Congress tote bags carry good news for immigrant women

Who’d have thought that the issue of tote bags would feature so large in the planning of Congress 2006 at York. “It has been on the agenda of almost every meeting since the initial launch meeting in September 2005,” says Congress project manager Cindy Bettcher with a note of wonder in her voice.

Right and below: The Congress 2006 tote bag

Tote bags are used by delegates at every Congress to carry books and other paraphernalia that go along with such a major event. Now York has come up with a different way of getting the 8,200 bags for the delegates – an idea that ties in handily with this year’s city theme and York’s well-known commitment to social justice.

“I think the planets were aligned right that day as we were talking about placing the order for the tote bags. Traditionally, the bags have been ordered by the Canadian Federation [for the Social Sciences and Humanities] from an overseas supplier,” explains Bettcher, who also runs a conference management business with logistics convenor Deborah Hahn. Bettcher is director of York’s Division of Continuing Education in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies while Hahn is senior manager of Hospitality York.   .

“Out of the blue, we had a call from someone who had seen one of our conference Web sites, asking if we would be interested in ordering bags from the Somali Women’s and Children’s Support Network in Toronto for any of the conferences we were coordinating,” says Bettcher.

The phone call was providential. “This is a win-win situation for us and the Somali support network. We like what they have produced, and they, in turn, benefit from the employment of Somali women and the exposure for their work. This fits in with York’s philosophy of working with the community.

“We are delighted with the design they have given us: totes with bone-coloured canvas, York-red nylon gussets, and red handles and lettering,” says Bettcher.

They’re not the only ones happy with the tote-bag solution. The Federation and SSHRC (Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada), gave York planners an enthusiastic thumbs-up about their decision to hire a local, immigrant-based company. The bags are paid for by York with financial assistance from the Federation and SSHRC.

The story of the Somali Women’s & Children’s Support Network

Farhia Warsame, executive director of the Somali Women’s & Children’s Support Network that has produced the tote bags for Congress 2006, says women working in the initiative are grateful for the work from York. “This employment opportunity empowers the women by giving them more experience in the business world and income to support their families. York has given to the women of the Somali network, who will be giving back to the community.

“We’ve been blessed,” adds Warsame. “We have grown from a group working in a portable classroom at Kingsview Village Junior School in Etobicoke and making tote bags for kindergarten students at the school, to a thriving network in a 3,000-square-foot building at Kipling and Highway 401, doing sub-contract work for such businesses as Roots.

“We now employ from 40 to 50 women at a time, depending on the work load, and we’re thinking of expanding to include Afghani, Pakistani and Sri Lankan women.”

Right: The Somali Women’s & Children’s Support Network employs 40 to 50 women at a time to complete special projects such as the Congress 2006 tote bag

Warsame says the network’s humble beginning in 1992 was thanks to the principal of Kingsview Village Junior School, who realized that there was a high proportion of immigrant children from Somali at the school – many from single-parent homes. She felt they and their parents could use help with skills in language, parenting, employment and the like.

The principal contacted various groups and then a wonderful set of events began to happen. The school provided the portable room, funded by the school board; Toronto Public Health offered information sessions on parenting, education, legal issues etc.; and Children’s Aid Society of Ontario provided funding for the programs.

“The Somali women themselves identified the need for language lessons and skills that would lead to employment,” says Warsame.

“In Somalia, men are usually the family breadwinners. Many of the Somali women entering Canada are widows with several children, and they have never worked outside the home. These women then decided to capitalize on the sewing skills they learned in the home.”

The Somali network set up a training program. Hearing of the women’s needs, local churches provided 15 small sewing machines, and then Singer Sewing Company of Canada got involved and donated 25 more small machines. The Ontario Trillium Foundation became involved and funded training for the women to update their sewing skills.

“By 2002, we had grown too big for the portable,” says Warsame, “so the United Way of Greater Toronto and the Trillium Foundation funded space for us in our new location, that includes office space and a loading area.

“Through the support of many funders and donors, we were able to secure about 40 industrial sewing machines. Now we provide not only sewing training but also business skills in areas such as administration, sales, marketing and business management.

“We are market-competitive,” says Warsame with pride. “Our products include T-Shirts, vacuum bags, school/conference bags, sweatshirts, pants, sports uniforms and many other items.”

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.