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Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman

Refugee Artisan Initiative — Seattle, Washington

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Photo by Stephen Voss

I started the nonprofit Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI) in 2017 to help immigrant and refugee women professionalize their sewing talents and transform them into viable businesses that can thrive in the US economy. To date, we have served 40 artisans from countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Morocco, and Hong Kong.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Language barriers and cultural differences create challenges for refugee and immigrant women to apply their skills to create work opportunities.

Sewing is a universal language. At Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI), we help women use and improve the sewing and handcraft skills that many have already developed in their home country. The majority of RAI artisans are mothers with two to six children. RAI assists in connecting them with job opportunities to help support their families. In many cases, we help women receive their first personal paycheck in the U.S.

RAI welcomes women to the U.S. by providing training, a job with a living wage ($20 an hour), flexible hours and the ability to work from home. We are supporting women who face racial and gender barriers and/or may be targeted for exploitative jobs. RAI provides tools and support to help women develop microbusinesses that can grow. We provide support to each woman, from getting their business licenses and helping them set up bank accounts to connecting them with English classes and other services.

RAI also believes that social, racial and environmental justice go hand in hand, so we are committed to practices that support sustainability. We make many of our products from donated items, training women to use upcycled and recycled materials and paying them as they learn to create and refine product lines. ​Their sewing skills were critical during the COVID pandemic, when they made over 80,000 masks from clean, unused Amazon bedsheets to keep our community safe.​

The moment that sparked my passion

​As a child growing up in Taiwan, I was greatly influenced by my grandmother, who had no education but was able to support her children with her sewing skills after my grandfather died. Her resilience had a profound effect on my life, and I still have clothes she made for me 50 years ago. I learned that everyone needs to wear clothes and sewing is a critical skill for people in many countries, often out of necessity.

From firsthand experience, I know it can be very intimidating for refugee and immigrant women to come to the U.S., not knowing how to speak English or use a computer. Yet many of these women already know how to make clothing, which is something many Americans do not know how to do. 

After 25 years as a clinical pharmacist, I realized I had an opportunity to help refugee and immigrant women elevate their skills and feel empowered, and also to honor my grandmother. I knew I had found my calling.​​

What I wish other people knew​

There is always a fear of people coming into the U.S. from other places. Some Americans think immigrants are here to take our resources. The truth is, they want to contribute to society as much as any one of us. The women I work with have a strong desire to be useful and feel valued, but they don’t know how to make that happen. They need opportunities.

Why my approach is unique

​Our programs challenge the traditional workforce programs that assume women with no English skills and/or with many children have problems to “fix” through case management, language classes and an unpaid training. In contrast, RAI builds on the expertise and culture of artisanship many women already have and helps them transform those assets into microbusinesses and thriving careers in the U.S.

We pay women stipends when they need training and understand that they need flexible hours and the ability to work from home to care for children. We also reject the notion that environmental degradation is necessary for manufacturing. RAI has become a leader in the circular economy, diverting 5,000-plus pounds of textile waste from landfills each year and showing that environmentally friendly products can increase corporate bottom lines.​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

Sometimes when you want to make a difference, you feel like you need to do something grand. It’s better not to overthink it or you may talk yourself out of taking any steps toward your goal. My first step was bringing a sewing machine to a woman’s home and thinking that I might be able to sell a few things she made. Just by taking the first step, you’re already successful!

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