Meredith Seversen is co-founder of Âdi Collective, a clothing and textile business employing Afghan artisan seamstresses
AS A CHILD, MEREDITH SEVERSEN ’15 lived in Kansas City, Missouri, near a community of refugees from Bhutan, the small Himalayan country located between India and China. When Seversen’s parents took her on visits to practice conversational English with the immigrant families, she was consumed with questions: Where do they work? How do they meet other people? How long does it take for them to learn a new language?
The differences between the cultures seemed wide, and Seversen was intrigued. She played with the Bhutanese children but wanted to be closer, to gain as much understanding as she could. Her passion for building friendships with immigrants led her to major in global development studies at Seattle Pacific University. During her senior year she completed two internships, working with refugees at World Relief Seattle and through the International Rescue Committee. After graduation, World Relief Seattle hired her full time.
“At World Relief, we noticed that Afghan women, in particular, would find employment but leave their jobs after a week or two,” Seversen said. “We wanted to know why.” She and her colleague Liz Hadley participated in a focus group to hear directly from the Afghan immigrants about their biggest challenges.
“The Afghan women wanted flexible work schedules because of their children, and most of them desired part-time work. Many of them didn’t drive, so they needed jobs close to home. And they wanted to use a skill they already had.”
“We wanted to create an employment model that could train anyone, regardless of their literacy level, skills, or the particular needs of their family. The job had to be flexible, allowing a woman to work as much as she wanted, or turn down work when she wasn’t available.” — MEREDITH SEVERSEN
Seversen and Hadley knew of various sewing training groups in the Seattle area, but most required a minimum level of English or a basic math test. Many of the immigrant women Seversen knew were not yet able to read or write.
“So many of our social services are designed for those who already have language skills,” Seversen said. “Without some English proficiency, those systems are very hard to navigate.”
Cultural factors proved an even bigger obstacle to women’s employment. In Afghanistan, many women only leave the house if accompanied by a male family member. “Imagine an Afghan woman, new to this culture, taking two buses to work in the early morning or at night, alone, sitting next to unfamiliar men, and unable to speak the language,” Seversen said.
The women felt unsafe and uncomfortable. The jobs were inflexible and didn’t allow them to be home with their children. Many of the opportunities for refugees seemed inaccessible to the very people they were designed to help.
“We wanted to create an employment model that could train anyone, regardless of their literacy level, skills, or the particular needs of their family. The job had to be flexible, allowing a woman to work as much as she wanted, or turn down work when she wasn’t available.”
So, in 2017, Seversen and Hadley co-founded the Âdi Collective. Âdi is a Persian word that means “ordinary.”
“We’re ordinary women — both the owners and the seamstresses,” Seversen said. “Our products are simple, but elegant.” Drawing candidates from a sewing training program at World Relief Seattle, Seversen and Hadley contracted Afghan women to work from home using donated sewing machines and paid a fair wage for as much work as the women desired as long as orders came in. The collective soon grew to 16 women but has remained small by design.
“We usually range from two to 13 women, depending on orders,” Seversen said. When large orders come in, the collective extends the workforce to friends of the Âdi seamstresses, contracting women with more basic sewing skills to make simpler items like masks or napkins, while allowing the more experienced seamstresses to create clothing.
Âdi artisans are independent contractors. Before the pandemic, Seversen and Hadley personally delivered fabric to each house, where they were greeted with warm hospitality and sweet tea, dates, or fruit. The women taught Seversen how to drink tea the Afghan way, by putting a sugar cube in her mouth and drinking the hot tea to melt the sugar on her tongue.
“They have large, beautiful rugs on the floor, and we’d sit down and eat together. There were kids playing all around, and mothers trying to wrangle them. Their home is their workplace, and in these pandemic days, also their children’s school. There’s lots of activity and laughter,” Seversen said.
The Âdi seamstresses come from different educational backgrounds. Some had access to college, while others had little schooling and no employment prospects. Although it’s more common these days for Afghan women to attend college, those from rural areas or older women who grew up under the Taliban had few opportunities. And there are still cultural barriers for women who want to work outside the home — perhaps even more in the United States, where genders are mixed in the workplace.
Still, the Âdi Collective has no hierarchy. Some women are further along with their English skills, while others have more advanced sewing skills. The workers teach one another, depending on their particular abilities. When Seversen or Hadley develop a new product — such as masks for the pandemic — they conduct a test run, timing a seamstress to determine how long a particular piece will take so they can set a fair wage.
“Women are free to set their own schedules,” Seversen said, “and it’s motivating.”
Their spouses are largely supportive. On occasion Seversen would arrive at a home to find a spouse doing some ironing or helping out with the products in other ways.
“The last four years dramatically shifted the perception of immigrants. I’ve never seen such fear. Many people I talk to are not only afraid for their physical safety, but also for their economic stability. It’s easy to make immigrants the scapegoat for all the problems of the nation.” — MEREDITH SEVERSEN
And Seversen has noticed a growing display of confidence in many of the women. “Sometimes they even become a bit feisty — asserting their opinions about how a product should be created, and what will and won’t work. I love seeing how comfortable they are to share their opinions. They know so much more than Liz and I do about the best way to make something. It shows me that this is truly their company, and they’re deeply invested.”
The women were always confident, Seversen is quick to note. They just had to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new type of business. Sometimes those adjustments meant trying something culturally unfamiliar.
“One of the Âdi ladies rides a bicycle,” Seversen said. “Women in Afghanistan don’t typically ride bikes. Others are driving, which is also new. Their community is watching; these women are models for those who have arrived more recently, women who might never imagine stepping out and trying something different.”
For a recent website photo shoot, the women decided to leave their children at home with their husbands. “No kids this time,” they said. “This is our time!”
Even photographs are novel for many of the Âdi seamstresses. “The idea of taking a picture and posting it online — that was new for them. It was one of the mistakes I made in the beginning, assuming that because I had permission once that I had permission for always. There’s so much potential for miscommunication, but we’re quick to ask forgiveness. We’d get on a video chat so we could see one another face to face. Those conversations drew us even closer. But I had to learn a lot of humility.”
Sometimes the cross-cultural challenges can be discouraging, and Seversen recognizes that what she wants for the women might be different than what they want for themselves. “Total independence might be my value,” she said, “which looks like driving, traveling alone, or accepting jobs based on my own desires.
“But for Afghan women, those things might not feel like a measure of empowerment. Perhaps after moving to the U.S., they still prefer what they are accustomed to. There’s too much I don’t know about what goes into their decisions to assert that my ideas are the best ideas. And if a woman does begin to drive, or enroll in classes, or take work in the city, it will last, because it happened on her terms.”
Many of the women still have family in Afghanistan, so it’s critical to examine how Âdi Collective portrays the seamstresses and the organization itself. “We want to be sure they are comfortable with every aspect,” Seversen explains. Recently she led a dialogue with the women about how they wanted others to refer to them.
“We talked about lots of terms used in other organizations,” Seversen said. “Refugee. Immigrant. New immigrant. Immigrant friend. Other countries have more nuance than we do in the United States. We saw how the term ‘refugee’ can increase fear in the broader community or imply that people are a burden. The women do qualify as official refugees, but they don’t see themselves as refugees forever. They live here now. They’ve established families and jobs, and they’re part of the community.”
Seversen wanted to be sure Âdi used language the women use for themselves. “Like so many cross-cultural efforts that Americans try to do for others,” she said, “it’s not truly for them if it doesn’t include them from the beginning.” At Âdi, the workers decided they’d like to be called “new immigrant women.”
Practices have changed due to the pandemic. Now fabric is sent to the women by mail. “We wish we could set up at local farmers markets and really connect people with their Afghan neighbors,” Seversen said. “But for now, everyone is working in their own homes.”
The pandemic has also brought new opportunities. The seamstresses began sewing masks for local health care workers, completing orders as large as 3,400 masks. “Sometimes there’s a bit of healthy competition among the women,” Seversen said. “They work hard and fast. Our model of paying by the piece instead of by the hour has worked out well, keeping the quality high.”
Still, Âdi Collective is more than a business. “I want to be sure that everything we do is rooted in our relationship with the women,” Seversen said. That’s currently a challenge, both because of the pandemic and because of Seversen’s graduate courses at Wheaton College in Chicago, where she studies clinical mental health counseling. In the future, she hopes to specialize in counseling for immigrants.
Seversen misses those personal visits to the homes of the Âdi women — the laughter, the smell of cardamom, the welcome Her role at Âdi is promotional and administrative now, while Hadley continues to manage the business on the ground. “I just wish we were all in each other’s homes right now, having dinners and meeting in the same room,” she said.
Working cross-culturally has brought challenges, not only inside the organization, but in the current national climate. “The last four years dramatically shifted the perception of immigrants,” Seversen said. “I’ve never seen such fear. Many people I talk to are not only afraid for their physical safety, but also for their economic stability. It’s easy to make immigrants the scapegoat for all the problems of the nation.”
At the same time, people are drawn to the mission and want to help. Âdi Collective engages volunteers as designers, photographers, promoters, and interns. The visibility of the organization is growing, as well as its collaboration with other businesses. Seversen is enthusiastic about a recent partnership with a group from Ireland that makes toiletry bags. She met the Irish team four years ago while presenting at the State Department, who had invited groups from all over the world to learn how the U.S. is handling the refugee crisis. “I love working both locally and globally,” said Seversen, who was a global development major in SPU’s School of Business, Government, and Economics. “At SPU, my professors were passionate about teaching the concepts, but also working out those values in their everyday lives. It inspired me.”
Seversen looks forward to returning to Seattle and the Âdi women after completing her master’s degree, though some of the original Âdi seamstresses have taken what they’ve learned and progressed to other jobs. “We want Âdi to meet their needs,” Seversen said, “and if that means transitioning to full-time jobs with health insurance and benefits, then we’re all for it. But I’m thankful that we’ve been able to maintain our relationships with the women, even as they move on.”