Yesterday evening, in front of a small crowd of students, alumni, and guests in the ICC auditorium, Jack DeGioia received a gift from a company CEO and two international guests. To anyone not aware of the back story, that gift would have seemed somewhat strange—it was a white t-shirt, just like any you can find at the University bookstore, with “Georgetown University” emblazoned in navy blue letters across the front.
This t-shirt, however, is significant not in its appearance, but in its production. It was made by Alta Gracia Apparel, an as-yet-small project started by CEO of Knights Apparel Joe Bovich, the business model for which requires those working in the factories that produce clothing for college bookstores to be paid a living wage. Georgetown is one of over three hundred universities nationwide that carries this line in their bookstores. The event in ICC last night, entitled “The Alta Gracia Project: Continuing Georgetown’s Leadership” and sponsored in part by the Center for Social Justice and Welcome Week, was entirely dedicated to this remarkable project, and the way Georgetown faculty and students can use their buying power to better the lives of factory workers around the world.
“We as a community hold ourselves to the highest standards of community and service,” DeGioia said in his opening remarks, which came before a panel discussion with various people responsible for the presence of Alta Gracia on Georgetown’s campus. He discussed Georgetown’s commitment not just to Alta Gracia but to avoiding any company that does not treat its workers with dignity and offer them the proper wages, which has been University policy since a group of students staged a sit-in for factory workers’s rights in 1999.
Also in attendance at the panel discussion—but who saved his speaking for the very end—was LaMarr Billups, the Assistant Vice President for Business Policy Planning, who, according to DeGioia, makes sure that “no clothing bearing our logo has been made in sweatshop conditions anywhere in the world.”
The Alta Gracia Project, as Bovich explained in his ten-minute speech before the panel discussion (“I’ve never talked about Alta Gracia for only ten minutes,” he joked), was born out of a string of personal tragedies that struck Bovich in a very short period of time, one of which had the potential to render him disabled, and therefore incapable of providing for his family. This changed his view of business and his personal goals, and began to focus on the responsibility of a corporation to protect and provide for its workers.
“Doing good can also be good business,” he said.
As of now, the Alta Gracia project is only one year old, and consists of a single factory with about 130 workers in a formerly economically devastated Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. In a slide show at last night’s event, attendees viewed images of the town’s dilapidated buildings and unhealthy living conditions, and then images of the smiling, healthy workers at the Alta Gracia factory, especially when holding their paychecks, which offer 350% of the legal minimum wage in the Dominican Republic.
Adding to this element of personal connection with the workers was the presence of two women who are employees of Alta Gracia, both of whom shared with the audience how their lives and those of their families had been completely reversed by the arrival of the company. With Alta Gracia, they not only receive employment with living wages, but health insurance and the ability to unionize without threat of firing or violence, a first for workers in this community.
Although hundreds of college bookstores across the nation now sell products from the Alta Gracia factory, which only makes up a very small percentage of Knight Apparel’s business, Georgetown is one of the top 10 buyers of their products, and both workers as well as Bovich thanked the community for their unwavering support of the brand and for workers’s rights as a whole.
“Without universities like Georgetown, this all would have been a dream,” Bovich said. “I feel privileged that I’ve been given this business, and that I get to be a part of something like this.”
Photo from Alta Gracia Project.