Actor Sophia Bush is well known for her roles on Chicago P.D. and One Tree Hill, but she’s arguably just as recognized for lending her voice to a variety of social causes, from LGBT rights to empowering women in developing countries. This past summer, she focused on the latter, traveling to Uganda to collaborate on design collections with three ethical fashion brands: accessories line Akola, shoe wear company Sseko, and eco-friendly jewelry line 31 Bits. All three companies are based in Uganda and use a direct social impact model that reinvests profits into local women via employment, college scholarships, and community development projects.
Bush, 33, spoke with me about the power of ethical fashion, the products she created for each brand, and why Uganda feels like a second home.
TakePart: You had an immersive trip to Uganda and got to experience a number of communities that Akola, Sseko, and 31 Bits work with, including Jinja, Kampala, and Gulu. What insight did you gain from each region you visited and the communities you met with?
Sophia Bush: One of the things that comes to mind is how incredibly individual each place, company, and group of people is. I think that it can be relatively easy when you’re halfway around the world to say, “Oh, yeah, there’s these brands that work in Africa or these brands that empower women,” but it was so striking to see how each company has created their own sense of community, ethos, morale, and energy from the fact that each of their places is located in such a different part of the country. It was very cool to really feel the identity of each place through the companies and the women that I got to work with there.
TakePart: Akola is a nonprofit and jewelry brand based in Jinja, Uganda, and Dallas that employs women who are facing poverty and sex trafficking. All profits are invested into the women, providing them with fair wages, vocational training, and a holistic academy that includes health, wellness, and finance courses. For your collaboration with Akola in creating the Love necklace, what inspired your design?
Bush: When I got there, their designs were branching out from paper beads to interesting stones. I started laying out different options for stones, paper beads, mixed metals. I used the black paper beads that, when they’re finished, almost look charcoal grey, and these beautiful lava stones, incredible little hammered brass disks, and then I was looking at some really beautiful stones that they were getting from other parts of Africa. Rose quartz is a stone that, if you’re New Age–y at all, you’ve probably heard is supposed to open up your heart, draw in love. Whether you believe in that stuff or not, I actually think it’s interesting that all of these things that come out of the Earth have properties and energies. We actually had rose quartz sourced, and we put three rose beads on because one is for me and the women who actually made the necklace in Uganda, one is for all of the women in Dallas who work with Akola, and then one is for whoever’s hands it winds up in. It’s truly a thing that connects the maker and the packager and the wearer with love.
TakePart: Sseko is a socially conscious shoe wear and accessories brand that employs young women during the gap between high school and university for a nine-month period so they can earn money to attend college in Uganda. You have designed a pair of sandals for them that will be debuting in March 2016. What inspired you to collaborate with Sseko?
Bush: Sseko makes really beautiful shoes, and I actually wore their sandals and their Nomad Booties on my entire trip to Africa. For my collaboration with Sseko, it was such a cool experience going to their factory and watching the women who make them actually work on this heavy machinery. They told me a story about how when the ladies went to a factory in Uganda to train on the machines, all of the men there were laughing and said, “Girls don’t use machines like this. Women don’t do this.” And our ladies were like, “Yeah, OK, well, watch this.” And within two days, the head of Sseko had gotten a phone call from the gentleman running the facility asking if he could keep the ladies longer so they could teach his [male] employees how to use the machines with precision. I was like, “You guys are bending gender roles here. This is major, major stuff that is happening.” The ladies are obviously really excited about it, and I really love the work that they do.
TakePart: 31 Bits produces eco-friendly jewelry and provides economic opportunity for women in Gulu. For that particular collaboration, you created a necklace called The Storyteller. What’s behind the name and the collaboration?
Bush: I was asked on the trip by the ladies why my bio says “foodie, activist, storyteller.” They asked, “Why don’t you say that you’re an actor?” And I said because the whole point of being an actor is to tell stories about real people. For me, I know if I’m doing a scene and I’m aware that I’m acting, then the scene is blown. You have to truly be telling someone’s story in order for that experience to be meaningful, and so it’s sort of a personal choice in how I look at my career. I’m a storyteller, I’m a theater kid, and that wound up evolving into this conversation about how we tell meaningful stories and how we highlight things with our words and our energy that matter. So there I was in Gulu with all of these women, and after those conversations, they said, “Well, obviously that’s the name of your necklace,” and I was really flattered.
TakePart: What surprised you about experiencing Uganda or has forever changed your perspective from the trip?
Bush: It’s a really incredible thing to go that far away from the place that you call home and feel so at home. What strikes me whenever I travel somewhere so distant is that, really, we’re all just the same. Everyone is the same, and we want the same things, we dream in the same ways, we want the same things for our families and our children. It’s such a beautiful thing to be in a place with people that you might otherwise never encounter and realize that you’re all into exactly the same thing, you all like the look of the same sort of creation, and you laugh at all the same jokes. It’s just a really special thing to be reminded that we’re all just one great big collective.
TakePart: What do you wish people knew about Uganda that you don’t think they know or realize?
Bush: The thing that really frightens me most is the number of people who, when they found out I was going to Uganda, would say, “Oh, well aren’t you going to be at risk for Ebola?” And I was like, “Guys, it’s 3,000 miles away. Please keep up on the news story because, thankfully, the doctors working in those regions are doing incredible work and now everything is OK.” I had sort of lovingly said to a couple of people, “If someone in New York had bird flu, would you be afraid to hang out in California?” You sort of realize that when we’re not connected to communities that are far away, they can become jumbled together. They don’t stand out, they don’t have their own identities…being able to shed a little bit of light on the people and the place and the beautiful, incredible, kinetic energy and love and positivity that’s coming out of the region means the world to me.
Bush: For me it’s really, “Find the thing that sets your soul on fire, and then chase that.” Then I think you always know you’re doing the right thing.
TakePart: What is your holiday wish?
Bush: Especially given the current climate with everything that’s happening in the world, my wish, my hope, my prayer is that we do not start looking at one another as “the other.” We don’t need any more divisive energy in the world. We need to remember that we are one great big tribe and that we have to take care of each other. Because the people that are able to convince us that that’s not the case and that we don’t need to do that are the people that are damaging the planet and humanity and carrying out horrific terrorist attacks. Truthfully, the best way to combat that is to look at one another as being the same.