It’s quite rare that we see summer programs in our communities that not only teach Black children about the basis of entrepreneurship and financial literacy, but sewing and life skills seem to have become a thing of the past.
From home economics, cooking classes and all of the skills taught to many of us in our youth in schools over the last couple of decades we have seen drastic change and a decline in these areas needed most.
The skills that our grandmother’s and ancestors used to thrive have been replaced with automation and technology.
But let’s face it, as Black people we need every avenue possible in order to achieve economic sustainability, empowerment and progress and it starts with our young people.
Dr. Enkeshi Thom El-Amin, a native of Guyana a small Caribbean country off the coast of South America and a recent doctoral graduate at the University of Tennessee seeks to change the narrative.
Migrating to the United States at twelve years old and growing up in Atlanta, Georgia Enkeshi says that sewing has always been in her blood.
“My paternal Grandfather was a tailor and my maternal grandmother who I grew up with was a seamstress”, she said.
Enkeshi launched a pilot sewing program for children this summer in Knoxville, Tennessee entitled
Sew It Sell It.
Its mission is to provide a free opportunity for African American, low-income and other children of color to learn to sew and acquire the skills and ability to start a home-based sewing micro business. The program is for children ages 10 to 17 and it aims to accommodate up to 15 children.
With the loss of vocational and many art education programs in schools, many children, particularly those in African American and low-income neighborhoods do not have access to creative and vocational skill building programs. Furthermore, in these communities there are limited productive opportunities for generating income for kids and teens. The program, Sew It Sell It, is a sewing and entrepreneurship program that will give children in these communities the opportunity to express their creativity, learn a vocational skill and develop a sense of self-reliance by sewing and selling a product.
The project based approach of the program is designed to be both appealing to a target population, and linked to real and immediate economic pathways. Students began the 3 week camp style program by conceptualizing their business and designing the products they wished to sell. They then developed a budget and purchased materials, created and priced their products. In addition to learning the basics of sewing, students learn about business planning, branding and marketing, and retail/wholesale selling.
They are also exposed to faculty in the area of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management and local entrepreneurs in their community. They go on field trips to fabric and craft stores and retail shops, have the opportunity to pitch their product and business idea to community members and organize a community market day to sell their products. The camp culminated with a closing ceremony during which students were presented with their own sewing machine and supplies to launch their micro business.
The key is to not only educate young people on the process but also help launch their entrepreneurial spirit.
Marcus Hall owner of Marc Nelson Denim , a men’s boutique that specializes in handcrafted denim jeans collaborated with the program by offering his East Knoxville workshop and showroom, as the site for the program.
The Sew it Sell it program received a mini grant from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Office of Community Engagement and Outreach.
Also, Tyvi Small, Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement at the University of Tennessee also offered the Haslam College of Business to sponsor the closing ceremony where children showcased and sold the items they crafted during the camp in a market style exhibition.
I got a chance to talk to Enkeshi about her background and inspiration.
ANGELA: What brought you to Knoxville and can you give a little background on yourself for our readers?
ENKESHI: Yes. I am 32 years old. I attended Agnes Scott College, a small liberal arts women’s college in Decatur GA, a suburb of Atlanta. I majored in Africana Studies and after college I moved to Syracuse NY to pursue graduate School at Syracuse University. There I earned a master’s degree in Pan African Studies. I left Syracuse and lived in Brooklyn New York for about a year and a half. At the time I was torn between non-profit work and joining the academy as a professor. After much consideration and the advice of loved ones and supporters, I decided to continue my education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to start working on my PhD. The research I conducted was concerned with the Black Knoxvillian (Appalachian experiences) at the intersection of race and place. I recently graduated from the University and live with my husband and 1 year old daughter in northeast Knoxville. I also have 2 step daughters.
ANGELA: Wow. That’s amazing. So how long have you been sewing and how did you break into it?
ENKESHI: Well actually my paternal Grandfather was a tailor and my maternal grandmother was a seamstress. I grew up with my grandmother. The sound of fabric being cut on a wooded table was always a familiar sound to me and I remember playing on the foot pedal of my granny’s old-school sewing machine. She taught me and my cousins how to hand sew but her sewing machine was a tool she used to earn a living. Over the years I tried to teach myself and often stopped out of frustration. The first Christmas that my husband and I were together in 2013 he bought me a sewing machine and I started tinkering with it. The first thing I made was table runners for our wedding. I have been sewing ever since.
ANGELA: How did you start your own sewing business?
ENKESHI: I wanted to learn to sew because I wanted to make my own clothes and accessories. Before I started sewing clothes, I thought I’d make something simple and so I started with clutches and I would make them out of place mats, and then vinyl. Proud of my creations and excited to show off my accomplishments, I began posting them on Facebook. People reacted well to my work and started offering to pay me for them. So my sewing business began as a clutch business with the name Klutch Queen Collections. The more I posted about my work on social media, the more people would ask me to sew for them. With Ankara prints and African inspired fashion becoming more popular nationally and locally, people started requesting my clothes more than purses. I also started teaching people how to sew clothes at my sip and sew events. I also began offering classes to children as well as adults. My interest in sewing was not to start a business. However, as graduate student living on a stipend, it was quite difficult for me to turn down this opportunity to earn an extra income. There was a demand, little overhead cost and it allowed me the flexibility I needed as a full time student.
ANGELA: What was your inspiration for the Sew it Sell it Program and working with children?
ENKESHI: The idea behind the Sew It Sell It program was something I started thinking of early on when I started my sewing journey. My initial idea was for an after school program. I had worked at several after school programs and youth camps while in college and even after graduating. So I was familiar with those types of programs and had over 10 years of experience working with youth. I proposed the idea to a few organizations but could not secure the funding to get it off the ground, so I put it on pause for some time. I did began teaching sewing classes sporadically as my schedule permitted, first as Sip and Sews in my garage and later I started offering classes at community centers, especially after I started making clothes I realized that there was a need for people who could sew and that it was a great way to earn income while working on something else like school or another job. I started to realize that it was something different populations of people could benefit from, not just kids, but formerly incarcerated people, immigrants and other vulnerable populations.
ANGELA: What are your goals and visions for the Sew it Sell it program going forward?
ENKESHI: My hope is that this program has made sewing and entrepreneurial skills fun and accessible for children. For some children this can be an introduction or to jumpstart a career in fashion and various business industries. It’s also a great way to earn income while in school.
The Sew it Sell it Program has bridged a gap where our global culture of outsourcing labor, funding cuts in public schools to vocational and creative programs has diminished. These valuable programs inspire entrepreneurial quests and during a time where post-secondary education is out of reach for many it is a much needed trade which promotes self-sufficiency as a business owner and for those who are often left to precarious employment options.
Children can learn many hard and soft skills from these types of actives. From problem solving, physical and mental stamina and communication, learning a trade can provide interpersonal skills that children can use in their personal and professional lives, regardless of their career choices.
“I think this can be very affirming for students, allowing them to see that this University believes in them and their futures”, says Enkeshi.
Additionally I hope that this program can be an avenue to further close gaps between the university and the community, through more involvement and support.
I hope to further develop this program, offering it to kids and adults more frequently. I would love to develop an umbrella organization that would offer complementary programs around sewing, entrepreneurship, job training and community building and development”
If you would like more information on sponsoring or donating to the Sew It Sell it program you may visit their donation site HERE
You may also contact Enkeshi Thom El-Amin at Sewitsellit@gmail.com or by phone at 404-964-1917.
Their Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/sewitsellit/
Angela Dennis is editor for BWNC and Freelance Writer and Blogger residing in Knoxville, TN. Her work has also been featured in multiple publications such as Knox News Sentinel, Blavity, Black Girl Nerds, etc.