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Menlo Park Women Raise the Bar on Philanthropy

Charitable Salon takes action after discovering chocolate companies use cocoa harvested by child slaves on the Ivory Coast.

It has the power to bring people together and make them all smile. It’s even renowned in some social circles as an aphrodisiac. 

Chocolate.

That was what was on minds of the women in Lynn Gorodsky’s living room on the evening of their bi monthly Charitable Salon in Menlo Park, California. It was even being passed around as a light snack while they waited for a presentation about Global Exchange that would change their perspective on chocolate forever.

“I never thought I’d be moved to tears about fair trade," Gorodsky said.

Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that promotes social justice through its “Fair Trade” label, was being showcased that evening. At each Charity Salon, a different member takes charge of identifying a local organization to present to their fellow Salon members. They can choose any charitable organization they like, as long as it is local.

“In the beginning, we chose to only present local charities so that we could all participate in the organizations directly if we were inspired to,” Gorodsky explained.

She founded the organization one year ago this month with the goal of identifying needs in the community and then allocating resources to satisfy those needs. This evolved into hosting informal Charitable Salons at her home for her 15 of her female friends who live in Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, and Redwood City.

Since the inception of the Salon, the women have volunteered countless hours of their time to places like the , Habitat for Humanity, and , and hosted five salons. All of the women have vowed to also donate $50 per presentation to the philanthropic organization of the month.

This past month, member Judy Murphy presented Global Exchange’s “Raise The Bar” campaign, which has a goal of getting brand name chocolate companies such as Hershey’s to start using fair trade cacao.

She showed the women the documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” which was released in 2010; it tells the tale of journalist Miki Mistrati, who travels to the Ivory Coast to see if rumors he heard were true. Mistrati had gotten word that children as young as 11 were being forced into slavery on cocoa plantations, so he sewed a video camera into a black button down shirt and ventured off in search of the truth.

Mistrati captured footage of children‑-primarily from Mali and Burkina Faso -- who had been lured to a bus station in Zegoua, a town in Southern Mali, with the promise of a job. That’s where he and a few human rights advocates with whom he was working found a gangly 12-year-old girl named Mariam Marico who had come to the station looking for work.

Children like Marico are routinely picked up by men on motorbikes from this bus stop and transported to the plantations. Plantation owners pay child traffickers to transport these boys and girls, ranging in age from eight to 14, to a place from which few escape. Those who do try to escape are chased down by guards and beaten.

According to this documentary, a child from Burkina Faso, Africa can be purchased for about 230 Euros and used for as long as the plantation owner wishes to keep them. 1.8 million children work in the cocoa fields; thousands of those do so without pay.

“I had no idea that this was happening," said Charitable Salon member Cheryl Lilienstein.  “And the audacity of the Chief Secretary of the Department of Labor on the Ivory Coast… He said the reason that all the children were going to the bus station was so that they could go on vacation.”  

When Mistrati interviewed The Chief Secretary in the documentary, the Secretary denied that the labor situation posed a problem for the country.

Gorodsky said that the most moving part of the documentary for her was hearing the perspective of the children.

“They’re locked into their rooms in the evening; they receive zero money, and could be working for five to years,” Gorodsky said. “They’re so depressed and defeated that it breaks my heart.”

Many of the women in the Charitable Salon vowed to only purchase fair trade chocolate, after learning about how detrimental the chocolate industry is for the children of the Ivory Coast, who have few employment options. On these cacao plantations, children pick the cacao pods from the trees with machetes, without any protective clothing or masks to shield them from pesticides. Many of them have persistent back pain from carrying loads of cacao pods that are almost as heavy as they are.

Major corporations such as Mars, Kraft, Cargill, and Nestle continue to purchase cacao beans from plantations that use child labor, citing an inability to regulate what practices farmers use to harvest their crops as an adequate reason to deflect responsibility. None of these companies have responded to inquiries.

The Charitable Salon will meet again on March 21 to hear a presentation about Mercado Global, a company that distributes products made by underprivileged women in the U.S.  

The Salon does not have a website yet, but it is in the works.  In the meantime, interested parties may contact Lynn Gorodsky at lgorodsky@gmail.com for more information.

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