Choosing a winner from our Free People Sun Chaser collaboration proved nearly impossible. We could have scrolled through the photo submissions for hours, wishing escape in every one. Yet, it was Michelle Fergason’s oceanside moment that ultimately drew us in and had us reaching out to learn more about her dream — one that expands beyond herself and hopes to bring freedom to many.
Darling Magazine: Tell us about yourself. What makes you a dreamer?
Michelle: Most people that I meet in Los Angeles have really inventive combinations of careers and labels (“Barista/Cinematographer/Social Media Guru”). It’s customary to answer the inevitable icebreaker question “What do you do?” with your own personalized list, so in true Angeleno form here’s mine: Music Director / Co-founder / Dairy-free baker / Neoabolitionist / Introverted Extrovert / Dog Lover / Ex-Drummer.
Like most I’m an LA transplant. I grew up in Northern California and migrated south to attend college and pursue a career in the music industry. My school was a huge proponent of the StrengthsFinder test, and in my first class I learned that my top strength is “Futuristic.” In other words, I’m a dreamer. This means that much of my time is spent dreaming (about my future and other people’s futures) and strategizing about how to make those dreams a reality. Having something fulfilling to work towards energizes me when life gets monotonous.
DM: What, specifically, is the dream you are chasing? How did it begin? How has it evolved?
Michelle: My dream is to play a part in ending slavery. Slavery exists today in forms that most people don’t recognize; because of that modern day slaves are often hidden in plain sight. The next-door neighbor’s nanny, the manicurist at your go-to nail salon, the busboys at your favorite restaurant – all of these are examples of potential victims that you might come across during any given week. I want to help train people to recognize the signs and know how to properly respond (call the National Human Trafficking hotline number, 1-888-3737-888).
I first became passionate about fighting human trafficking after watching the documentary Call + Response. My heart hurt after seeing the undercover footage from brothels, and I cried myself to sleep for days. But I held onto a card they gave me on my way out of the theater that had a list of “Responses to Slavery” on it. Everything on the list was doable, and I was empowered by that. Filled with hope, I wrote my thesis on ending slavery and devoted most of my time to activism.
Filled with hope, I wrote my thesis on ending slavery and devoted most of my time to activism.
After I got a full-time job, everything changed. I became too busy to attend conferences and volunteer, and when I wasn’t busy I was too tired. During this period of my life I met my best friend, Fay Grant. She was just as passionate about empowering women and fighting injustice as I was, and we used to talk about volunteering together someday. That was the plan, but before we got a chance to do that she moved to North Carolina. There in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Fay was inspired to start designing purses and donating a portion of the proceeds. One day she called me and asked if I wanted to start a company together, and continue what she was doing on a larger scale. I couldn’t say “Yes!” fast enough, and thus The Tote Project was born and we entered into an exciting new phase in our lives.
DM: Tell us more about The Tote Project. What do you hope to accomplish through it?
Michelle: We sell fair trade, organic tote bags that are manufactured by survivors of human trafficking in India.
We want to educate consumers about modern day slavery and inspire them to make a difference in their communities. Each bag will come with a card tucked inside that teaches you how to identify victims of human trafficking and what to do when you do. We also want to raise money for neoabolitionist organizations. 20% of the profits from our Freedom Collection will be donated to Two Wings, a Los Angeles based 501(c)3 that uses education, mentoring and life coaching to empower at-risk youth and survivors of sex trafficking in achieving their dreams.
The Tote Project is brand new, but we’re so excited to officially launch. In honor of World Fair Trade day, we have a small batch of bags exclusively available for sale on our site through the weekend. On June 1st we’re going to launch an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for our first large order. Everyone that donates will have a chance to win signed bags by musicians that support the cause, including Moby, Joy Williams (The Civil Wars), Switchfoot, Ingrid Michaelson and many others.
DM: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in going after your dream?
Michelle: Now that we are starting our own business, things like lawyer fees and manufacturing costs add up, so raising money is the current obstacle we’re faced with. We’re inspired and encouraged by companies like Darling that have had successful crowdfunding campaigns!
DM: Why did you submit the image that you did to the #fpsunchaser contest? What does it represent to you?
Michelle: This photo was taken after we completed the photo shoot for our debut lookbook. It was a long day but we were so pleased with the results and grateful for our enthusiastic team that made it possible. After wrapping up, Fay and I ran around on the beach and our photographer Andrew Abajian snapped a couple pictures of us. This photo captured the joy that pursuing my dream with my best friend brings me.
DM: Who do you look up to?
Michelle: My hero is Malala Yousafzai. Her wisdom and bravery in the face of life threatening danger is astounding, especially for a young girl. Our “Free to Learn” bag is dedicated to Malala and her mission to make education accessible for everyone.
DM: What does it mean to you to be “…not just here, but here for a purpose”?
Michelle: The Tote Project is not a faith-based company, but my personal faith and relationship with God affects my everyday life. My purpose is summed up beautifully by Micah 6:8. “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Images via Andrew Abajian