Peace Corps Volunteer Q&A: Charlene Espinoza of Bosh Bosh
For Charlene Espinoza, traveling to Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer was only the beginning. When Charlene became a volunteer English teacher, she noticed that many of the girls in Liberia were missing out on school, and she set out to change that.
Charlene founded Bosh Bosh in 2012 in an effort to remedy this issue. The girls were taught to sew patchwork bags, which were then sold to raise money that would help them stay in school. Bosh Bosh has since evolved into an education-focused program that teaches valuable trade skills, hosts after school workshops, and supports the education of young women in Liberia.
Charlene and Bosh Bosh have been recognized at the White House and by the National Peace Corps for their work in empowering young women in Liberia. We recently spoke to Charlene about her non-profit line of cloth bags, which are changing the lives of many people in this developing nation.
What originally inspired you to join the Peace Corps?
I always loved traveling and volunteering. I grew up in Mexico and did a lot of volunteer work down there. Once I got older, I started backpacking and I got addicted to travel.
In San Diego I worked for an architecture design firm. I loved my work but I always felt like I wanted to do something bigger.
So when I learned about the Peace Corps, it sounded perfect.
Were you intimidated by the time commitment?
When I heard it was two years and three months, I kind of hesitated. But then I decided to just do it. I was at a point in my life where it was now or never. I was getting settled into my career. I was single. I didn’t have a mortgage.
Now I realize why you go for that long. It takes a long time to get to work on something and really have an impact.
What kind of work did you do as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia?
We were in the education sector, so I taught English to High Schoolers, grade 7-9. I had no experience in teaching, but they do a good job training you in different techniques.
How did your experience with the Peace Corps lead to the founding of Bosh Bosh?
During my [teacher] training, that’s when I really got immersed in the culture. I realized very quickly all the challenges that girls and women face on a daily basis.
I could see my young neighbors, the girls, weren’t going to school. I’d be walking to work on a Tuesday and see all of these girls not in school. I started talking to people about how girls are expected to stay at home and do the chores. It’s just very accepted.
When I became a teacher, I saw how important it was for them to have an education. Even though school is free, you have to pay for your uniform and your school supplies. They don’t have the resources to pay for that. So a lot of them stay home and do chores.
As soon as I started seeing these issues, I really wanted to work on some kind of female empowerment project. I was at a market and came across this beautiful fabric bag. I was like, WOW! If I’m so excited about this bag, other people will feel the same way.
So how does Bosh Bosh work?
Liberia is not a big arts & crafts culture, so I knew there was a huge market for a really cool product. Even though Liberia doesn’t have any tourism, it has a huge international aid presence, with many expats and NGO health workers. That was the market I wanted to target.
So I thought we could teach the girls to sew and create a really cool product. You think of sewing as a very feminine trade, but that’s not the case in Liberia. It’s mostly male tailors. I thought it would be really empowering to teach them a skill that they typically only see men do.
We’re teaching them a trade that would be beneficial, and then we sell what they make to make money for their schooling.
We started selling to Peace Corps volunteers. Word spread to the U.S. embassy, and they invited us to have a sale at the embassy. We got exposure to employees there. Word kept spreading and things moved fast.
When it grew, we registered as an NGO and employed women from the community who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. We teach them how to read and write and train them how to make the products. Then we added an entirely educational component. Now we have our scholars that we sponsor to go to school.
We also host monthly workshops. We like to bring in Liberian role models that our girls can look up to. In total we have 45 people in the organization now, and we’re very education-focused.
Where does the name Bosh Bosh come from?
The tailor started bringing us scraps and we made bags in this patchwork design. When the local people saw them, they started calling it a “bosh bosh.” I soon realized they were saying “patch patch.”
“Bosh Bosh” was perfect. We started from scratch, and we built upon scraps.
Did you extend your time in Liberia to get Bosh Bosh off the ground?
Yes, I stayed another year to focus on Bosh Bosh. If I would have left, they wouldn’t have been ready to continue on their own. We were growing so fast.
But then we were evacuated [due to ebola], and none of us knew what was going to happen. I was in Monrovia. I didn’t have time to go back to my community to say goodbye. It was pretty rough.
When we left, all of our customers were also being evacuated. Thankfully, we were working on one of our biggest orders for a couple thousand bags. That kept us afloat during the time that we were gone. Our girls knew how to carry on and complete the order.
During that time, we started to focus on ebola prevention. Our scholars set up an ebola awareness campaign. They were out in the community, making people aware and teaching them how to be safe. We distributed over 120 hand-washing stations.
Once people started coming back, we started making the bags again. I came back in July of 2015. The last time I was back there, we opened our own store in the capital.
Can you give us some examples of what your scholars are up to now?
Last year, two of our girls graduated from high school. They both want to be teachers.
We don’t have the capacity to give them scholarships for college, but we employed them within our education team. So they’re working with our scholars now, and they’re also getting paid.
The goal is to eventually be able to provide university scholarships. I would love to see them go abroad. We’re looking for opportunities and hoping to provide them with employment.
There is a line on the Bosh Bosh website that reads, “Changing the world actually starts with changing yourself first, so make that first step and be that change you wish to see!” What about you has changed since launching Bosh Bosh?
When I became a Peace Corps volunteer I was like, “I want to go and change the world!” I feel like that’s such an abstract idea. You forget that you have to start from inside, and I’ve learned that along the way.
I’ve learned that I believe in myself. I always have, but this experience of building a company that has so much impact has made me much more confident. I believe that whatever you set your mind to can be done.
It’s crazy. When I first started this, I thought it would be really cool. But I never thought that, four years later, someone would be interviewing me about this. Everything starts from an idea. If you really believe in it, you can make it happen.
What are your goals for the future of Bosh Bosh?
In Liberia, our vision is to build our own academy. We’d also like to have a training center where we teach girls how to sew, along with other arts and crafts skills.
We’d like to focus on some Liberian trades that have been lost along the way. Learning a trade– specifically in a country like Liberia– is really, really important to find work.
I grew up in Mexico, so I’d also like to launch Bosh Bosh there, using the same business model but representing the Mexican culture. We eventually want Bosh Bosh to become a global ethical fashion brand. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.