Several weeks ago, someone called and asked if we needed donations for our "sewing circle." I responded (eagerly) that we always take fabric pieces that are one yard or larger and come from a non-smoking home. I was happy to inform her where to bring the fabric, however I resisted the urge to correct her characterization of our program. I could understand her confusion. A group of women getting together to sew might conjure up an image of happy homemakers gathering to pass the time or indulge in a hobby. Maybe the image is a group of grandmothers stitching blankets for babies or quilts for the homeless. It's been one year since this program began, so I thought it might be time to clear the confusion about RiSE. We are not a sewing circle, a sewing ministry, or a sewing club. We're not coming together only for the purpose of a social outlet or looking to pass the time until the kids get out of school. All of that is good stuff, it's just not what we're about.
Rising Village's RiSE program has specific goals that wrap around our mission, which is this:
Provide local refugee and immigrant women economic opportunity in textile production through multi-level sewing classes, business training and a functioning cut & sew workshop.
Let's face it, sewing has an image problem. It often gets diminished and dismissed. My generation grew up in a complicated era for women. Society was transitioning from a large population of stay-at-home mothers who filled their days with domestic pursuits, to a culture where an increasing number of women were entering the workforce and demanding equal rights. Leaving the "housewife" image behind also meant leaving behind those domestic activities that were deemed inconsequential and unnecessary by a new generation of women and their daughters. My generation of daughters took Home Economics class in middle school or high school, but couldn't imagine long days filled with cooking, cleaning, or sewing. Especially sewing.
Full disclosure: I made a C in Home Economics class and I still don't sew.
But I've been watching something over the past seven years as we've moved Rising Village from working with single mothers in Ghana to working alongside refugee and immigrant women in Tulsa. Other cultures depend on sewing as a means of providing for their families, and when women are trained to sew, they are empowered. After a three-year apprenticeship in sewing, a woman in Ghana can begin a business and immediately be respected as a trained seamstress. In most places in the U.S. sewing doesn't offer that same opportunity. It's been reduced to hobby or crafting status while textile production has moved mostly overseas. We buy our clothes and other stitched products from faraway places and don't give any thought to who makes them. But what if we could bring more textile production to Tulsa and provide more choices for locally made products? What if sewing could be a legitimate career path that allowed for a person's skill and creativity to flourish?
In one year, there have been 51 women who have completed or are still in the RiSE program, and 30 women who will enter the program in September. They range in age from 17 to upper 50s. They are from Burma, Venezuela, Jordan, Congo, Peru, China, Mexico, Taiwan and Iran. These women are all eager to learn the skill and put it to use. Some want employment, others do not. We believe the social integration is important as well, so we don't limit our classes to women who are moving into income opportunities, but our mission remains the same. Language and cultural barriers should not keep refugee and immigrant women from earning income in safe and fair working environments. We're partnering with local businesses and professional sewists to find employment opportunities where the women and their skills are respected. We are also developing a Cut & Sew Workshop where our most skilled seamstresses can fulfill small batch production orders. Our grant from the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation allows us to purchase more industrialized equipment for training and production, and we're currently looking for a new location for our workshop, classes and training.
It's an exciting time for us, but also requires that we be clear about who we are and what we do. Although we're not your mother's (or grandmother's) sewing circle, we are grateful for all those women. They cheer us on, and keep us stocked in sewing supplies and fabric donations. And our trainers are all volunteers who bring expertise from decades of sewing. But we've got a mission, goals, and big dreams.
If you'd like to help us get there, we can provide you with a list of ideas to choose from. We can't do it alone, so let's link arms and empower women together.