Cynthia Davis is always in motion…she’s busy making things beautiful, and making beautiful things, she’s helping other people, she’s learning plant-based cooking and baking, she’s volunteering her time and her talents. So it can be hard to actually find some time to sit down and talk with her. I was lucky enough to do so recently at the Source Coffeehouse (if you’re in the area, it’s an excellent place for a relaxing beverage, and also has a Little Free Library to peruse). Here’s what we talked about.
Courtesy of Cynthia Davis
A Q&A with Cynthia Davis
Date: December 17, 2018
Occupation: decorative artist, founder of Our Woven Community
Hometown: Fairfield, Connecticut
Current town: Fairfield, Connecticut
Thanks for taking the time to meet with me and answer some questions, I really appreciate it. Can you tell me a little bit about Our Woven Community? What’s your “elevator pitch”?
It’s a program that helps refugee women to become more integrated into the community, through teaching them a craft and skill which enables them to sell products that earn them a supplemental income and helps them to be more financially self-sufficient.
And this is a program you founded?
Yes, I did, and over time my role has changed. It began in 2014-2015 as a pilot program I was developing with refugees for my Masters Degree and was in conjunction with the International Institute of Connecticut (now called Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, or CIRI). We partnered with the Burroughs Center, which had the space and the capacity to bring in volunteers. Burroughs eventually took it over, in 2016, with a program manager, space, systems, sewing machines. It’s still connected to CIRI, as most of the participants come through CIRI whose mission is also to help refugees become self-sufficient.
It’s a stepping stone, a bridge to self-sufficiency, they are acquiring skills and using them, and in the process they are learning how to communicate in a new culture.
Some benefits are peripheral, the women getting together, finding space together and gaining the trust of others. But the income and ability to make money is really key.
So what are the items that the group makes?
We’re up to 14 different items…all kinds of things: scarves, pillow covers, handbags, tote bags, neckties, laptop covers, change purses, glasses cases, cosmetic bags.
And how does it all work?
We have a wonderful, committed organization in the Burroughs Center and a fantastic program manager, Johana Rendon Ledesma, who keeps it together! Volunteers teach the women how to sew on the sewing machines at Burroughs and then the women earn a home sewing machine as they progress through training. Volunteers teach them one-on-one. We started with five women and of them, three of them are still with the program (one left to move to Idaho, another one got a job and had a baby). One of the original women was hired by Burroughs as an instructor, which is really great.
We initially founded it with the help of Evelyn Lowe, a volunteer sewing instructor who had been a school teacher. I used to have sewing machines in my car and she’d have bins as well. I’d be driving around with them all the time. We got donated fabrics, we were loading and unloading machines! We didn’t know what we were doing, but we started with one product, and Evelyn worked with the women to make a prototype of a handbag.
Now we have served over 20 women. The attrition we’ve experienced is due to people moving away or moving on (usually jobs and babies). We’ve also had over 40 volunteers teaching, cutting and sorting fabric, and helping at sales events.
Photo by Joel Isababi Nsadha; Courtesy of Burroughs Center
Where do you sell the merchandise?
At local craft shows, at juried craft shows. And at the local farmers’ market. We speak to community groups, like Kiwanis or Rotarians, and at events at libraries. In 2019 we plan to go online so we can sell to people anywhere. The logistics are complicated because it’s volunteer run, and each item is one-of-a-kind, but it will be great to have the women learning about photography, shipping, the back end of an e-commerce businesses.
Where can we get information about this?
It will be up on the Burroughs Center website when we are ready!
What’s been the best part of this project that you’ve experienced?
The connections. The communication, the community, and the friendship. Women supporting each other. They bring a lot into our lives, helping us to understand the hardships that people face, and the need to be supportive to those less fortunate, around the world and around the corner.
Courtesy of Burroughs Center
Do you work with other local non-profit organizations?
Yes, in the summertime we partner with the National Charity League, a group of moms and daughters who help us at events (they help with set up and break down, cut and sort fabric), and various school groups do projects. We get some college students to volunteer once a week when we meet, and retirees who have marketing, design, and non-profit experience. We have partnered with local retailers, churches, and synagogues who share in our mission or want to promote our products.
So when you are not volunteering, what are you mostly doing?
I’m a designer and decorative artist and have been for 25 years, mostly locally but around Connecticut and New York. I specialize in painted pattern finishes (which look like wallpaper). I also received my Master’s in 2015, and now do some non-profit business consulting as well.
Does your design work help inform the work for Our Woven Community?
Yes, there is a connection. The original Our Woven Community designs definitely have some of my colorful and eclectic textile influence, but the designs also come from the women and their culture, and now from the dozens of volunteers who help them design the products. An African fabric must be included in each item. (We make sure of that, it’s part of our quality control.) The initial women who participated are Congolese but now we have people from other countries: Burundi, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Eritrea…
My artistic part does help with the program, we talk about the textures, the colors. We’ve created a look, one that’s quite identifiable, but it has definitely been a group effort. The work we do is colorful, it’s representative of the cultures of the women involved. It brings joy to them to make these beautiful things, and it’s important that they are using part of their culture. Food, fabric, language…those are the basic things and they’re really important.
Courtesy of Burroughs Center
What is Our Woven Community’s price point for your work?
It’s very affordable. Our pieces are from $10 to $99.
What inspired you to get involved in this volunteer work?
In 2008 when the market slowed down and my business was slow, I first got involved with refugee work. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan gave a speech and that’s what inspired me to get involved in helping him raise money to build a school in his village in Ariang, South Sudan. In 2012, I traveled there and Gabriel Bol Deng (the school’s founder) and I tried to start a women’s cooperative business, but it was not able to get off the ground. It’s an understatement to say it is difficult to get a program set up in another country. It’s a complicated process and not necessarily the right role for a western volunteer. And there’s a need here. I got my Master’s degree in intercultural service and I decided to use those skills here at home.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
To lift others up, to not be proprietary. No secrets should be kept. Lift others up and the more successful you’ll be. It’s better to give a lot of information and help people to feel a part of something. Everyone has something to contribute.
If you could go back in time and do something over, what would it be?
Although I love my art and it is a part of me, if I could go back, I might have studied human rights law or public health. Sometimes I feel like these skills would enable me to have a greater impact.
How about the future? What are your goals and plans?
It’s been on my bucket list, but next year, I hope to get my yoga training certification so I can bring that healing to the women in Our Woven Community.
Courtesy of Burroughs Center
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m trying to live a more plant-based life style. Less waste, fewer animal products. We no longer use paper towels or Saran Wrap. I’m making healthy changes, cutting out things. My husband’s company, JD Events, along with our son, Ben, is running a plant-based expo at the Javitz Center next year.
Oh, and I raise chickens! I bring eggs to the women in Our Woven Community. Now I’m carrying eggs around in my car all the time.
It used to be sewing machines, and now it’s eggs!
I’m always carrying something around!
What’s the best and the worst things that have happened to you this week?
I was on a very turbulent flight last night. Someone was on oxygen right next to me, it was very scary.
But the best thing was that I was heading back from a trip to California. I got to see my daughter, the first time in three months I saw her smiling face! She’s an artist and an early childhood education teacher and we got to read to the kids!
That sounds great! Is there a book everyone should read?
Two books I’d recommend are Half the Sky by [Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn] and Infidel [by Ayaan Hirsi Ali]. Stories of women who have courageously escaped persecution and fought for freedom and independence.
Courtesy of Burroughs Center
One last question: is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! Our Woven Community! We are always looking for more volunteers, to help drive the women to the program and events, to help them sell their products, and cut, sort, and design. Also we are always looking for people who are local who might be interested in hosting an event. Or come and buy what we’ve made. You can contact Johana Rendon Ledesma at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about volunteering for Our Woven Community and our Instagram handle is @ourwovencommunity.
Courtesy of Burroughs Center
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com.
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Burroughs Center
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