Engaging Community through Social Enterprise
As a Social Entrepreneur living and working in Los Angeles, I’m often faced with some serious questions regarding the development of our communities, specifically as it relates to poverty. How can brick and mortar structures address social issues, like chronic homelessness? What creative steps are social enterprises taking to reduce poverty and build stronger communities? How are businesses using art to create social impact? And what can we learn from businesses that are already doing this successfully?
MADE by DWC, an urban social enterprise by the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), is doing just that. They work to empower homeless and low-income women by cultivating local and sustainable product design and creation, while also building community in downtown Los Angeles. Through hands-on skills training workshops, homeless and formally homeless women are taught to construct handmade products that are sold in MADE by DWC’s café & gift boutique, resale boutique, online at Etsy.com, and in a variety of retail outlets (such as Audrey's Museum Store at the Skirball Cultural Center and the Craft and Folk Art Museum Gift Shop). MADE by DWC partners with local artists, designers, and community activists to facilitate workshops and support design efforts for this product line, handMADE. These workshops create opportunities to empower women to discover talents and develop skills, break down social barriers, increase self-esteem, and re-engage with their communities; they also generate economic and social capital to support programs at DWC.
In 2011, MADE by DWC formed a partnership with the Skirball Cultural Center, where program participants were invited to share their handmade products in a pop-up shop alongside female artisans from around the world. The event was in association with the exhibition “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.” This involvement allowed the promotion of gender equality, and helped women entrepreneurs both provide for their families and reclaim artistic and cultural traditions. This experience also enabled MADE by DWC to become better connected with advocacy opportunities and realize the potential of collaborative endeavors, specifically in an artistic context.
Then, in 2012, in keeping with this community-based and artistically collaborative approach, DWC partnered with Yarn Bombing Los Angeles to develop a new product for handMADE and build upon DWC’s skill-building curriculum. In an effort to maintain the sustainability of the partnership, volunteers from YBLA committed to facilitating the new product’s workshops and training existing volunteers.
Ultimately, collaborations like these emphasize the importance of art and creativity as platforms for supporting community engagement and social change efforts in our neighborhoods. The handmade items created by the women of DWC not only provide an outlet for women to gain job skills, the products themselves raise awareness about the causes of homelessness and prove that solutions to homelessness do exist. Partnership between community based art organizations and the Downtown Women’s Center redefine the scope of visual art as a tool that can be utilized on multiple levels for a social cause and a means of community investment.