Washington state is one of the top 10 states for refugee resettlement in the United States, and the Puget Sound region is home to thousands of refugees. Among the Seattle-based nonprofits dedicated to protecting and empowering this population, entrepreneur Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman combines craft, sustainability and fashion through founding an organization that provides an opportunity for immigrant refugee women to earn fair wages from home: The Refugee Artisan Initiative.
“I have always been balancing my left and right brain: the analytical, the precise, as well as the part that allows me to be creative,” Tung-Edelman said as she explained her career transition from the healthcare industry to creative entrepreneurship. After studying to become a pharmacist at UC San Diego, she pursued a fashion certificate program at the University of Washington.
She still maintains both careers today as a pharmacist and as the CEO of the Refugee Artisan Initiative. As someone who is naturally drawn to helping others with compassion, Tung-Edelman has explored every avenue of her ability to make an impact in her community.
Tung-Edelman’s idea for the Refugee Artisan Initiative came to fruition in 2015 through her connections in the fashion certification program. She was connected to students at Muses, a fashion studio with a similar mission to empower women in Seattle from all over the globe through apparel manufacturing and design.
After recruiting a student, the process began. Based on a fabric necklace she had gotten in a trip to Europe, Tung-Edelman began designing prototypes of various pieces of jewelry sourcing used fabric to upcycle.
Since then, the organization has been making waves in the business sphere having won the Social Innovation Award at the 2017 Seattle University Business Plan Competition and the Audience Award at the 2016 Northwest Business Impact Northwest Pitch Competition.
Now, RAI has recruited five full-time artisans who work from home. With materials, equipment and training provided by volunteers, these women craft products including intricate beaded necklaces, unique button covers, delicately crafted floral earrings and reversible pot holders cleverly designed to accommodate round bowls for MiMi Globe Goods.
In a city that values the intersection sustainability, ethical manufacturing and social justice, Seattle is a great home for RAI to thrive. MiMi Globe Goods products are delivered to fair-trade and art-centric retailers in the area including Ten Thousand Villages and the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum.
Though RAI is centered around production, sewing skills are not the only takeaways for the artisans. Through this process, they further develop transferable skills in communication, technology and business. “We’re giving a way to help them succeed from skill sets, a venue to sell, and hopefully they can learn from the program and continue working for us and find other ways they can have their own business,” Tung-Edelman said. “The mission is to empower women to become self-sufficient.”
Part of her passion for this mission is fueled by her personal narrative. Tung-Edelman immigrated to the U.S. three decades ago with her family, and her journey took her from Taiwan to Saudi Arabia, and eventually to California. After adjusting to a handful of different cultures, Tung-Edelman has experienced the overwhelming breadth of barriers that come with adjusting to a new life.
“I understand the challenges of a newcomer coming here, having to learn a new language and learn the culture so I know that it does take some time,” she said. “All of a sudden, your daily life has to be transformed and you have to adapt to this new culture.”
She explained that accessibility to the workforce, especially for immigrant refugee women, can be limited by overlapping factors. For example, families who do not have access to cars result in dependence on public transportation, and additional language barriers may make it difficult to navigate the metro system. Availability may be affected by the lack of affordable childcare in the area, creating the need for one parent to stay home. If childcare responsibilities fall on the women of the household, this limits their abilities to contribute to the household income.
By having the opportunity to earn fair wages from home, the women in the Refugee Artisan Initiative can combat the harsh realities of accessibility restrictions.
In the future, the Refugee Artisan Initiative has plans to expand not only the production and radius of distribution, but the skill sets of the artisans as well. “We want to think big,” Tung-Edelman explained.
“We don’t want to see [the artisans] as just a producer, I think that would be a failure of the program. I feel that there’s a lot more these folks can offer, and we want to be sure they have the tools to make it happen.”
She hopes to see the initiative run by the refugees themselves, and have the model replicated in other big cities with large immigrant refugee populations. For now, the organization is focused on expanding their reach with volunteers as the number of artisans increases. “We know our job is really to empower them,” said Tung-Edelman. “We want to make sure these women are valued, that they are welcome into the program, and that they are welcome in Seattle.”