Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman stands outside the Refugee Artisan Initiative makerspace in Lake City. Photo by Carmen Hom

It is all because of a turquoise, cape chiffon dress, gifted and sewn by her grandmother.

Carried in Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman’s suitcase from Taiwan, to Saudi Arabia, and finally to America, it became a symbol of what inspires her everyday: the woman who made clothing for her family and community in Taiwan, showing the beauty of what is possible with just her hands.

Tung-Edelman is the founder and Executive Director of Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI). 

“Pronounced ‘ray,’ like a ray of sunshine,” Tung-Edelman smiles.  

Tung-Edelman will be honored with the Leadership in Business award at the International Examiner’s annual Community Voices Award fundraiser on Thursday, October 27 at Joyale Seafood Restaurant.

RAI is a nonprofit that trains refugee and immigrant women to sew in small-batch manufacturing, all while upcycling materials and diverting waste from the landfill. In other words, RAI is Seattle’s first environmentally-sustainable, socially-equitable nonprofit skill-training hub.  

A pile of burlap coffee bean bags from local Starbucks stores soon to be used in RAI projects; due to being unrecyclable, they otherwise would have been thrown away. Photo by Carmen Hom

Starting RAI was not planned in Tung-Edelman’s career as a clinical pharmacist, an occupation she excelled at for 25 years. But, the threads of the dream were always there.

“I just felt that there was something in creativity was missing,” Tung-Edelman says, “And I was kind of craving for something besides a profession that I know very well. Some people may call this your midlife crisis: What else can I be? Am I going to die as a pharmacist? Or are there other things that I can be helpful with, you know, in our community?” 

The tag of a tote that was repurposed from a used burlap coffee bean bag reads, “Handmade by Hpala, Immigrated from Myanmar; Seattle Made, Sustainably Crafted, Supports Refugees.” Photo by Carmen Hom.

In 2015 she decided to enroll in UW’s Fashion Certificate Program. At the time, Tung-Edelman was making clothes for her daughter (including tiny skirts for dolls) and wanted to take the first steps towards learning more about the business of fashion. At UW she learned about designing, branding, production, and marketing; she discovered that returning back to the classroom was transformative. She was surrounded by influential instructors and passionate people, all who led her to her revelations. For one, she saw the beautiful hand-made creations of the refugee women who her instructor was teaching how to sew. She also learned about the amount of textile waste that goes straight to landfills in the US — 85% — and was completely shocked. And most importantly, she realized that she saw herself in the women learning how to sew, and wanted to help. 

Tung-Edelman wondered if there was a way to create employment for these folks. As a fellow immigrant to the US, she understood how securing employment can feel like one of the first steps towards self-determination. But she pondered further — asking herself an even more complicated question — is there a way to create jobs, support her community, while doing so in an environmentally responsible way? And so, RAI was born. 

A production assistant prepares quantities of fabrics for the artisans. Photo by Carmen Hom.

RAI started with one artisan in 2017. Then one artisan turned into two, while neighbors told neighbors, and Tung-Edelman knew something had clicked. Today, RAI hosts about 17 women from six different countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Morocco and China.  They divert 5,000 pounds (equivalent of about 15,000 t-shirts) of textiles away from the landfill and into the hands of their artisans to create. The artisans have cumulatively produced 120,000 items since RAI’s inception. Tung-Edelman sees building RAI as a testament to her community. 

“This is my way of paying forward to my community, as an immigrant myself.” she explains, “If there’s a way I can make it easier for some of the folks, whether it be support, or where their skills are valued and they become self-independent and economically independent, I’m all for it.”

It’s Tung-Edelman’s goal to make RAI a place where women are given a voice. She wants RAI to not only be a place of economic empowerment,  but also where women are able to express their own advocacy and beliefs. From sewing masks for healthcare workers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to embroidering products with “Blacks Lives Matters” after the murder of George Floyd, Tung-Edelman wants the women to express who they stand for through the work they do.

At the entrance to RAI is a gallery wall featuring the artisans, with a photo of each woman, the country they immigrated from, and their sewing projects progress. Photo by Carmen Hom.
A preview of this year’s Christmas ornaments – made from 100% recycled or donated tassels, beads, string, and fabric. Photo by Carmen Hom.

There are four pillars that guide RAI: community, equity, skills training, and sustainability. However, rather than seeing these pillars as separate, Tung-Edelman sees the pillars as fundamentally intertwined.

“We hit both social and environmental justice head-on,” Tung-Edelman states, “We are not apologetic for who we are. We think that a circular, equitable economy can go hand in hand. Why can’t we create more work while preserving and reusing the materials that we have?”

One of RAI’s biggest partnerships is with Amazon, who supplies the nonprofit with returned cotton bed sheets that RAI artisans turn into a line of healthcare scrubs. It was Tung-Edelman who approached Amazon; she visited the Seattle warehouse storing these returned, unsellable bedsheets and simply asked if they were going to do anything with them. 

“You know… sometimes just don’t be afraid to ask, right?” she says simply. 

In a partnership with the US Forest Service, a prototype of a tote bag is made from damaged fire hoses that have lost pressure. Photo by Carmen Hom.
A patchwork beach bag, made from a leftover concert banner from Climate Pledge Arena. Photo by Carmen Hom.

Although they have grown immensely in the last five years, there is a lot RAI looks forward to in the future. They want to continue to find partners who are as eager as they are to divert textile waste. They are renovating their Lake City makerspace, and are potentially looking to host a satellite location in the South End. They have a goal of training 100 refugee women and helping them secure employment. 

However,  what stays the same is the community she wants to cultivate. 

“I think if nothing else we provide a safe and welcome place. For you to know that when you come, you’re not here just for the monetary exchange and your skills, but there’s a community here, actually, that cares about you.” 

Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman smiles next to her grandmother’s handmade turquoise dress, always at the front steps of RAI, and always the compass she looks towards. Photo by Carmen Hom.

In 2022, the International Examiner will hold our Community Voice Awards gala in person and online, on Thursday, October 27, 2022. Every year, we honor people and organizations who have shown leadership and who have had a positive impact on the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. We plan on holding it in person at Joyale in Chinatown-ID, where a 10-course dinner will be served! There is also an option to attend the event online.

We are excited to announce our 2022 CVA Honorees: Theresa Fujiwara (Lifetime Achievement Award), Maiko Winkler-Chin (Leadership in Community Development), Refugee Artisan Initiative – Ming Ming Tung Edelman (Leadership in Business), Drag and Drop Creative (Leadership in Arts), and Starla Sampaco (Tatsuo Nakata Leadership Award). Special Recognition will go to Kerry Taniguchi, Matt Chan and Gary Iwamoto.

You can buy tickets for either virtual or in person here.

If you would like to sponsor this year’s Community Voice Awards, a full range of sponsorship levels are available to fit your budget. You can find all the details here.

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