silversmithing in the prisons of bali

a closer look at jewelry designer Joanna Witt

What goes around comes around.

These are the words stamped on the Karma collection of Yin jewelry sold by Canadian native and long-time Ubud expat, Joanna Witt. The sentiment is more than just a cliché, it is a personal and professional mantra for this jewelry designer and entrepreneur, who uses her business to give back to Bali.

“Bali has been my home for 20 years. I started designing and exporting metal garden ornaments from Bali in 1994. I eventually started a silver making class and from there I opened my first shop in Jl Dewi Sits in Ubud. After a while, I realized I had the infrastructure to create some special projects to give back to Bali that extended beyond just providing jobs. I took things a step further.”

Joanna was one of the founding members of the Yayasan board of Pelangi School, the first holistic school in Ubud. “Pelangi was growing at the same time as I was growing my business. I had the idea to create the Karma line of jewelry and sell it in my shops, with $2 from each sale going to the school. It gave me a chance to support the school on an ongoing basis.

A few years later, Joanna has contributed over $12,000 to Pelangi School, all through donations from her Karma line, which was enough to build an entire classroom. Joanna was also inspired by Si Yi Chen, one of nine Australians charged with attempted drug trafficking in 2006. All nine were sentenced to death or life in prison. When Joanne met Si Yi, he was five years into a life sentence. He invited Joanna to teach silversmithing to a small group of prisoners. Joanna went to meet with the then 25-year-old Si Yi and was instantly inspired. Thus, Mule Jewels was born.

Kerobokan prison, like many prisons in other developing countries, lacks financial and human resources to provide rehabilitation programs to inmates. However, Si Yi decided to spearhead a program by collaborating with the warden to convert unused jail space into a workshop. He began to train other prisoners in the skill of silversmithing so that they could spend their time in prison purposefully, creatively and collaboratively.

His own journey through six months of solitary confinement, two years on death row, and trying to build his Taoist meditation practice in a prison cell has taught Si Yi that people need a purpose and that it is every man’s responsibility to create a fulfilling life for himself – no matter where that life is lived.

Joanna and her silversmith, Pak Nyoman Alit, started visiting the prison weekly, training Si Yi and other inmates in the art of silversmithing. Si Yi used his own money to set up the studio. Joanna and Pak Nyoman provided the training, helped implement an accounting system, and create a business plan. Si Yi and Joanna worked with the wardens to grow the program and make it self-sustaining through the sale of pieces in Joanna’s stores.

“It is a good thing for my business, and it is a good thing for the prisoners in this program. Like the Karma line, it only costs me time and effort and yet delivers so much.”

Si Yi is now an accomplished silversmith and trains all the new members in the group. He clearly sees the value in what he has created and shared, “The program was initiated to teach inmates the skills of jewelry making so that when they are free they can use these skills to find a job. My hope is these inmates will leave here and be inspired to change the lives of people around them, that they might redirect someone who is going down the wrong path.”

The income from the program provides healthy food for the group and some income for each of the participants. In the five years since the program’s inception, Si Yi has trained over 20 inmates in the design, business planning, manufacturing, and sale of jewelry.

Joanna recently helped a group of students in her son’s 7th-grade class at Green School design two pendants to sell at the school’s annual Bamboopalooza festival. After the students approved the design, the sketches were sent to Kerobokan prison where the inmate silversmiths donated their time to create 40 pendants for the kids to sell. Joanna took the group into the prison, where they visited the workshop and had a firsthand look at the realities of prison life as well as the program Si Yi works hard to maintain.

“I agreed to help start the silver making program because the skills I had running a silver making workshop in Ubud could be directly applied in the jail. What I didn’t realize was that there were so many more layers of benefit that the program gave to those involved. It has given them a reason to get up in the morning, almost as if they are going to work Monday to Friday. Silver making is very meditative in itself and the program is almost therapeutic. The workshop is a place where inmates can mentally escape their situation while picking up skills they can use once they are free. Lots of foreigners come to Bali, and like me, they see opportunities to create businesses based on tourism. But we need to acknowledge how Bali supports us, and constantly ask ourselves how we can support Bali.”

Joanna goes to the workshop once a week to help with design, marketing, and business development. She offers these words of wisdom to others who, like her, seek to do good:

“If you start looking at what your business does well, and what resources you already have, you will be able to see how this could be leveraged to provide money or services to the community. It might even boost your bottom line, your staff morale, and your feeling of belonging here in Bali.”

Joanna has four Yin jewelry stores in Ubud, on Gili Trawangan, as well as a new spa called FRESH on Jalan Dewi Sita. Under her unwavering volunteer management, Pelangi School is flourishing and continuing to grow and serve the community.

That’s some seriously good karma.

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