It was just a year ago when Refugee Artisan Initiative’s (RAI) six artisans rapidly switched their handmade jewelry and clothing operation to make boxes brimming with cloth masks. In April 2020, COVID-19 had shut down the United States and Washington State hospitals were strained. There was a shortage of personal protection equipment like N95 and disposable masks that had to be reserved for healthcare professionals. Though the debate about whether to mask up was in high gear (and continues to be), to RAI founder and Executive Director Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman it was clear that masking up was not just a precaution but a responsibility.
With a background in biology and a part-time job as a pharmacist, Tung-Edelman could see the pandemic looming even before official lockdowns silenced roadways and sent cities into isolation. When the PPE shortage became apparent, Tung-Edelman saw an opportunity for RAI’s artisans to respond to an urgent local need. It was a “perfect storm,” she said of the mask shortage and COVID-19 precautions meeting the specific skill set of RAI’s artisans.
The game plan was to pivot from making articles of clothing and jewelry to making cloth masks, thereby providing an alternative to disposable masks that needed to be rationed for healthcare workers who would be in close contact with COVID-19 patients.
“We were able to provide what was really needed in the early part of the pandemic from metro drivers to folks experiencing homelessness,” Tung-Edelman said.
Diba, Adiba, Yalda, Pri, Hpala, and Inzali, who made up the collective at the time, made over 80,000 hand-sewn masks in 2020. By May alone they had sewn over 15,000 masks for bulk orders from King County Metro and City of Seattle. They also donated masks to front line workers both in Seattle and New York City during the height of the COVID-19 surge in the spring of that year. Finally, the artisans also created masks that could be ordered through the RAI website.
Everything RAI makes is upcycled. They collect and upcycle local materials to give the scraps — whether cotton bedsheets or fleece strips — new life.
“We already had the materials in Seattle, it was right in our own space to be able to provide what’s very needed at the time and really elevate the needs of the women’s skill,” said Tung-Edelman. “It made me realize that our strength really is to be nimble, being able to pivot and [meet] the needs of the community.”
Tung-Edelman started Refugee Artisan Initiative in 2016 to provide immigrant and refugee women job skills and training that could be the key to financial independence as they made a new home for themselves on foreign shores. Throughout the first four years of RAI’s operations, the artisans made clothing and jewelry with upcycled materials that could be easily assembled, while also learning the skills and techniques of sewing and jewelry making. When RAI shifted to making masks last year, Diba, Adiba, Yalda, Pri, Hpala, and Inzali were the only ones on the team.
A year later, that number has doubled to twelve women hailing from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Morocco. In the last several months and with increased capacity, RAI has identified new community needs and gaps that the artisans can help fill with their skills and training. For instance, due to a supply chain shortage, medical scrubs are in short order, and currently the twelve artisans are going through a six-week scrubs certification program.
Tung-Edelman said that there are detailed measurements and specifications for medical scrubs and that uniformity is especially important when creating the garment. The artisans are learning how to make two different types. The first will be sustainable scrubs made from recycled bed-sheet materials. The second will be custom scrubs that can be tailored to the needs of medical institutions looking for locally sourced scrubs. The training takes six weeks and, at the end, artisans receive a certificate that can be used to find jobs elsewhere.
One of the outcomes Tung-Edelman has for the scrubs training program is that it can be a source of resistance to the current increase in anti-Asian discrimination by equipping Asian refugee women with the skills for entrepreneurship and safely procured income. RAI’s Stop Asian Hate campaign aims to finance twenty more women to complete the training program.
Tung-Edelman herself is from Taiwan, and many of her artisans are from Asia as well. “It doesn’t matter that I am in health care and help making all these masks,” she reflected on the personal nature of anti-Asian violence and bigotry. “The way I look — I can be targeted.” Instead of feeling disheartened, the RAI team wanted to do something that would counter the fear roused by recent attacks on Asian Americans. By equipping Asian women with concrete skills, they will have opportunities for employment that do not exploit their vulnerability as immigrant and refugee women who are still acclimating to a new culture and system. Tung-Edelman hopes the concrete skills and opportunities for entrepreneurship and creativity provided by RAI can give the women a safe source of job stability and means to take care of their families.
The Origins of Refugee Artisan Initiative
Tung-Edelman’s grandmother was a seamstress in Taiwan. Equipped with her sewing machine, needles, thread, and reams of fabric, the grandmother raised two children, including Tung-Edelman’s mother, as a single parent. Whenever Tung-Edelman would visit her grandmother, the whirring sound of the sewing machine would welcome her.
“She made a huge impression on me, knowing that this lady with not much education [was] able to raise a family based on the skill she had,” said Tung-Edelman.
Her grandmother cemented a love of art, fashion, and creativity in the young Tung-Edelman that informed her own eventual foray into clothing design and now RAI. But as the oldest child in the family, she chose to study biology in college and become a pharmacist, a pathway that would bring financial stability for the family. It worked out well, because Tung-Edelman enjoyed being able to connect with and help people as a pharmacist. She still works at a pharmacy once a week while running RAI.
It has been thirty-five years since Tung-Edelman moved to America as a teenager to study. Six years ago, Tung-Edelman felt a yearning to balance both the “right and left brain.” She had always loved the designs, patterns, and fabrics of fashion and jewelry. This love intersected with a very practical need that had come up in her life. Tung-Edelman’s daughter had an eclectic fashion sense and refused to wear mass-produced clothing from stores like the GAP. So Tung-Edelman enrolled in the University of Washington’s fashion certificate program where she could satisfy her desire to create and also design custom clothes for her daughter.
At the time, one of the certificate program’s course instructors was also teaching Bhutanese refugees how to sew. Tung-Edelman wanted to start helping. After a trip to France, Tung-Edelman came back wearing a striking fabric necklace, receiving compliments everywhere she went. Then it hit her that these fabric necklaces would be easy designs for beginner seamstresses and suggested the idea to her instructor.
After being introduced by her fashion course instructor, Tung-Edelman started training just one woman who lived in Tukwila. Accessibility and transportation were not easy for this woman who was left with a disability after contracting polio as a child in Bhutan. In her early twenties, she was the oldest child of seven and was helping her mother take care of the entire family.
Tung-Edelman traveled south to Tukwila every week, bringing materials and small tools that would be easy to store. Word spread in the neighborhood that someone was coming to teach sewing skills. Soon, Tung-Edelman started working with other women in the neighborhood and the Bhutanese community and realised they were eager to sell their final products.
These were the grounds on which the Refugee Artisan Initiative officially began. In 2016, RAI became an official non-profit where artisans were not only trained in sewing and crafting skills but were also encouraged to create their own marketplaces, projects, and designs to sell online and at stores around the Puget Sound region.
A Fabric of Social Responsibility
One of the stand-out qualities of RAI’s model is how social responsibility permeates every layer of their operations. From using upcycled fabric and materials to making sure that artisans have the support they need to learn and independently grow their own talents and interests to advocating for refugee women — RAI’s framework incorporates principles of sustainability, local community networks, and resilience. Tung-Edelman says that as many of her artisans build their portfolios and even study to become accountants, etc., she also hopes RAI can be a place where artisans can bring their skills and lead new cohorts of women.
In fact, one of RAI’s artisans is studying to be an accountant, and Tung-Edelman hopes that the women like her might be able to bring their skill sets back to RAI, taking on leadership positions and growing the organization to empower even more refugee and immigrant women. Although empowerment, Tung-Edelman feels, is a somewhat outdated idea.
“We don’t use the word ‘empowerment’ anymore — it’s more about partnership with them to help them integrate in a way that is inclusive and welcoming. Hopefully they are gaining skills and doing small batch and other handcrafted goods and [are] able to be self-sufficient,” said Tung-Edelman.
The RAI community is warm and tight-knit like a family. At their physical gathering space in Lake City, the artisans can come in to get materials, attend trainings and tutorials on new projects, and often share homemade food as well. (Tung-Edleman said these activities are less frequent during COVID-19 and happen only in accordance with social distancing guidelines.) In the early days, Tung-Edelman would visit artisan’s homes and attend birthday parties and family milestone celebrations. But now with more administrative and planning work, Tung-Edelman has hired two people to help with operations and training. She still makes it a point to catch up when she can.
“I always thought we are here to help them but they wanted to show help and appreciation [just] as much,” said Tung-Edelman. “That really mirrors my purpose and I have the opportunity to work with them and get to know their culture and their dreams and maybe we [RAI] can be a part of that.” Since day number one, RAI has functioned on a circular economy model, where local scrap materials can be used to make something new by local artisans. The final products — like masks and scrubs — directly contribute to needs and gaps in the community. This model can allow the artisans to be responsive to what a community needs in a specific moment and then shift quickly.
For example, RAI’s next project is a partnership with local animal shelters who are preparing for an influx of pets whose owners may not be able to take care of them anymore as offices reopen and people have to return to in-person work. RAI plans to make sustainably sourced pet toys that can provide comfort and solace to pets as they go through the hard, traumatic process of being surrendered and sent to shelters.
The COVID-19 crisis of the past year showed that RAI’s artisans are in a position to make products that directly benefit the local community in ways that positively impact public health and well-being. Specifically, making masks allowed RAI to consider responding to other crisis-based needs, like the lack of warmth and protective weather gear for homeless individuals who are staying at a camp in Lake City just half a block away from RAI’s physical office.
“A lot of designers are making beautiful things. We are more on the side of being nimble, creative, practical — making things that people actually need and want,” said Tung-Edelman. “We may not be the cutest boutique. It’s more about responding.”
📸 Featured image: Ming-Ming Tung Edelman (Photo by Alex Garland for the Gates Discovery Center’s Enduring COVID-19: Stories from our Transforming World)