By Joshua Pinckney
All Phi Beta Kappa members hold true and dear the notion that “Love of learning is the guide to life.” For Chisama Ku Penn, learning has been about centering other individuals and communities, understanding their needs as they define them. “Phi Beta Kappa represents the most human aspect of a liberal arts education: an undying, unflinching love for knowledge in all its forms,” Penn shared. “This human love of knowledge is what has driven me to constantly pursue engaging opportunities to learn from and connect with distant communities abroad.” These pursuits have included multiple educational experiences in Latin America—including a Fulbright ETA grant in Argentina—and ultimately informed her decision to start Custom Tradition, a charitable non-profit that supports a collective of women artisans by promoting their work to the global market.
A native of Stone Mountain, Georgia, Penn graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Earlham College, receiving a B.A. in Spanish and Hispanic studies with a minor in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). It was during her time at Earlham that her sense of altruism deepened. As a Bonner Scholar, a condition of her inclusion in the program and the financial assistance that came with it was the completion of 140 hours of community service per semester and 280 hours for two summers. Penn chose to dedicate herself to Amigos, the Richmond Latino Center that provided free English language lessons to the local Latinx community. There, her study of TESOL was put into practice, teaching English lessons in group and individual settings. With countless hours spent in the company of the adults and children she was teaching, she formed meaningful, long-lasting relationships through which she came to recognize the power of language in cultural preservation.
During her Fulbright ETA program in Argentina, Penn sought to better understand the reality of cultural erasure of indigenous peoples and the disparities in the perceptions of national identity. “I came to recognize the ways in which the indigenous communities, predominantly those in the north of Argentina, suffer—just as so many indigenous peoples all over the world suffer—in preserving their cultural identity and getting the recognition they deserve for their contributions to their society and culture at large,” she said. With her Fulbright experience lasting just eight months, Penn did not get to spend as much time with indigenous communities as she would have liked. Nonetheless, she returned to the U.S. with cross-cultural communication prowess and a strong sense of what her love of learning and passion for social impact would lead her to next.
“I’d always wanted to pursue having a business of my own, but through my experiences, I knew I didn’t want it to just benefit me,” Penn said. “I’ve always been the kind of person to ask, ‘Who else is this helping?’” Custom Tradition was formed with that question in mind. After conducting independent research, Penn traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and began to interact with more indigenous communities. It was in this region, in a smaller village called Magdalena Peñasco, where Penn met the women artisans’ collective that Custom Tradition was founded to support. By sharing the artisans’ work online to the global market, Custom Tradition is empowering the women—from right where they are in Magdalena Peñasco—to preserve their cultural traditions and identity. Having made it her mission to understand and serve this collective’s needs as they define them, with ambitions to expand and empower even more indigenous communities, Chisama Ku Penn and Custom Tradition are certainly living out Phi Beta Kappa’s key principles.
Learn more about Chisama Ku Penn and Custom Tradition at customtradition.com.
Joshua Pinckney is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where he received a degree in international relations and politics with an additional major in Hispanic studies and a minor in sociology. He was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa’s Upsilon of Pennsylvania chapter there in May 2021.