Meet Sari Bari USA: An ethical fashion company on Wells Street with a powerful mission

What does the term “safe space” mean to you?

For young girls and women in a neighborhood in Kolkata, India, it can be found through employment.

The ethical fashion company Sari Bari, which opened its storefront and national headquarters on Fort Wayne's historic Wells Street Corridor earlier this year, offers such an outlet for women in one of the largest and oldest red-light districts in the world.

Statistics from the International Justice Mission estimate that up to 6,000 women work in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata. Traffickers prey on women of all ages, trap them, and ultimately exploit them in the commercial sex industry, which creates a vicious cycle of abuse, shame, and poverty.

Sari Bari is a holistic employment option for the most vulnerable women in Kolkata.But Sari Bari shines as a beacon of hope in a dark situation by working to prevent the exploitation of women and children in the commercial sex trade business so communities can be restored.

The organization has operations in both the U.S. and in India. Their storefront and U.S. headquarters are based in Fort Wayne as part of a strategic move, according to David Grant, executive director of the organization’s nonprofit arm Sari Bari USA, Inc. Sari Bari USA Executive Director David Grant

Sari Bari's founder, Sarah Lance, has family connections here, Grant says. He says Fort Wayne is also an attractive location due to its affordability and the energy surrounding its downtown development. He believes the latter bodes well for Sari Bari's Wells Street retail storefront, in particular, which sells the products that women in India make

Currently, Sari Bari works with 120 female artisans in Sonagachi. Women, like Mita, who find a home handcrafting fair-trade items, such as home decor, baby bags, yoga bags, and purses—all made from recycled saris. 

The concept of “home” really comes alive there, Grant says. The name "Sari Bari" comes from two symbols. A sari is the traditional clothing worn by women in India. It sari represents the essence of womanhood. The word bari means "house or home" in the Bengali language.

Honoring the women’s rich culture while offering economic, social, and educational opportunities has proven to be a recipe for success. 

“I love the idea of a sustainable business approach to transforming the (Sonagachi) community,” Grant says.

That transformation happens on both an individual and community level. The artisans pour a piece of their heart and soul into each piece. In this way, the finished product, which can be best described as minimalist and bohemian, has a symbolic meeting.

Old saris get new life, just as the women making the products are changed, too.

Although most of their products are sold online, knowing how each one is made connects the company's consumers in a meaningful way, as well, says Sydney Kent, Sari Bari USA’s storyteller.

Sari Bari empowers women and families to achieve both personal freedom and sustainable economic security.
"We all have a history. Something new can come from that," she says, referring to the upcycled nature of the goods. 

Looking to the future, Grant says Sari Bari USA is looking for more ways to engage the Fort Wayne community in the company's work and mission.

He invites people to see some of their products in person at 1008 N. Wells St. The store is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, as well as for holidays and special events for shoppers.

Grant plans to host events regularly to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking and to support various local organizations with the use of the space.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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