Pauline Whitesinger, a Navajo elder, has suffered two life-changing insults that have left her in a dilapidated version of the house she grew up in near Big Mountain, on the western edge of the Navajo Nation.
But thanks to an innovative new concept in e-commerce, she may get $10,000 toward a new hogan, a round, traditional dwelling better suited to a grandmother of her standing.
David Mason is a former environmental attorney-turned-cabinet hardware dealer and the founder of cabinethardware.org. A convoluted path led him to his business. In a nutshell, he no longer wanted an office job, so he pursued a career in web-based commerce. Along the way he’s sold beds, and then cabinets, before he realized that cabinet hardware—strictly the hinges and knobs—were the hottest sellers. Along the growth curve, though, Mason hit a snag. He wanted to bring in more customers, but he realized he couldn’t do it with lower prices; the manufacturers in his business have created minimum pricing policies to stop dealers from undercutting each other. But Mason found a loophole: while he can’t charge people less for the hardware, he can donate a portion of each sale to a charity.
On his newest site, cabinethardware.org, Mason has decided that he’ll solicit stories of hardship that focus on a home-improvement or homebuilding need. Each time he gets a story that he and his staff deem worthy, he’ll feature it on cabinethardware.org. Anyone who visits the website—not just customers—gets to vote on the projects. As soon as a project earns 100 “votes,” in the form of clicks on a heart icon next to the hopeful recipient’s photo, Mason will offer that project as an option for his customers to fund with 10 percent of their purchases.
“There are just a few projects right now,” Mason said. “As the website gets better known, there are going to be more people submitting projects, and there are going to be more people visiting the site. I’d love it if there were 100 projects to choose from.”
Mason has never spent time on the Navajo Nation, but he heard about Pauline Whitesinger’s story from a white college kid living there who had learned of his search for projects. The student had gotten to know Whitesinger, and suggested her.
The cinder-block home where Whitesinger’s father grew up—and where she raised her own children—was subject to the Bennett Freeze, a 1966 federal government policy that forbade building or renovation on 1,500,000 acres of disputed tribal land. Though President Obama lifted the Freeze in 2009, recovery has barely begun due to limited funds and a pervasive inability of the affected people to overcome 40 years of the prohibitions.
On top of that, Whitesinger’s property also fell into the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, another heavy-handed government intervention that has tried to relocate Navajos, including many whose families have inhabited the land for generations, to resolve a territorial dispute between Navajos and the neighboring Hopi Tribe. Whitesinger has refused to leave, and as a result suffered further restrictions on improving her lot.
“Ever since then we’ve had no housing that was decent,” said Pauline’s daughter, Bonnie Whitesinger, in a video she narrated for the project. Vote for Whitesinger to win the grant at http://www.cabinethardware.org/relief-efforts/knobs-for-navajos/.
In both cases, grassroots Navajo activists accuse the government of buying into a territorial dispute that was dramatized by Peabody Coal to gain easier access to natural resources underneath the reservations. Whatever the motivations, the result has been insult and injury for people like Whitesinger. Her children have grown up and left the reservation. She lives alone in the cinder-block house, which has fallen into disrepair and filled up with a lifetime’s worth of stuff, to the point where she barely has living space.
Whitesinger’s situation is hardly unique. At last census, three percent of families affected by the Bennett Freeze have electricity and 10 percent have running water. Thousands live in substandard housing, some of it deemed unfit for human habitation. But Whitesinger’s story is the one that made it first to cabinethardware.org, where she has quickly become a favorite.
Mason foresees more projects out of the Bennett Freeze area; he plans to call this set of projects “Knobs for Navajos.” And alongside its potential to help people in need, Mason still hopes it will drive more customers to his site—and boost revenues.
“You can never get excited about cabinet knobs,” he said, “but you can get excited about helping a Navajo elder who’s trying to rebuild her home.”