In ancient cities and villages, the marketplace was once people-based, a colorful, exciting meeting point marked by risk-taking and exposure to foreign ideas. So centrally did the marketplace once feature in human cultures that the word “ignorant” first described “one who did not go into the marketplace.”
When Matt Reynolds, cofounder of Santa Rosa’s Indigenous, entered the marketplace to sell clothing woven by artisans in poor countries, he was already steeped in marketplace wisdom learned from his father, a Stanford professor and progressive social economist passionate about the inequities between rich and poor.
“My father was an optimist,” says Reynolds. “He believed things could be better if we had the humility and patience to listen and accept points of view of other cultures.”
Not only was Reynolds’ own path influenced by his father’s optimism, but so was that of his cousin Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was slain last month in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.
“Chris said my father was influential in his decision to become a diplomat,” says Reynolds. “He encouraged Chris to follow his heart.” In turn, Stevens influenced Reynolds by exposing him to the land of ancient marketplaces, the Middle East. Reynolds says he found his calling on a nine-month journey that concluded with a visit to Stevens, then residing in Egypt.
“That trip was a huge part of the force that got me to leave mainstream America and jump into emerging markets,” says Reynolds. With fun-loving Stevens as guide, it was an action-packed visit that included snorkeling in the Red Sea and hiking up Mount Sinai under a full moon.
During the hike, Reynolds injured himself. “I cut my hand open and I was freaking out because I’d just arrived from Germany, and there I was in the middle of the desert, jet lagged and with no bandages or antiseptic,” Reynolds remembers. “But Chris said, ‘Don’t worry.’ He took out antiseptic and poured it on my hand.”
Reynolds was in awe of Chris’ preparedness and cool. But when the men stopped near the summit, Reynolds was taken aback to see his cousin open the antiseptic, pour it into a cup with some juice and take a big sip. “Chris said, ‘Matt, vodka is the best antiseptic.'” Reynolds recalls that experience as golden, drinking vodka cocktails on Mount Sinai with the cousin who would become the U.S. diplomat to Libya.
“He was a beautiful character, always cracking jokes,” says Reynolds. “He was a great listener and had an abiding passion for the Middle East. When people would bring up the dangers, Chris would tell them it was as dangerous as East Oakland. He loved the Middle East, and made many of us love it as well.”
On visits to the States, Stevens would stop by Indigenous and cheer on both Reynolds and cofounder Scott Leonard. “Chris was a big supporter,” says Reynolds. “I have a picture of him wearing our stuff in Jerusalem.” On the Indigenous website, product descriptions are outnumbered by references to marketplace justice and to the concept of literally wearing one’s commitment.
The paternal optimism bequeathed to son and nephew seems to permeate the clan, along with Stevens’ passion for that culture. The family bears no rancor toward Libya. It was Stevens’ adopted home, where he ate in cafes with Libyans and routinely ran for exercise in the streets. “He had guards with him,” says Reynolds, “but he wanted to be with the people. He really felt love for them.” According to Reynolds, Stevens is being revered by some as a hero of Libya.
In fact, a Libyan Muslim honored Stevens at a memorial service in San Francisco, underscoring an observation made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Chris won friends for the United States in far-flung places. He made those people’s hopes his own.” If Stevens’ own hopes live on, it may be in part due to the family optimism that in any country—or any marketplace—things can get better.
“We are just hoping some good will come of Chris’ death, that it helps promote understanding between Western and Arab worlds,” says Reynolds. “He was such an incredibly caring person, so respectful to everybody, and really trying to make a difference in the world. Chris inspired me in so many ways to follow my dreams. Dreams do come true. Good people are out there.”