Profiles in Sewing: Sew PowerfulCinnamon and Jason Miles’ nonprofi t offers a helping hand in Zambia
The story of Sew Powerful began 11 years ago while Jason and Cinnamon Miles worked with the international nonprofit organization World Vision. After seeing the conditions in the Ngombe Compound in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, they began work on their own nonprofit, Sew Powerful (SewPowerful.org). Sew Powerful works to enable the people of the community to support themselves and to promote education for all children. Part of their current initiative is helping sewers in the community create feminine hygiene products for girls who would otherwise have to stay home from school. Each set of products is given to a girl student in a purse made by volunteers from around the world. Cinnamon also runs two businesses with a focus on sewing for dolls: Pixie Faire (PixieFaire.com), which funnels a portion of its profits to Sew Powerful to support their work, and Liberty Jane Clothing (ShopLibertyJane.com), which sells doll clothing and patterns. Threads spoke with Cinnamon and Jason about their experience with their organization and how they perceive sewing has enhanced life in Ngombe Compound.
Threads: Why did you decide to name your organization “Sew Powerful”?
Cinnamon Miles: We wanted to express the idea that sewing could make a difference. Equipping women in a very desperate location with sewing skills can unlock opportunities for them personally as well as benefits for their community.
TH: You’ve previously worked with World Vision. What made you decide to start your own organization?
Jason Miles: On a trip to Lusaka, Zambia, in 2009 I visited an urban neighborhood and met an amazing group of moms. They were running their own community school in a partially completed church building. They were serving 475 kids who would have otherwise not been in school. Their dream was to have a proper school building for the kids. During that meeting, I felt a strong conviction that I needed to help them figure out how to make money for their big dream, a school building, rather than doing it for them. I went home and told Cinnamon about it. She had recently launched a sewing business, Pixie Faire, and we decided to dedicate part of the proceeds from our sewing projects to support their dream. In 2010, we set up Sew Powerful formally so that others could join us in the effort. Long story short, in 2013, their beautiful new school opened and today they serve roughly 1,500 children there.
TH: How did you create your product development plan with the community?
JM: Patience and trust are really important aspects of success. When we started, we wanted to make sure that we were co-creators with the local community members. We didn’t want to assume that we had any answers to their challenging problems, because we didn’t. We spent close to a year discussing the first product idea with them. We hoped to organize an effort that could enable them to have an ongoing income and make money toward the school building they wanted. They suggested sewing. We felt strongly, though, that having them sew tourist trinkets that we would export and sell wasn’t the answer. It sounds impossible to come up with a product idea that could be sold in an urban slum, but they found an idea: school uniforms. They set up a simple layaway program and asked parents to begin paying very small amounts toward a uniform for their child. In Zambia, school uniforms are a big deal, and the school pride skyrocketed. The moms had sewing skills and jobs that paid well, and our concept of “purposeful products” was born.
TH: What is your “purposeful products” concept?
JM: We try to focus on products that create a positive impact in the local community, with an emphasis on helping support academic success. Those products now include school uniforms, reusable feminine hygiene pads, soap, and farm-fresh food for school lunches.
TH: How did you come up with the idea for the purses?
CM: We began to hear about girls staying home during their periods and began looking into that issue. We learned that, on average, girls miss six weeks of school a year. The sewing team in Ngombe Compound had the capacity to grow and was really excited about having another purposeful product to make when we suggested reusable feminine hygiene pads. We wanted a way to spread the word about this amazing group of moms in Zambia, and we came up with the idea of having our customers from Pixie Faire make cross-body purses in support of the program. So, we decided to give the purse pattern away for free and ask our customers to make bags for girls in Zambia. Each girl gets a beautiful purse with a handwritten card from the purse maker. The purse contains two sets of reusable pads, plus soap and underwear. The Zambia team is paid for their work to make those items. The girls get training and support through a mentoring program, and take a pledge to stay in school all month, even during their periods. In 2019 we collected 12,740 purses, and our goal for 2020 is 20,020.
TH: What are your goals for the future of Sew Powerful?
JM: Our new vocational training center just opened and we’re serving a growing team in Lusaka. And we’re assisting more schools and children than ever. We believe we can continue to scale up and employ more community members and help a lot more kids. Someday, we might expand beyond Zambia, but for now, we are passionate about serving that country with excellence. We also need more purse makers to join us from around the world. So many have rallied to the cause, and we believe we can scale to a very large number as more get involved.
TH: How can a home sewer support your organization?
CM: Making a beautiful purse is a huge help. You can choose from two patterns and download them for free on our website (Sew Powerful.org). Be sure to write a personal note card to the girl who will receive your purse. The girls cherish these purses and cards. Group leaders can also rally their guild, bee, or church group for this fun project using resources on our website.
Erica Redfern is Threads’ assistant editor.