By Carlotta Mohamed
Atiya Raja is taking on a big task to transform Queens into a fair trade borough.
After helping Manhattan College become the first fair trade-certified college in New York City and fifth in the country in 2012, Raja is at the beginning stages of building a diverse committee to launch a fair trade campaign in Queens.
“It’s a very long process and I was involved in making Manhattan College fair trade, but I’ve never done a town before, and it’s a huge learning curve for me,” said Raja.
The 25-year-old from Kew Gardens was introduced to the concept of fair trade — a social movement to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading and working conditions — after watching an investigative film called “Dark Side of Chocolate” about the use of trafficked African children harvesting chocolate with machetes in the Ivory Coast plantations.
“That’s what hit home for me because I’m a huge chocolate lover,” said Raja. “I never thought about where it was made, and when you’re young and in high school, you don’t think about where all of the ingredients are coming from… you just assume it’s from a Hershey’s factory that’s making and wrapping the chocolate.”
According to Raja, fair trade provides ethically sourced products to people and gives farmers and artisans in developing countries independence to be their own business owners. Farmers grow their own food and sell it directly to a company while earning a decent living wage to invest in their businesses or improve their communities.
Certified fair trade products include bananas, coffee, tea and chocolate. But the product range has grown tremendously over the years in response to consumer demand, so that fair trade certification now covers dozens of new products such as fruit, dried fruit, juices, cereal, vegetables, herbs and spices, and even sports balls, according to the Fair Trade Foundation website.
Recognized fair trade organizations include Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade America, Fair Trade Federation, and Fair for Life.
St. John’s University in Queens became a fair trade designated institution in 2017, working alongside Fair Trade Campaigns, a non-profit organization that designates universities, towns, congregations and schools.
Raja said that in order to start a fair trade campaign in Queens, five requirements must be met: Building a team, reaching out to retailers, engaging community organizations, contacting media and, finally, passing a resolution to be recognized as a fair trade town.
“When you’re looking at a town, everyone you’re looking to put on your committee is a professional and has a family or kids… there’s no time commitment,” said Raja. “That’s been my biggest challenge. I can’t move on to the other things without someone else, because I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep.”
Raja said she has been searching for people to help her contact retailers, engage the community, mentor her and lead the committee to make Queens become a “legally fair trade town.”
Depending on the population in a town, there must a certain number of retailers committed to selling fair trade products and a certain number of organizations that are non-retail locations, such as a YMCA or church to commit to serving fair trade products.
“The Queens population is huge and I would need at least 60 retailers to sell two or more fair trade products, and at least 60 non-retail locations to be committed to fair trade,” said Raja.
Raja said she recently joined the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, which is based on the fashion industry making ethically sourced clothes. She signed up to become a fair trade advocate for the coalition, and hopes to find people to join her fair trade committee.
“It’s definitely something that’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “It’s going to take a longer time than it would to make a college a fair trade.”
People who are interested in joining Raja’s fair trade committee or learn more can send an email at queen
Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmoha