Cultivating workplace culture: how migrants are enriching this Collingwood enterprise

Creative culture: creating opportunity through fashion. Photo: David Pattinson

Consumerism, fast fashion and immigration are issues that are fast becoming household discussions. The ever-increasing conversations surrounding these socio-economic and environmental topics are making them much harder to ignore.

As we all struggle to be better humans, to find a way to make a meaningful difference, one social-enterprise in Fitzroy has already done just that. For almost a decade, The Social Studio has been employing a globalisation of a different kind using an untapped resource many Australian employers are ignoring – individuals of migrant and refugee backgrounds.

In February of 2017 it was reported that the unemployment rate of East African and Middle Eastern immigrants was averaging 33 percent in the first five years of settlement; six times higher than the national average. While, most migrants will cite employment as an integral part of their settlement, they often face hurdles in getting into the Australian workforce.

The Social Studio, situated amongst the cultural crucible of Collingwood’s Smith Street is a not-for-profit social enterprise on a mission. Founded in 2009, what originally began as a provider of design and sewing classes has since evolved into a successful, multi-faceted organisation intent on improving the lives of those most marginalised in our community. According to CEO Eugenia Flynn, the enterprise’s objectives are simple; “We use the vehicle of a fashion and hospitality business including a clothing label, retail shop, digital printing studio, café and a catering business to create meaningful social change”.

Through its fashion label, textile studio, and café, The Social Studio employs young refugees and immigrants, or those hailing from migrant backgrounds, offering employment with a creative twist. Employees are encouraged to express and share their culture, forging links between refugee and migrant groups and the wider community. Clothes sold in the Social Studio’s Smith Street store are produced locally, with sustainable resources to minimise environmental impact. Designs are affordably priced and feature vibrant, bold prints with significant cultural meanings behind each piece. The adjoining café, The Cutting Table, is also staffed by young refugees and migrants and serves a menu featuring a blend of East and West African fare.

The label’s designs feature vibrant prints all produced locally and sustainably. Photo: Alice Wilson

In addition to providing employment opportunities, the Social Studio makes it possible for refugees to get certified within the areas of hospitality and design. “Our purpose is to create meaningful and long-term pathways into employment for young people from a refugee or migrant background, and who may have experienced barriers to accessing education and/or securing employment.” Says Ms Flynn. “We provide TAFE level training, work experience, volunteer opportunities and employment in fashion, manufacturing, retail and hospitality, creating imperative education and employment opportunities and pathways.”

Since its beginning, the Social Studio has provided education and employment for over 580 people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. One such individual who has benefited from this enterprise is Abuk Bol, who worked as a seamstress in Sudan before she came to Australia in 2004 as a refugee. Abuk came across the Social Studio, after several failed attempts to get into the Australian workforce. She has since gone on to work for Brunswick-based bridal designer Mariana Hardwick and is now the owner of her own enterprise, Twich Women’s Sewing Collective, which sells clothing and homewares in her home town of Dandenong. “I was interested in clothes making and wanted to do something that could get me a job, being an immigrant and hardly knowing English, I decided to do the Certificate III in clothing production with the Social Studio.”

Abuk’s story is a great example of how increasing just one persons skill set can, in turn, work towards increasing many. The Social Studio champions multiculturalism and demonstrates that these individuals contribute to, rather than diminish the economy. “I now have my own store and space where I can help women like me get certification and jobs.” Abuk says.  “I would like to provide women, especially ones in a minority, the opportunity to get an education and a job. Or just somewhere they feel they belong.”

The Social Studio and Cutting Table Cafe, located on Collingwood’s Smith St. Photo: Alice Wilson

This sense of belonging is perhaps the most important contribution the Social Studio provides. “For students it’s developing friendships and broadening their community, branching out and become more open to everyone else.” Says Helen Kelabora, a teacher for the Certificate III clothing course the Studio offers. The benefits of an organisation like the Social Studio are as diverse as the services they offer to those they employ and to the Yarra community. For Eugenia Flynn, the is much more work to be done, “we would love to consolidate our work across the past eight years and create a deeper social impact” and it’s through the help of the Yarra community that this can be achieved.

Written by Alice Wilson

1 Comment

  1. Great story

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