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Garments have story, speaker tells DWU audience

Kelsey Timmerman delivers the Stark Lecture on Thursday at the Sherman Center on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus in Mitchell. He spoke about his quest to learn how clothes are made all over the world. (Chris Huber/Republic)

"Who wants to see my underwear?"

That odd question was the first thing author Kelsey Timmerman asked more than 100 people at the start of the Stark Lecture on Thursday at the Sherman Center on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in Mitchell.

Timmerman then displayed a pair of underwear -- not the pair he was wearing, but one he brought along. It was that very pair of underwear that led him on a global journey to find out where his clothes were made, and to meet the people who made them.

Building on his travels, Timmerman wrote the book "Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes."

One of the places Timmerman's underwear took him was Bangladesh.

"I told my translator upon arriving that I was a journalist who wanted to do a story on the undergarment industry," Timmerman said. "My translator talked to a man from the industry and then turned to me and whispered, 'You are an undergarmet buyer here to make a large purchase.' "

The ruse worked, and soon the undergarment seller was holding up a pair of sea-foam-green ladies' underwear that he wanted Timmerman to buy in a large quantity.

While it was underwear that took Timmerman to Bangladesh, it was a T-shirt with the face of the character Tattoo from the 1970s television series "Fantasy Island" that brought him to Honduras.

"I think I really went to Honduras for adventure, but it ended up to be something more than that," Timmerman said.

Upon arriving at the factory where the T-shirt was made, the armed guards seemed less impressed with his journey than Timmerman was. So he waited until the workers' shift was over.

"As I saw the hundreds and hundreds of people leave the factory after their shift, I realized I wanted to meet them. I want to find out how they lived, and it kind of clicked for me," Timmerman said.

After Honduras, a pair of Levi's jeans brought him to Cambodia, where he saw a jean-making factory.

"It takes 85 people to sew one pair of jeans," he said.

One of those 85 was Arifa.

"Arifa is a single mother who has three children, and she makes $24 a month," Timmerman said. "To give you some perspective, a months' worth of just rice cost $15 in Cambodia."

While conditions seemed bad for workers in those factories, it was a trip to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh that really gave Timmerman some perspective.

Timmerman saw hundreds of people wading through garbage at the dump in hopes of finding recyclables to sell.

"Most adults got around $1 a day for long hours and hard work," Timmerman said. "Then I saw the children doing the same thing, and found out they make around 25 cents a day.

"I couldn't help but think these kids would be better in a sweat-shop. At least they would make more money and conditions would be better. Obviously, child labor is bad, but it's not as black and white as what we think it is."

That trip to the dump was the most eye-opening of Timmerman's travels.

"I looked into the eyes of those adults, and you could tell they had lost all hope, there was just a cold stare," he said.

Toward the end of Timmerman's lecture Thursday, he encouraged the audience to take action.

"With great power comes great responsibility," he said, attributing the quote to the Spider-Man movie series.

He encouraged the audience to take a "glocal" approach, a word he uses to describe a combined global and local focus.

"Go travel," Timmerman said. "It will completely open your eyes, and I have found the world is a much less scary place than what everyone makes it out to be."

Timmerman said in an interview after his lecture that he tries to give the kind of speech he wished someone would have gave him in college.

"When I was in college, I played a lot of Madden on the PlayStation, and I didn't volunteer and I didn't give back," he said.

"So I want them to be engaged when it comes to how they are consuming, whether it be clothes or food -- just think about what impact that might have on other people around the world."

The Stark Lecture Series began with Dr. Franklin Stark, a DWU alumnus who endowed money to the university to bring authors, leaders, politicians and other speakers to campus.