Refugee Artisan Initiative: the power of resiliency and skills to transform lives
June 2020: RAI's recent pivot has made a big impact for frontline workers, as well as the lives of the sewers who have been able to participate in the relief effort.
Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman founded Refugee Artisan Initiative in 2016 to help refugee and immigrant women build a better life for their families. RAI hires and trains immigrant women with sewing skills, sets them up with home-based work, and helps build in-roads toward economic mobility.
Over the past few months, RAI’s work has quickly pivoted from developing housewares, jewelry, and even school uniforms to providing tens of thousands of masks for frontline workers. However, the pivot reflects an even bigger impact, on the lives of the sewers who have been able to participate in the relief effort, while providing for their families in an uncertain economy.
Community: Lake City and across Seattle
You are a pharmacist. How did you come to start the Refugee Artisan Initiative and why?
I have always loved fashion, even though I'm a pharmacist by training. So, a few years ago, I went to UW, for the certificate program for fashion and, through that, became really good friends with my instructor, Camille Dean.
She was teaching refugee women how to sew through this nonprofit called Muses. I told her that I had this really pretty necklace, made of fabric, and so many women had asked me where I had gotten it and suggested it as a project for the women in the program. She asked me to come talk to them. I made up a prototype, went to the class and explained, I don’t know how to sew, but this necklace is made of fabric and maybe you could make it to sell during the holidays.
When I was there, I noticed Toma in the classroom. She was limping. She’s from Bhutan and turned out she had had polio. I realized this would be perfect for her. She could work on at it at home, as a cottage craft business. I went to her home, took all of the materials, machines, and she made them for sale.
From that, we grew to having four women making jewelry, using donated fabric, and then selling them on our own. We were working with women, who were refugees, because this was a way for them to make an income, in this new country, where they weren’t otherwise able to find work. But, I kept wondering how I could make a bigger impact, how I could help the women make more income?
In 2018, we started offering small batch manufacturing and we were able to get a bunch of partners around Seattle. At the same time, the Children’s Home Society reached out to see if we needed space. So, we opened our space, so that we could begin offering trainings, workshops, and a donation option. We even launched a mending lab. We did anything we could to help build up an income for the women, so they could support their families.
What happened in March? What triggered this pivot for you when COVID hit?
We had just launched a partnership with Met Market, making kitchen products to sell in their stores. COVID had just hit, so I offered to make masks for them. And, within two days, they sold out and immediately wanted more.
And, at the same time, as a healthcare provider, I was struck that there weren’t enough PPE around and how could that be, in Seattle, in a land with so much abundance?
So, the very next day, I decided to launch my first Gofundme campaign. I had never done anything like that before but, it was like a perfect storm, combining my passion for working with women, my career in the medical profession, and the need for PPE. I just knew we needed it.
Two days into it, a radio host called me and said “I heard you’re making masks. I have someone who just called in, who said there’s a need for 1000 masks in Everett, at Kaiser.” We didn’t have any to give but I thought, let’s just see how many more we can make - we made 800 in 3 days.
And it just grew. We started making masks for the City, to distribute to people who couldn’t afford them. We made thousands for King County Metro, for their drivers. We learned to make children’s masks and made them for Children’s Hospital. We even started making mask kits, so people can make their own. And it’s not just Seattle, we’ve sent them to postal workers in Colorado and Michigan.
How many masks have you made?
And, how is the Gofundme campaign supporting that? It covers the wages for the women. All of the fabric we’re using has been donated.
You’re working with 12 women right now, where are they from?
They are from Burma, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Vietnam and China, Morocco.
Do you have a sense how the women feel participating in this effort to support this global effort, in their own community?
For many of the women, this work has been their first paycheck in America. This has helped them provide for their families. And for some of them, their husbands have lost work as a result of COVID. Now the roles have reversed and they can be the primary provider. It’s been exciting. We were able to pivot right away, to make the masks and PPE that our front-line workers needed, but it has also helped the women.
All the sewers are women. Are they also mothers? As a mother, who is now home with a school-aged child, I know that’s a lot to balance.
Julie, from Burma, she's a single mother with three kids at home. She'd been hoping to quit her job, working in sewing factory in Seattle. She lives in Renton and she wanted to be able to work with us full-time because, with kids at home she wants to be able to provide for them, without having to commute an hour each day or more.
It’s the same with other women. They were barely getting by. But, this work gives them flexibility. It pays them living wages. And, now they can help, by making the masks.
You have grown this organization so much over the past few years and, now with the pandemic, you’ve been able to pivot so quickly. Where do you think that capacity comes from in your organization?
I'm an immigrant myself. I came here when I was a teenager. I grew up in Taiwan and then lived in Saudi Arabia and moved a dozen times or more before I moved here. I had to pivot and change a lot through my own childhood, growing up with different languages, different cultures, different school systems.
So change is natural for me. I saw this moment as an opportunity and I saw it with a sense of urgency.
After all of that change in your own life, you’ve now been here in Seattle for a long time.
Yes, I really feel like I'm a real Pacific Northwest person. I feel very fortunate, to be in Seattle – it is very warm and welcoming, it is a city that accepts new people. Because I was accepted and I was able to make my roots here, be comfortable where I live, I thought, so why not give back?
Sewing was part of my upbringing. My grandmother was a single mother able to raise my mom and uncle as a seamstress, working from home.
So I understood from a young age, the power of building skills to really transform lives. And that been my motivation. It feels personal to me and I feel it's something that's achievable.
Especially now, with this disruption to our supply chain. In a way, it's a wake-up call, for our country to really focus on our local manufacturing and put an emphasis on training so that our workforce can be self-reliant.
What do you wish the government understood about your work?
Refugees only receive three months of support from our government and then they’re on their own. But, how hard is that? They don’t have the skills or the language – they don’t know what to do or where to go. And, then an organization like Refugee Artisan Initiative, gives them an opportunity. If they have a desire to be an entrepreneur, we help them get a business license. If they want to sew or learn a handcraft, we invite them to be part of it and to invest their future. We would like to think that the government would continue to support organizations like us, as a pathway for refugees to become self-sufficient through training, through connecting with job opportunities and helping to overcome all these barriers that prevent them from being able to participate in economic mobility.
None of us has a crystal ball but do you have a sense of where you will continue to dig in, as we head into the next year?
I feel like we’ve been able to turn a difficult time into something useful. I feel every morning I wake up with a purpose, a mission, with something to accomplish. Despite the pandemic, I feel hopeful. Whatever comes out of it, things will look different. But, we will all find a new path. Whatever your heart pours out to, that will determine what happens next. What resources do you have, where can you pivot? It might seem dark now, but there’s a rainbow at the end of the tunnel.
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