Last month, WEC’s Communications Coordinator Sarah Abdelshamy sat (virtually and on opposite sides of the country) with two powerhouses of community and empowerment – Anne-Lydie Bolay the Operations Director at The Cutting Edge and Yasmin Ali the current President of the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute (CMWI). CMWI’s vision statement is: “To create a safe community that supports and strengthens newcomer women and their families; a community where women can make informed decisions for themselves and their families, and to foster sound emotional health and stability through personal development, self-sufficiency and financial independence.”
This is accomplished through a variety of programs and services. The Cutting Edge is one of CMWI’s employment training programs and also has a social enterprise component. It is among one of eight organizations that are part of the Sewing with Purpose Collective – a community that WEC is proud to be part of.
A few years ago, our very own president Melanie Conn and co-manager Janet Kranz brought together various organizations who offered sewing programs as a means of increasing economic security for women through sewing and sewing-related activities. While this collective is composed of many different organizations based in different locations and with differing mandates, they all use the same tool to address different needs and assets of women’s lives. This network has helped like-minded organizations be aware of the work being done across the country and the collective spirit arouses collaboration and networking.
Anne-Lydie Bolay served as the Operations Director at The Cutting Edge for the past four and a half years. I was able to catch her on her very last day at The Cutting Edge and I couldn’t help but silently appreciate the symbolism in the timing. A champion of women’s empowerment, Anne-Lydie’s work at The Cutting Edge trains women who want to enter Winnipeg’s thriving textile and garment manufacturing industry. “The idea is to empower women and give them the opportunity to hone their existing skills to an industrial-level,” she tells me. In addition to this focused training program, The Cutting Edge also partners with various brands across the country who wish to integrate social values in their procurement strategies – that’s where the women come in. The trainees are then able to work on real orders for brands and have concrete experiences to put on their resumes.
“Sometimes it’s actually the smallest things,” she says, “it’s the fact that a woman gains confidence; that she knows where to ask for help; that she builds enough trust with us that she can admit or ask for a referral to another organization that could help with something else in her life.”
“We have an 80-90% rate of full-time employment,” she tells me. However, we both agree that hard-rock facts are not always an accurate measure of success. “Sometimes it’s actually the smallest things,” she says, “it’s the fact that a woman gains confidence; that she knows where to ask for help; that she builds enough trust with us that she can admit or ask for a referral to another organization that could help with something else in her life.” I’m struck by how the “smallest things” even in the face of a mountainous accomplishment such as an 80-90% rate of employment stands out as the winning star. She concludes with a resounding statement – that is certainly at the crux of the Sewing with Purpose collective and that is the belief that – “every woman has a success story.”
“When you come here,” she tells me, “the government offers some assistance but at this stage, the women are not able to absorb everything they hear.”
Anne-Lydie shifts the laptop to pan over to Yasmin Ali from the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute (CMWI) who now shares her story with me – a story that overlaps with much of the CMWI’s history. Emigrating from Trinidad to pursue her studies, Yasmin eventually settled in Manitoba. In a search for community and belonging, she naturally frequented community spaces such as masjids (mosques) and began volunteering there. She noticed that a lot of newcomer women in Winnipeg seemed a bit lost. “When you come here,” she tells me, “the government offers some assistance but at this stage, the women are not able to absorb everything they hear.” It’s an overwhelming, arduous, and often scary experience to leave – either willingly or unwillingly – your native country and settle in an unfamiliar place. Whether it is a language barrier, trauma, or generally feeling overwhelmed by the inaccessible bureaucracy, one thing was clear to Yasmin: Winnipeg needed an aid program to guide, and most importantly, to empower its newcomer women.
What began as informational sessions grew into an organization that offers various services and programs to meet the needs of the growing refugee and newcomer population in Winnipeg. The sewing aspect is one of many programs that the CMWI offers. Yasmin has been working with the CMWI as a volunteer for 16 years and has been the organization’s president for 15 years and a half. This organization has withstood the test of time, certainly due to the countless hours that women like Yasmin dedicate. “We started with two part-time staff members and are now at 15 full-time staff members.” Again, while I am impressed by this fact which surely attests to the sustainability and need of such organizations, I am touched when contemplating just how many women have been aided by the CMWI over the years– each one, a success story.