My first few days at Artizan international have been less of a baptism of fire than like one of those moments when the sky opens and rain starts falling in sheets while the sun still shines on (not least because that is what actually happened on my cycle home today!) but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. I doubt there to be another place where I would be so pleased to have a “to-do” list that is refusing to get shorter.
Having only first heard of Artizan International at the end of last summer it has been a whirl-wind of a year; with A-levels (all passed), Uni visits and setting up an Etsy shop, my time to move to Harrogate and start the next chapter of life came round a lot faster than I expected. But after a burst tire on my way to my first day I was greeted warmly, we got to work and any anxiety I may have had melted away.
I first found out about Artizan International (then Craftaid International) at Greenbelt festival 2018 and at the time was looking for a few months’ worth of volunteering to do during my gap year. I was first drawn in by the beautiful crafts on the stall and started talking to the person running it, having discussed the work the charity does in Ecuador and Peru I planned to look further into this once I had some Wi-Fi. I looked on the website and saw the advertisement for a new intern and instantly knew this is was what whatever divine powers there might be wanted me to do this, I had a good feeling. While it took a little while to sort accommodation for the year eventually I had an interview in late January and was told they definitely wanted me for the year and “when could I start?”
So after my first two days I can confirm that so far my intuitions were correct and I’m excited for the, what I’m sure will be a busy year ahead and cannot thank everyone at the Harrogate office for making me feel part of the Artizan family.
In a nutshell, what does your organisation do and how did it start?
I started Artizan International on returning to Harrogate after 10 years of life and work in Tanzania, East Africa, where I set up a social enterprise that provides crafts training and employment for people with disabilities who would otherwise be street begging to earn a living. Having started with three deaf trainees when I began, on a start-up budget of just £400, by the time I left the centre was employing over 120 people with a huge range of disabilities, all of whom are now able to support themselves and their families with dignity and pride. I set up the registered charity Artizan International on returning home, (originally known as Craft Aid International) to pass on this model to other developing countries where people with disabilities are still living in poverty. I also found that differently-able people in the UK are often very socially isolated, something we’ve experienced first-hand as my youngest daughter has Downs Syndrome. Therefore, as an organisation we started by running free weekly therapeutic crafts sessions for adults with disabilities in the community in Harrogate and Leeds. We also work with long-term hospital inpatients at Harrogate and Ripon hospitals, and run after school clubs for children with special needs too.
What’s the most surprising thing about it?
People are often surprised how capable, talented and employable differently-able people are, when given the same opportunities as their peers. They’re also surprised by the high quality of the products our artisans produce.
What do you do?
I’m the Director, so I ‘steer the ship’ of our organisation. This includes overseeing and supporting all our overseas volunteers, doing hands-on design for some our overseas products, working closely with Liz Cluderay our amazing UK Programmes Officer and volunteer co-ordinator, writing grant applications, liaising with supporters, creating and managing the website, finding outlets for our products at home and overseas, running events …there’s always a lot to do!
How did you end up here?
I studied textiles as my degree. Having become a Christian in my late teens, I discovered this great source of love and that made me want to use my skills to serve others rather than just serving myself, so I volunteered in Uganda whilst still a student, setting up a social enterprise for people with learning disabilities. This led me on to my work with differently-able people (of all faiths and none), in Tanzania and now the UK, Ecuador and Peru.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
I’d be a jazz singer! I’m the vocalist with The Nightflyers jazz band.
What motivates you?
LOVE. The kind of love that puts others before self, that compels us to leave our comfort zones and reach out to people on the margins. I was born with a disability myself, having no left hip socket or head to the femur, so I had 22 operations by the time I was 19 years old. It’s hard to tell now, but I know what it’s like to be prevented from doing things, just because you’re different. This can be tough, but it also makes differently-able people incredibly resilient and great problem solvers. People say to me, “Why are you always smiling?!”, it’s not because my life has been easy, but it has been an adventure! My relentless positivity is an expression of my refusal to let my limitations get in the way of anything I want to achieve, or that I want to achieve on behalf of others.
What one thing do you wish you had known when you started out in social enterprise?
Get your work-life balance right early! Family and friendships are just as important as your work, in fact more so, and you’ll be better at your job if you’re not permanently shattered! We all need to be told that sometimes.
What excites you about business / social enterprise?
Unpacking the boxes of beautiful cards and jewellery as they arrive from Ecuador and Peru, handling each one and knowing the transformational story of the artisan who made it. Whether it’s a bracelet made by Vanessa who has muscular dystrophy and rarely used to leave the house, or a card made by Ramon who lost the use of his legs in motorbike accident and was without work for literally years before we trained and equipped him. Knowing the stories behind each product we produce, visiting the artisans when I go overseas and seeing their lives improving. That’s exciting and hugely rewarding.
What advice would you give to people just starting their careers?
Do what you love, work hard, pray hard, put your heart and soul into it, and don’t be afraid to fail. Make no small plans and don’t listen to the doubters. (But do listen to wise friends!)
Who in business do you most admire and why?
Randolph Lewis. He’s a former vice president of a Fortune 50 company in the U.S. and encourages businesses to integrate large numbers of people with disabilities as equals into their workforce.
What moments of your career so far stand out?
Receiving the Woman of the Year award and an MBE for my work in Tanzania (to my amazement!).
What sets you apart from the competition?
We’re motivated by love and service for people on the margins rather than profit. At the same time, we care passionately about producing great quality, well-designed products that customers will love. The back-story of lives transformed, is then a bonus.
What is the most difficult challenge your charity has faced?
Hard to choose between funding and the need for extra pairs of hands!
…and what challenges are you experiencing at the moment?
We’d love to have more volunteers join us.
Have you got a five-year goal for the charity?
Yes! We plan to start a community café and shop, run by differently-able people in Harrogate; and also hope to establish social enterprises in other developing countries.
Why is it good to do business in Harrogate and Wetherby?
It’s a vibrant community of people, many of whom care about the ethical provenance of the products they buy.
In my role at Craft Aid International I am responsible for the role of volunteers in our organisation.
It's my job to organise them (well, try!) Make sure everyone has the training they need and we have the right people in the right place for sessions and school visits and events etc.
Even though it's my job and I'm doing it most days, I'm still in awe of people who volunteer their time to charities.
This is time that they could be seeing friends or doing their own chores or any number of many tasks I'm sure they have on a mental list like all of us.
But instead they selflessly give their time to improve someone else's life.
And that they do.
Of course they'll tell you they love the craft making, the company and friendship and it's only a couple of hours, but to us as an organisation it's priceless.
And to our participants it's a really big deal.
That companionship for the afternoon working on a mosaic or creating some cards means the world to our participants. It's conversation. It's someone interested in who they are and what they like, what they've been up to and boom, just like that they feel important.
How magical is that !?
I think it's incredible and I am humbled to witness it every week.
I see the enjoyment our volunteers get from seeing the difference they make. There's often many a tear shed after a school session where you see participants being accepted and treated kindly by children who have not yet been tainted by society's assumption that being differently-able means you don't have anything to contribute other than making people feel awkward to be around you.
There is no awkward here.
Only love and acceptance
I think that's what volunteering is, it creates magical moments.
So if you volunteer at your child's school or your local charity then thank you for the magic, and if you don't, why don't you come and make some magic with us ?
We'd love to have you.
Written by Liz Cluderay .
(If you'd like to get involved and find out more about volunteering opportunities with us, email Liz here: firstname.lastname@example.org)