LETTER FROM THE FOUNDER
Hi! I’m Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman. I founded the Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI), and MiMi Globe Goods non-profit organizations in 2016 in Seattle, Washingon, because my passion is to help refugee and immigrant women in the United States to build a better life for their families. All of the profits from our sales go directly to our wonderful women workers.
My concern for refugees began with my own experience – I was an immigrant from Taiwan myself, 32 years ago. I was able to get an education, become a pharmacist, and give my kids a great life. As recent crises around the world brought have brought more refugees to our shores, I wanted to do something to give back and find a way to help these new arrivals achieve financial independence.
While wearing a fashionable fabric necklace home from a trip to France in 2015, I received many compliments and questions about how to buy pieces like it.
From that inspiration, the RAI line of fabric jewelry, was born. I got a chance to put my fashion certificate from the University of Washington, and my love of fashion, to work for good. Our non-profit company uses recycled/upcycled materials, and trains women artisans to assemble all of our beautiful pieces. Each one is unique and handmade, and sold at refugeesarts.org, and at local stores.
Soon thereafter, it became clear that supporting these women was the core of our non-profit, and producing the jewelry was just one outlet to do so. So, I formed the Refugee Artisan Initiative with a talented Board of Directors to help us reach our broader goals. The artisans make items for our own RAI label, or custom items for other companies under their brands (small-batch sewing manufacturing).
OUR PILOT PROJECT
The first group of immigrants to craft our products were from Bhutan, and based in Tukwila and Everett, Washington. They began by making fabric flower necklaces, which were then expanded to earrings, barrettes and bracelets.
The first woman hired was Toma. She was disabled by polio, which she contracted during her 20 years in a Nepalese refugee camp. It was difficult for Toma to commute to work or stand for long periods. Furthermore, as the oldest of 7 children, she was needed at home to help her mother care for younger siblings. We helped her provide for her family by creating beautiful jewelry at home. When Toma got married and moved to St Louis, Missouri in December of 2016, she referred her two good friends Rekha and Ananda. She still phone coaches our two new artisans whenever they have questions.
Helping immigrants like Toma develop new skills and have sustainable home-based employment improves the lives of their entire families. There are currently no other organizations in the Greater Seattle area focused on training immigrant women in home-based jewelry making.
Toma was a student at Muses Seattle sewing school program for US immigrants when we hired her. We support students in this program by hiring them after their training. We hired two new artisans in Spring of 2018 – Rahel and Salen, and we furthered their training.
After Toma and two additional artisans learned the fundamental sewing skills taught by volunteers, our beautiful jewelry and accessories were flying off the shelves at nearly a dozen local retail outlets and museum gift shops in the Seattle area. These included: the Chihuly Glass Museum Store, Ten Thousand Villages, Volunteer Park Conservatory, Wing Luke Museum Shop, the Cathedral Shop at St. Mark’s, Satsuma Designs, Retroactive Kids, Drizzle & Shine, and more.
We were honored to receive the Audience Award at the 2016 NW Business Impact Pitch Competition. Later that year, we won the Social Innovation award at the Seattle University Business Plan Competition and were invited to participate in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Holiday Giving Marketplace in 2016 and 2017. We also made the final round in the Social Venture Partners (SVP) Fast Pitch competition in 2018, and we made alternate in 2017.
In 2018, we have already contracted with 5 companies for small-batch sewing manufacturing.
ECO-FRIENDLY & FAIR-TRADE PRINCIPLES
As part of the Refugee Artisan Initiative, we:
- Hire and train immigrant women with sewing skills.
- Enable artisans to work from home in an enterprise that needs little space.
- Help women overcome language, transportation, and cultural barriers to employment.
- Pay the Seattle-mandated minimum hourly wage.
- Use recycled and repurposed materials, so our goods are easy on the environment.
- Treat workers as collaborative and creative partners.
- Help provide inroads for immigrants to enter into mainstream American life.
GROWTH & EXPANSION PLANS
We want to provide our artisans even more opportunities by giving them new skills, and utilizing their existing skills from their home countries.
We aim to grow from supporting 5 artisans in 2018 to at least 50 by 2021. To do that, we will be focusing efforts on our small-batch sewing manufacturing service. In addition, we will be adding new retail product lines, selling in more retail outlets, and adding new industrial-grade equipment and training for more efficiency and higher quality outputs.
Our long-term goal is to replicate our model in major cities around the U.S. that have large immigrant populations.
Since we provide free tools and training to our artisans, including sewing machines, we need donations to grow and get more women started creating and earning. We don’t want them to incur any startup-costs, as many refugees already face the financial pressure of repaying high travel and resettlement fees.
If you love our designs and share our passion for welcoming refugees and new immigrants, please donate to us and sign up for our newsletter so you can be updated on our progress. Or, contact us to discuss wholesale and collaboration opportunities.
The Refugee Artisan Initiative is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization (tax identification number 82-0961407) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.