a job for our beneficiaries. Rather than just paying for vocational tuition and programs, we want to empower them. We see the only way to truly empower these women is to show them that they play a vital role in society. We want them to realize that they are amazing, creative, intelligent women and that they have the power to support themselves and not have to rely on the charity of others.
Who was the most instrumental in helping you achieve your dream of helping oppressed women?
That’s a tough question to answer! The Board of Trustees for the non-profit has been so essential in connecting me with the right people, helping to fundraise, and just encouraging me. I have also gained an incredible amount of knowledge from various professionals in every field from advertising to fashion to finance. To be honest, though, my parents have been the most supportive in every way possible. From the beginning they have encouraged me to travel and learn and explore. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities that very few young people are blessed enough to have. They’re also my best form of advertisement–walking billboards! I will get emails from people I’ve never met saying that my mom/dad told them about what I’m doing and they’d love to hear more. Although I know they worry about me, as parents tend to do (especially when their daughter lives in a third world country), I know that they believe in me and will support my dream however they can.
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in your journey to change the concept of what charity means?
I definitely can’t claim that I’m the one changing the concept of what charity means. I think I’m part of a movement that’s going on currently in the non-profit sector.
The biggest challenge has been learning how to be patient. My desire at the start was to get this organization up and running as fast as I could. Horrible idea. I really had to teach myself to be forbearing. Everything takes ten times longer to accomplish than originally planned for. And that’s a good thing. I’ve learned that I need to isolate aspects of the non-profit and perfect them to the best of my ability down to the last detail. That means research, usually paperwork and time. Lots of time. I have definitely not won my battle with impatience, but I’ve accepted that this whole journey is going to take a while.
What is the most memorable thing you have learned from your beneficiaries?
Relationships are more important than anything else. Money can’t buy loyalty, trust, reliability or dedication. A strong relationship is what those qualities are born from.
Acacia Avenue Designs was developed out of relationships I formed with the beneficiaries before they were beneficiaries. We have spent hours together just talking. Talking about everything from our childhoods to our dreams to boys. Seven months after my first trip to Uganda–Christmas of 2010–my phone started ringing and a series of about twenty numbers came up. Confused, I answered and it was the ladies from Uganda wishing me a Merry Christmas. International phone calls are not cheap. The fact that they thought about me and called me, even just for 30 seconds, has stayed with me as the best way to explain the importance of relationships.
How have your educational experiences shaped your belief that providing education is a main factor in enriching the lives of these women?
From a young age, my parents instilled in me a love for learning. They continued to kindle that through investing a great deal in my education. Yes, I took statistics and history. But the math equations and historical timelines didn’t stick with me. What my education did was prepare me to learn later in life. And more importantly, it prepared me to want to learn later in life. I didn’t study non-profits or marketing or fashion or finance in college. I studied social work. Although I loved my classes and learned a great deal about social work, I didn’t have a clue about how to start this non-profit. I had to learn everything. And because of being educated to love learning, I’ve only enjoyed the whole journey. That’s how I know that providing education is a main factor in enriching the lives of these women. Providing financial knowledge, vocational skills, nutritional education, and personal development programs will transform these women in the same way I’ve been transformed during the process of putting these programs together.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Nashville?
Do you have any irrational fears?
The ocean. I can’t swim in it. I’m illogically afraid of 99% of what is in the ocean.
Do you have a favorite musical artist?
Lately I’ve been listening to Lana Del Rey a lot.
Is there something about you that people would be surprised to know?
I’ve been a vegetarian for ten years.
What books are on your bedside table?
Shaping Sustainable Fashion, by Alison Gwilt and Tino Rissanen, which I’ve found it to be a great resource on how to improve the fashion side of Acacia Avenue. Also, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron–I’m finding out new things about myself every time I pick it up.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
A few years ago I went with some friends to Swakopmund, a small coastal town in Namibia. We went sand boarding, sky diving, and just explored this neat little German town in Africa. I’d love to go back someday!
Is there an event coming up in Nashville that you are looking forward to?
Christmas! I’ll only be back in America in December and there’s nothing like a Tennessee Christmas.
Name 3 things you can’t live without (excluding God, family and friends).
Adventure, a comfortable pair of shoes, and a quality down pillow.
Thanks, Meg! To keep up with what Acacia Street Designs is doing, follow on Facebook: click here.
And as always, many thanks to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos. See more of Ashley’s work here: www.ashleyhylbert.com,