Giving Is A Lifestyle: A Conversation with Kelsey Timmerman
The sky is like a blue opal: brilliant with clouds waiting to be stared at and named. The ground is like a Bob Ross painting: a grassy field, a path, a family of trees clustered in peaceful harmony. This was Kelsey Timmerman's backyard in Muncie, Indiana in October 2018, and he sat on a yellow swing as we Skyped about how the world has changed in the ten years since he published his first book, “Where Am I Wearing?” Because of him, I am beginning to see giving as more than a line item in a budget, or a volunteer activity on a calendar: giving is a lifestyle where I pursue the good my daily choices can generate locally and globally.
As he approaches his 40th birthday, Timmerman doesn't want to become jaded by the slow pace of change, or focus only on what is happening in his own backyard. He said, “It’s really easy to get into the rut where the most important thing… this [season] for you is what kind of kitchen floors you’re gonna have. And I don’t think that’s good…I think at a certain point, those in our 40s and 50s and beyond need to follow youth. I think that students often lead change.”
Soon after earning his college degree in anthropology, Timmerman journeyed to meet the people who made his underwear in Bangladesh, his jeans in Cambodia, his t-shirt in Honduras, and his flip-flops in China.
In the 2012 expanded edition of “Where Am I Wearing?”, he acknowledged that his initial interviews were not profound, but now, he recognizes the significance of that original work. Timmerman said, “When the first edition of ‘Where Am I Wearing?’ came out…the idea of ‘let’s talk to these people who make our clothes and share what their thoughts and opinions are,’ that was pretty extreme. And since then [we’re] really starting to see a lot of companies getting on board: so there’s fair trade clothing by Patagonia, by Prana…The factories in Bangladesh then were dangerous: because the factory collapse happened, a lot of the factories have been inspected, and the likelihood of a major collapse or disaster has gone way down.”
When the U.S. passed the Country of Origin Labeling law in 2009, Timmerman became curious about the origins of his food. For “Where Am I Eating?” (2013), he harvested alongside coffee farmers in Colombia, banana workers in Costa Rica, and lobster divers in Nicaragua. He met a man trafficked from Ghana into forced labor in cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast. Chocolate remains one of Timmerman’s favorite foods because he has found more ethical sources for it.
“I enjoy…learning about a company in Madagascar called Madecasse Chocolate. It’s bean-to-bar made in Madagascar, and 85% of the value of the chocolate bar stays in that country…And I eat less chocolate. I don’t eat mass-produced American chocolate anymore, but I enjoy the chocolate I eat more because I’m eating better chocolate.”
In “Where Am I Giving?” (2018), Timmerman revisited destinations and encountered new sites to observe how locals and transplants give through presence, passion, and expertise, as well as, money. He caught up a with a Cambodian woman he had played frisbee with in a municipal dump in 2007. He met a peacemaking, generation-changing Kenyan gang-leader in Kogorocho slum in Kenya. In India, he and Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar, reflected on meeting impoverished people face-to-face, giving until it hurts, and taking action with or without seeing impact.
Although invigorated by his travels, Timmerman says home is wherever his wife is, and he values local activism.
“People who are strong members of a community support network(s) around them literally live longer than people who are more isolated…I think it’s to our detriment as a society and also individually if we ignore the local or we ignore the global.”
To promote understanding across differences, he founded The Facing Project in 2015. This nonprofit creates opportunities for personal storytelling and story-listening to address issues including addiction, disability, homelessness, and racism. It has spread from Muncie to more than 100 U.S. communities. Timmerman’s gift of storytelling inspires and teaches people to take action for good.
I thank Timmerman for taking the time to share with me about his journey from questioning college graduate to New York Times best-selling author. His travels and writing introduced me to people I could never imagine meeting, and his perspective empowers me to take action in my daily life. You can find out more about him and his books at his website.
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About the Author
With undergraduate majors in piano and Spanish from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in composition from Stony Brook University, Krystal J. F. Grant uses her music and words to reckon with society's brokenness. Her passion for fair-trade fashion led her to Dressember, and her childhood in Alabama guides her commitment to freedom throughout the world. She and her husband enjoy visiting museums and National Parks, or just making popcorn and watching anime at home.