STITCHING CHANGE ONE WOMAN AT A TIME
In this latest episode of Listen, Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong talks to Rakmi Shaiza, the founder of Stitching Change, an enterprise based in Kansas City focused on empowering refugee women through fostering their own talent and creativity. The women who come to the organization are taught how to sew and knit as well as the financial skills needed to sell what they make. Stitching Change strives to be eco friendly and to provide joy and sustenance for women who have lost do much but have managed to show incredible strength and perseverance
Below is an excerpt from her interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.
Listen, Ladies (LL): I would love our listeners to hear a bit about your past. You grew up in Ukhrul in North East India. Can you tell me what type of area that is and what type of partsresonated with you today?
Rakmi Shaiza (RS): Like you said, I come from Ukhrul, situated in the state of Manipur, and I belonged to a tribe called Tangkhul Naga. To me, Ukhrul is the most beautiful place in the world maybe because I experienced a lot of wild and beautiful things growing up there. My home town is surrounded by beautiful mountains and rivers and lots of forest. One of the happiest memories that I have of my childhood is of groups of us going to one such forest and collecting wild flowers and wild berries in our free time. We also went to rivers to hunt for fish and water bugs. I think that those kinds of experiences and interactions with nature keep me alive.
The other side of growing up in Ukhral is that, in spite of all those magical moments, there were dark times. That’s because I grew up in the 80s, and Ukhral was hit hard by drugs and by AIDS. In the early 90’s we started to attend funerals for our friends, classmates, and relatives. All of the suffering and hardship I witnessed made me ask, “Is this all that life can offer to us? What can we do better? “ So right after high school I decided to commit myself to the community, building work.
LL: So how did you really start to form a community? How long did it take to find you knew and to feel comfortable here?
RS: Central Baptist Theological Seminary school is a small, very progressive school. And it a very community-minded school that supports women’s leadership. Immediately I was accepted and supported. The professors were really kind and quite willing to accept the way I think in terms of theology and women’s ruling the church and even ruling society. I had a very deep connection with them, and through their support I became much stronger. I have had a lot of self esteem issues, I always doubt myself, but when they started to listen to my voice and give a room for my voice and my ideas, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” Now Stitching Change can do those kinds of things. So Central Baptist Church is the place where I formed a pretty deep community, and today they are still very supportive of what I do.
LL: What was the seed that got Stitching Change underway, and how did the organization get started?
RS: I have always been passionate about helping women and creating relationships with women and girls. I am not saying that I don’t do that with men, but I guess I gravitate to working with women. I came to the United States in 2000, and in 2001 I was called to work in a non-profit organization in Kansas City, Kansas. I joined this centerin 2001, and in 2002 refugees from Asia started seeking our help in large numbers. When they started to come in their children were immediately assimilated in to the culture through school and through college. We had a lot of programs for the children, like afterschool programs. The men and the fathers and the brothers were able to get jobs. Even the young daughters who went to college or who spoke a little bit of English could find jobs. But I noticed that women with young children and women who were 60 and above got left behind. Yes, there are a lot of good organizations that help them with transportation, shopping, doctors’ appointments, and the like. They also have a program for classes for them. I was one of the staff who helped lead one of these programs for women, and every time we took them out shopping or to the classes, I could feel that they wanted more. These ladies are really smart people: resilient, creative. And they are so happy to learn about how to have conversations with you because so they can practice and improve their English. They were happy to do that, but I just felt deep down inside they wanted more.
I ended up asking them if they wanted to do something. I asked them questions such as, “What did you do before you came to the United States?” Some of them told me that they are farmers, some told me that they weave baskets, some told me that they knit, and some told me that they sew. So I started a knitting program in the center where I used to work. That project led to more story-sharing time, and I thought to myself every time I met with them, “Somebody needs to do some projects for these ladies.” I waited at least eight years for somebody to show up, and then as 2013-2014, approached I started to think about what else I could be doing. So finally in 2014 I left that organization and founded what would become Stitching Change. I started without any money, with just two old sewing machines and two volunteers (and myself). That is how we started.
LL: The women that come to you to sew or knit, they are not just making these things for fun. They are actually selling them, and you are helping them with that financial aspect. How does that work?
RS: Our mission is to empower them so that they can help themselves. We even teach knitting and sewing to those women who are interested in learning these skills but don’t have them already. We have 14 women who attend regularly and 20 who are enrolled. Those 14 women have been with us since almost the program’s beginning.
Another thrust of the organization is building a nurturing community—a place where uprooted women together with our staff and volunteers all come together, share ideas, and learn from one another.
LL: What kinds of things are they making? How are they sold?
RS: When our students first come we get all of their information, and we explain to them what we are doing here. We tell them this is not some kind of business or a company that is hiring a worker; rather, it’s an educational program. Once you learn, if you are ok and if you want us to, we will find a market for your items. So we explain to them our frontand we tell them some of things that they are going to make and some of the things that they are going to learn.
The first classes start with the basic sewing skills such as how to thread the machine and how to understand the different types of fabrics. We also teach them the names of the fabrics and of the tools in the machines. I am learning a lot, too! Those are our basic lessons. Once they are confident in them, we start with patterns that we make. The teachers show them how to cut and measure the designs. Then they go on to make their first item: a tote bag. After each person is done, our volunteers check their work for quality. We partner with four retail stores here in greater Kansas City, Kansas, including Ten Thousand Villages and Unique Finds. Two retailers in Kansas City, Missouri, also sell their products. That is how we are sustaining the program. My pledge is that I will not abandon them by saying, “Hey, you come and learn six months of sewing, and then you get this certificate and you go find a job.” They can do that if they have the resources, but many of them don’t. So we also will help finance. On the other hand, they are also free to tell me, “I am done after six months. I don’t want to be a part of this.” But he fact that they have been with us for almost five years now speaks to the very strong relationships and mutual bonds of trust we have formed. That is one of the most beautiful things I have learned.