A community radio station in Austin recently featured an inteview with Josefina Castillo and Judith Rosenberg regarding Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border).

How We Got Started:
Fair Trade vs. Free Trade

ATCF Delegation Participants

Group portrait of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera delegates.

As the decade of the 1990's witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the birth of the World Trade Organization (WTO), many voices sang the "free trade" gospel. Then in 1999, during the WTO conference, the so-called "Battle in Seattle" erupted. "Fair trade" activists all over the world sought to bring attention to the dark side of the "free" trade philosophy and disrupt the self-serving narrative of corporate globalization.

Meanwhile, far from Seattle, a movement based upon the same principles of social justice and fair trade was taking shape. Just a few months before the Seattle protests, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border, ATCF) was born in Texas. The group formed out of a coalition of fair trade activists that were protesting the GAP's use of sweatshop labor to produce their goods. Every month they picketed the multi-national's central Austin retail location, bringing attention to the injustice from which the GAP profited.

As the GAP protests were catching fire, the Austin office of the American Friends Service Committee invited three women from Mexico to speak at a local church (September, 1999). They were workers from the maquiladoras of Northern Mexico-mostly US-owned factories that had relocated South in order to manufacture cheaply and export back to US markets. The women gave a picture of salaries pushed too low, communities engulfed in increasing poverty, Mexican labor laws broken and their own empowered and organized struggle for rights and respect.

ATCF Delegation Participants

Delegation member

When they joined a protest at the GAP the next day, their testimony galvanized action. Austinites, prominently including the AFSC, organized a fact-finding mission to Piedras Negras, Mexico, so close to Austin. That October expedition turned out to be the first of what would be quarterly delegations to Mexico, in partnership with the Comite Fronterizo de Oberas/os (The Border Committee of Working Women and Men or CFO)

In the context of a relationship with Mexican workers organized by the CFO, and drawing on their lived experiences, ATCF delegations create an experiential classroom at the border, offering people from the US a window on the realities of "free' trade, economic policies, migration, militarization, and collective action. Together Mexicans and visitors form a space for discussion in an environment of trust. The American Friends Service Committee sponsored Austin Tan Cerca for the first 11 years. Then because of the worldwide economic down turn and budget constraints within AFSC, Austin Tan Cerca became an independent community based non-profit in 2010 carrying forward the work, with AFSC's blessings and the inspiration of Quaker values.

Throughout the 2000s the program was expanding to include the annual Women & Fair Trade Festival in which fair trade producers from all over the world come to Austin and tell their stories and the meaning to their communities of fair vs. free trade.

Farewell AFSC - Hello Austin!

On September 30, 2010 Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border) celebrates its rebirth. It becomes an independent, community, non-profit organization based in Austin and says good-bye, with great gratitude, to the American Friends Service Committee, the seedbed from which we sprang over 11 years ago. Under the Service Committee, our Austin programs have shined a light on issues of labor and human rights, fair trade, and the hidden cost of US trade policy. We have prospered under the guidance of the Service Committee and the Quaker vision. We have as well become an integral part of Austin and Mexican border communities.

The American Friends Service Committee has had an office in Austin for more than 50 years. The parting now of our two organizations is a consequence of the financial crisis that the AFSC National Board began to respond to in 2008, reducing national budgets by 40%; the AFSC Regional Board decided in July 2009 to fund Austin programs only one more year, a grace period in which to prepare for independent status. All along, the Austin office has received support from the community through generous donations and commitments of every kind. Together we have done much to "transform conditions and relationships both in the world and in ourselves…" Many of these same volunteers are birthing the new non-profit, and are committed to the same principles that guide the Service Committee's mission.

As your loyalties and resources allow, we hope you will join us in this new and exciting endeavor to carry on the work and keep it shining.

In peace,

Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera