Last year, I spent a lot of time in the neighbourhoods of north-west Tower Hamlets. For my frontline placement with Year Here, I was a community researcher for the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund. I visited community centres, children’s centres, charities, churches, mosques, neighbourhood associations, lunch clubs, sewing clubs, knitting clubs, city farms, weight-loss groups, walking groups, English classes, dancing classes, cooking classes, and debt clinics.
One week, I sat in on a community group session at St Hilda’s East Community Centre, hearing from women with experience of mental health issues about their access to health care. They were universally positive about St Hilda’s. It was a safe, comfortable space to meet new people, learn new skills, and be supported by a community of friends.
When I made a map of local community groups for GP surgery waiting rooms, St Hilda’s stood out like a beacon. Offering free ESOL classes, Keep Fit courses, IT sessions, a crèche, legal advice, a food coop, a youth project, and more. They were a central part of the community services in the neighbourhood, which was rapidly gentrifying and increasingly socially diverse.
These services are important in Tower Hamlets, where more than a quarter of households are income-deprived, and unemployment is higher among women and immigrants. Unemployment not only limits income for women and their families, but contributes to social isolation, marginalisation, and loneliness.
During this time, I spent my Fridays with the Year Here cohort, learning social innovation skills like human-centred design, disruptive business modelling, and how to take what you love and make a difference by doing it. So I started thinking about what I love to do.
I love to make things. My family are seriously sick of getting knitted hats, socks and scarves every year for Christmas (but they still get them). I’m fascinated by product design, recycling and upcycling technology, and testing through making. My sewing machine lives on my dining room table, which is always covered with scraps of something I’m taking apart or putting back together.
I also believe in the power of gentle and thoughtful craft to bring people together and make change. During my placement, I ran a series of arts and crafts workshops in GP surgery waiting rooms, connecting patients with representatives from community groups through informal and fun activities.
During a Year Here Bootcamp week, Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective spoke to us about how she uses craft as a quiet revolution, to protest gently about the issues she hopes to change. From Birdsong, I learned that 70% of women’s community groups in London faced funding cuts and that, in an era of increasing rents and austerity, organisations like St Hilda’s would struggle to find enough money to keep providing their much-needed services.
So I founded Juta Shoes, which is co-directed by me and Sabeha, who runs the Boundary Women’s Project at St Hilda’s.
Juta Shoes are upcycled espadrilles made by socially isolated and unemployed women at St Hilda’s. We take scraps from leather factories that are headed for landfill, and we turn them into handmade espadrilles, using environmentally-friendly jute soles from Spain.
All of our profits go back to the group – at first as a common fund that the women in the project can choose to spend on activities of their choosing. For example, the profits from one pair of shoes can provide an hour of English lessons for ten women.
We also provide project-based employability skills like design, customer service, marketing and administration. In the longer-term we’ll support women to become self-employed so they can earn an income in a way that works around their lives.
It took me six months to develop the pattern and learn the sewing technique for a pair of Juta shoes, but every woman in the project made a pair in our first two-hour workshop. The women we work with might not have much employment experience or education, but they have enthusiasm, grit, and pretty impressive skills.
The sewing sessions have also been spaces where we can connect, chat and be mindful together. One of the women in the project, an incredibly talented maker, is excited at the opportunity to share her craftwork with the world. Another woman said that the meditative process of making the shoes was the first time that week she’d been able to clear her mind and be peaceful.
Though Juta Shoes is just starting out, it’s these small things that let me know we’re on the right track. That’s what social enterprise is all about, paraphrasing the wonderful Rob Trimble: a project that creates hope and has money left to do it all again tomorrow.