Weaving Together a Community

Published September 30, 2019

By: Mike Gluck

“They really took an in-depth look at everything we do and asked lots of questions to understand what we’re doing—and then understand how they can help the organization, make recommendations, refine things and make things better.”
Dawne Hoeg, founder and executive director, Stitch Buffalo

Buffalo is one of the top cities in the U.S. for refugee resettlement. Thousands of refugees come here to start anew after fleeing deadly wars, natural disasters, political upheaval and other life-threatening events around the world.

But what happens once they arrive?

The men go to work, the children go to school, “and the women get left behind,” says Dawne Hoeg, founder and executive director of Stitch Buffalo, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping refugee women.

Now, thanks to the UB Social Impact Fellows program, these women may have even more opportunities to move their lives forward to benefit themselves — and their families.

A warmer welcome to the City of Good Neighbors

Founded in 2014, Stitch Buffalo gives refugee women greater financial independence while also sharing some of their cultures’ artistic traditions and learning new life skills. The women learn how to make hand-sewn textile art products—including exquisitely embroidered peace pins and heart ornaments and custom embroidery—and then sell their work through Stitch’s online or physical store (on Niagara Street, on Buffalo’s West Side), or on their own.

The flexibility to work on their own schedule is crucial for refugee women. They need a dependable monthly income to contribute to their family’s success in the U.S., but may not be able to work in traditional jobs given their other responsibilities such as taking care of elderly family members or watching young children at home.

Thanks to a wealth of community support, including nearly two dozen passionate volunteers, these women can now attend workshops and get free supplies at the West Side arts studio, allowing them to earn more money for themselves and their families. But it’s the additional opportunities—including joining a supportive social network, developing new relationships, building their literacy and language skills, and expressing themselves creatively—that are truly priceless.

Partnering with UB

Stitch Buffalo contacted UB at a key turning point. The nonprofit was five years old and leaders wanted to take a step back and determine how best to organize the operation for efficiency, help the women they support to prosper, and sustain the center’s growth for the long term.

The organization applied and was accepted to the UB Social Impact Fellows program — a unique initiative co-founded by the schools of Social Work and Management. Through the program, UB places interdisciplinary teams of graduate students in internships with local mission-driven organizations. The students spend the summer collaborating to address social issues, gain real-world experience and make an impact in the community.

Starting with social work principles

UB social work student Kristie Bailey is one of the Social Impact Fellows who interned at Stitch Buffalo. As a master of Social Work (MSW) student with interests in fair labor practices, female empowerment and sustainable fashion, Bailey used her experience and skills to connect with the refugee women, who came to Buffalo from Burma, Thailand, Nepal, Afghanistan and other countries around the globe.

“In social work, one of things we strive for is to be culturally humble,” she says. “We have to be open to learning from the client’s perspective because they’re the expert in their experience. That sense of cultural humility means that everyone feels welcome.”

The value of this approach was clear to Hoeg and others at Stitch Buffalo. “They really took an in-depth look at everything we do and asked lots of questions to understand what we’re doing—and then understand how they can help the organization, make recommendations, refine things and make things better,” says Hoeg.

A unique initiative

The Social Impact Fellows program is a partnership between the UB School of Social Work, School of Management, and the College of Arts and Sciences in collaboration with UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, a campus-based entrepreneurship center.

Through the program, master’s students in social work bring a trauma-informed and human rights perspective to the team. MBA students employ their business and leadership skills, while students from the College of Arts and Sciences offer research-based support.

For 10 weeks during the summer, the students spend four days each week on-site with the organization, then one day a week learning how to identify and define social challenges, generate sustainable solutions, and practice entrepreneurial principles.

Collaboration leads to impact — and a first-place prize

For Stitch Buffalo, the Social Impact Fellows included Bailey, a master of Social Work (MSW) student, Shannon Lach, an MBA student, and Xingyu Chen, a PhD student in Global Gender Studies. Before they started working together, the three women met at a local coffeehouse to get to know each other and figure out how the best way to collaborate given their diverse backgrounds and skillsets.

One of the systems Lach recommended was telling each other, “red light” if they didn’t agree with something, “yellow light” if they weren’t sure, and “green light” if they agreed—a simple step that could quickly cut across their cultural and academic backgrounds.

With their relationship established, the UB students started by interviewing key stakeholders at Stitch Buffalo and conducting an organizational assessment to identify short- and long-term priorities.

Over the course of the summer, the team implemented many improvements that continue to help Stitch Buffalo and the women they serve. They set up software that allowed for more efficient collaboration, launched a new website, designed a brochure to recruit new participants, worked toward getting key documents translated into the women’s native languages, restaged the retail environment, led the organization’s first board retreat, and even performed a safety check of the storefront.

In addition, the team developed a financial empowerment plan built on three goals: organize, prosper and sustain. They proposed organizing by creating a formalized digital inventory process and implementing a new digital point-of-sale system, prospering by developing internship and financial literacy programs to help refugee women learn new skills, and sustaining by continuing to gather feedback and foster relationships with other organizations.

The UB students also identified an opportunity for refugee women to help shape the future of Stitch Buffalo. The majority of the leadership and staff at Stitch Buffalo are white Americans. Chen, who was born and raised in China, was quick to reinforce the importance of representation within the organization.

As a self-described “nonwhite woman in America whose first language is not English,” Chen understood firsthand many of the obstacles faced by the refugee women and, along with Bailey and Lach, advocated for Stitch Buffalo to include input from the women’s perspective.

“Now, they are inviting refugee women to participate in new ways that hadn’t existed before, including new leadership roles in the organization,” says Bailey. “It’s really what we had hoped to foster.”

The culmination of the Social Impact Fellows program is the annual Pitch for a Cause competition. There, each team of Social Impact Fellows gets five minutes to tell a panel of judges about their work and the impact on the community. The winning team earns $2,000 for their partner organization to implement the solutions that the team developed.

This year, the Stitch Buffalo team walked away with the first-place prize, enabling the organization to update critical infrastructure to support the refugee women.

Shaping students’ future career paths

For Bailey, the Social Impact Fellows experience helped her discover potential new paths for after she graduates.

“It’s really opened up some opportunities to consider those more unconventional social work roles,” she says. “I now have the confidence to approach industries that may be slightly outside my field.”

Even for students from the School of Management and College of Arts and Sciences, the program proved how a social work perspective can help them achieve their goals.

“Wherever I work in the future, I’ll always think about the questions they asked that I never would have thought of,” says Lach, the MBA candidate, who also owns a small event planning company in Buffalo. Lach explained that watching Bailey focus on the refugee women’s point of view showed her the importance of asking questions like, “What is this going to do for the participants and the people who are benefitting from it?”

For Chen, who has a master’s degree in international commerce, the experience with Stitch Buffalo reinforced her desire to do something meaningful in society for women and minorities. “I want to take some risks,” she says.

Bringing everyone together

Hoeg is most excited about the way that the UB students helped build a stronger community.

“Having them here helped weave together the volunteers, the refugee women and the consumers,” added Hoeg, using an exceptionally apt metaphor to describe the team’s impact. “It’s important because it developed respect for each other, and understanding for each other, and ultimately that’s what we want in our community.”