When Kelsey Timmerman took the stage for the Viva Humanities lecture on Wednesday, the first thing he asked the audience was, “Where are you guys wearing?” He asked the audience to check their clothes tags and to get their friends to help them.
While some of the people may have looked silly holding their shirt tags over their heads trying to read them, one thing became clear; we know very little about where our clothes come from and even less about the people who make them.
Timmerman is the author of the books, Where am I wearing? and Where am I eating? and he spent time abroad with factory workers and farmers from around the globe to find out where our clothes and food come from because like Timmerman said in his youtube video, “When it comes to clothing, others make it and we have it made.”
About 3% of clothes are still made in the United States, Timmerman said and he wanted to pursue questions about what life was like for those people who make our clothes.
Surprisingly, it all started in an anthropology class.
College opens doors and minds
Timmerman graduated from Miami University in 2001 with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. He shared that he “stumbled into an anthropology class” as part of the general education classes and then found that archeology was a subfield of anthropology.
“I’m like, ‘I know something about archeology,’” Timmerman said and that the extent of what he knew about it could be summed up in two words, “Indiana Jones.”
When the audience stopped laughing, Timmerman explained that while he hopes to never need to use his degree to get a job, what he learned in those classes lead him to the career he has today.
“If it weren’t for sticking it out in those anthropology classes, I would have never gotten to those questions,” Timmerman said. “Anthropology really taught me empathy.”
After graduating from college, Timmerman said he received $5,000 from his grandmother and he used that money, along with some money he saved up, and traveled for six months.
“I went to Australia, Thailand, Nepal, and then I zipped through Europe because it’s really expensive,” Timmerman said with a laugh.
He said his traveling lead to writing some of the stories in small newspapers and columns making “tens of dollars a month” but said his experience in his college classes helped him be open minded and to ask those, “deeper questions” that he eventually inspired the concept of his first book.
Experience is the best teacher
Timmerman says the world is a lot safer than people make it out to be and that a lot of the time, he just shows up in a country and rarely makes plans, but says it’s one of his
“Then I can go where the story is,” Timmerman explains. “I try not to go in with this preconceived notion of what the story is.”
This allows Timmerman to meet interesting people that leads him to the story.
“If I had plans…I couldn’t do things like meeting a slave in Ivory Coast that completely changes everything,” Timmerman said.
Timmerman shared many experiences he had on his travels like meeting the Ivory Coast slave named Solo whose master threatened Timmerman when he tried to help the slave escape, kids who worked in sweatshops, people in Bangladesh who earn $24 per month to feed their families, monks in Kathmandu, and a bullet proof prophetess in Kenya.
In Kenya, Timmerman shared a story he heard about a tribal affiliation that, during a conflict in 2010, would go door to door and kill people who didn’t answer in the right language.
One man named Thomas spoke the right language and hid not only his family, but his neighbors in his house and when the men knocked on the door, he was able to speak the right language and saved all their lives.
TImmerman said it was great to see this sense of community.
“Often I’ve seen where [a community] may have a poverty of resources in some places, they have a wealth of community and I come back to the United States…and we might have a wealth of resources, but a poverty of community.”
Travel changes perspective
Timmerman said his experiences abroad have changed the way his family shops for clothes and food and that they’ve “changed both of those areas of our lives drastically.”
Timmerman was wearing a pair of fair trade shoes from Ethiopia called Oliberte that provide opportunities and benefits for their workers and helps the workers kids go to school.
Other influences have been more internal.
“The focus in our family of what to value has changed a lot,” Timmerman said. “You really get a perspective when you visit a slum in Nairobi, Kenya of what’s valuable.”
Timmerman said when he gets to a place, he tries to get to the heart of a person and, “connect with them on a very human level.”
“It’s kind of this cultural exchange,” Timmerman said.
Patricia Thompson, junior English major attended the event mostly for extra credit in one of her classes but also because she wanted to hear from someone who had written a book.
“It just made me think about my own future.” Thompson said. “Just making the most of the classes I’m taking now. I don’t want to just consider them now as classes where I would take away transferable skills for a job, but maybe experiences for a career or for something I would like to do for fun.”
Thompson said Timmerman made her more open minded about where our clothes come from and that, “the clothes you wear kind of tell a story about where other people are living.”
Thompson gestured to the shirt she was wearing and said that it was from Hot Topic and that it was made in Mexico.
“After this presentation, I’m going to wonder about the people that are in Mexico and what their lives are like,” Thompson said.
Andrea Flora attended the event after seeing it listed in a newsletter and brought her daughter to hear Timmerman because her daughter had just finished a project on sustainability and global economy.
Reilly Flora, 12, said it was neat to see a person talking about all the things her teacher had been telling her class but that her favorite thing was hearing about the different cultures and the different people he met.
“I liked hearing about the different countries because we travel as a family to a lot of different countries so it’s cool to hear about the adventures he’s been on compared to ours,” Reilly said.
Reilly and her mother spoke with Timmerman after the event and she shared with him how her family likes to travel abroad and use a soccer ball as a way to connect with people.
Once, the Flora’s were in Belize and Reilly and her brothers were playing soccer with a kid from France, a kid from New Jersey and a kid from Guatemala.
“We were all just playing,” Reilly said. “We didn’t know their names.”
Timmerman then shared with Flora and her daughter how he carries around an Aerobie Superdisc when he travels and calls it, “the key to the world,” because you can take it into any village and it becomes an instant in.
Still, not everyone was a fan of the event.
Cynthia Mazur, undeclared freshman who wants to major in Media Informatics and who attended the event for her writing 110 class said she thought the event was pretty good but would have preferred more speaker-audience interaction.
“I kind of did go to sleep a little bit, so if there’s more interaction…it probably would have been better,” Mazur said.
Humanities help inspire
Timmerman admitted he never really thought about how much value was in college until he started traveling to different colleges and while he never thought it was a waste of time, he just didn’t realize at the time, “how valuable that time just to explore the world through different classes,” really was.
“College is one of those few times when you can actually explore a bunch of different subjects to find that thing…you’re good at or passionate about or curious about,” Timmerman said.
Timmerman now encourages students when he travels to different colleges to volunteer in their local communities and to go somewhere that gets them outside their normal life and into a world they might not normally interact with.
“Get outside your bubble and go travel,” Timmerman said.