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Meet Refugee Artisan Initiative: Transforming Refugees Into Self-Sustaining Artisans, One Sewing Machine at a Time

Posted by Jonathan Heuer

Can a sewing machine change someone’s life? Hsu-Tsu Chang was a single mom with 3 kids living in a village in Taiwan. She supported her family as the sole breadwinner, using her a sewing machine and her skills as a seamstress. Inspired by her example, Chang’s granddaughter Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman is transforming the lives of women from around the world with her organization Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI). She helps refugees build on skills they already have while creating and building a local market for jewelry and other goods. Tung-Edelman (grinning 2nd from left) with her mom (right) and grandmother (center), who sewed all the clothes in this photo.

Starting in 2017, the RAI has developed a program to give refugees in King and Snohomish Counties the training and tools they need to have a sustainable income. These artisans are women from all over the world, including Bhutan, Ethiopia and Hong Kong. Many are stay-at-home moms, so for them home-based employment is a key element of the program. RAI also provides them with a market for the goods they create, both through their online store and at numerous brick-and-mortar venues such as the Chihuly Museum gift shop and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Annual Giving Market.

“We are able to pay the artisans at least 75% of the wholesale price for everything they make,” says Tung-Edelman. “They are hungry for work- our role is to provide them with machines, training, and a market for their goods.”

Upcycling fabrics and other materials into jewelry and other goods is another key aspect of RAI’s program. The garment industry only recycles a tiny fraction of the material it uses. The organization takes in fabric and other donated materials, and artisans transform it into jewelry, napkins, tea towels, and other goods.

RAI has seen a great response for their artisans’ wares. More than a dozen stores in Washington and Oregon carry their goods. One of their enthusiastic partners is Eileen Fisher, whose Renew stores carry RAI jewelry. Eileen Fisher has a “take back” program which gives customers store credit when they return used clothes. RAI’s artisans take some of these clothes and upcycle them into jewelry and other goods for sale. “The only jewelry for sale in our store comes from RAI,” says Megan Arnaud, manager of the Seattle Eileen Fisher Renew store. “Our customers love being able to support partnerships like this. We think it is terrific that Ming-Ming is helping these women become their own business people.”

The Eileen Fisher partnership is part of a new phase for RAI. The organization is evolving to both serve more refugee artisans and become a self-sustaining organization. “There is a big appetite for small-batch, locally-made, and eco-friendly artisan goods,” explains Tung-Edelman. “Our artisans are perfectly situated to fulfill this demand by earringsshoppers who want beauty and social impact when they spend their money.” Just in the last few months she has newly partnered with Finder Goods, Bright Costumes, and Prairie Underground, who will utilize the RAI artisans to craft goods for sale at their stores.

As RAI evolves, the new demands on her organization have inspired Tung-Edelman to compete in 2018 SVP Fast Pitch. She’s honing her pitch this fall, seeking funds to support RAI’s expansion in a few areas:

  • Professional project management, to help coordinate her dispersed artisan workforce who stretch from Kent up to Everett.
  • Capital to buy sewing machines and jewelry-making equipment for her artisans. For most of them, this is the single biggest barrier to entry.
  • Video training for her team. As a remote workforce, they cannot rely on a coworker or a supervisor at a nearby table to show them how to create a piece. Videorecorded demonstrations will enable them to keep quality high and consistent.

Along her journey, Tung-Edelman has been mentored in the 2017 season by Dirk Van Velsen of Prison Scholar Fund, who won the 2015 SVP Fast Pitch startup nonprofit category. During the 2018 SVP Fast Pitch season she is also benefiting from coaching by Fast Pitch coaches, Mikaela Kiner and Tove Hoyer. A win at the SVP Fast Pitch Final Showdown will help her achieve RAI’s goal of a tenfold increase in the number of artisans on the team over the next three years and supplying them all with machines to work on.


Stay tuned to see more from Ming-Ming and our entire cohort of innovators.

Finalists will be announced October 17! Tickets on sale now. 

Heuer_2018Jonathan Heuer handles marketing and product management for his home maintenance company HomeSquare. His passion is creating and helping others achieve their vision. He’s volunteering the SVP Fast Pitch marketing efforts this fall.

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