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The Tote Project

The Tote Project

(Clockwise from upper left) Founders Fay Grant and Michelle Chavez; Free to Protect pouch. Photo by Evan Anderson; Hold on to Hope tote. Photo by Evan Anderson

In 2013, two women with professional backgrounds in music came together to realize a very different dream: the end of human trafficking, one tote bag at a time. “We launched The Tote Project with one tote bag and a lot of hope,” says Michelle Chavez, co-founder with Fay Grant of The Tote Project.

It all started with an Etsy shop. “After many years of feeling lost on how to make a difference in the anti-trafficking movement, I opened an Etsy shop selling handmade totes and pouches using vintage or upcycled fabrics and donated a percentage of my sales to nonprofits fighting human trafficking,” says Grant. “When California banned plastic bags, something just clicked for me. I called Michelle and told her we had to figure out a way to do what I was doing on a much larger scale so we could make a bigger impact.”

An artisan in the Red Light District of Kolkata, India, working on a pouch

Since then, The Tote Project has released dozens of original art designs by Fay on many different products, including bags, pouches and mugs. They even created a fair trade coffee blend that recently sold out. After many years of running the organization from their living rooms, the pair recently moved into their first office space this month. “We started with the intention of giving back a portion of every sale, and we’re humbled to say that today, thanks to our incredible customers, we’re able to do that along with supporting survivors holistically,” says Chavez. This includes providing survivors with COVID care packages with protective supplies and teaching classes for survivors in art and business.

The Tote Project is currently at work launching a new product line manufactured domestically. “Right before COVID-19 hit, we studied at an ethical manufacturing workshop in the Carolina Textile District, and we are super excited to start manufacturing purses and bags that are made in the USA,” says Chavez. “It’s still a common misconception that human trafficking only happens in other countries outside of the US, but in reality it’s here in our own neighborhoods and communities as well.”

In addition to purchasing products from The Tote Project, Grant and Chavez encourage volunteering at safe houses and nonprofits, as well as helping to spread awareness. “We can’t let this trend continue, and unless we can properly identify situations of trafficking, they will continue to happen around us in plain sight,” says Chavez. “So it’s important to learn and share the facts.”

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