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LYDIA WITT


DRESSMAKER

COMMUNITY EDUCATOR

CROSS CULTURAL COMMUNITY BUILDING

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LYDIA WITT


DRESSMAKER

COMMUNITY EDUCATOR

CROSS CULTURAL COMMUNITY BUILDING

 

I have a wooden spoon tattooed on my wrist...

A symbol of the shared experience of building a home away from home.

As an undergraduate, I lived with 23 other female students. We looked after each other, cooked and cleaned for one another, and became a family of sorts. That family fundamentally shaped my values and aspirations through its diverse personalities and shared desire to succeed in a new place. Together we grappled to navigate our dreams, and to mesh our past with our present and future. We lived in the Harriet E. Richards cooperative house at Boston University, a well-loved 19th century brownstone and a unique form of financial support. The kitchen had a long table built to accommodate us all for collective meals, where we shared our daily ventures and latest news. Living there meant actively contributing to a self-governed community based on cooperation, respect, and inclusion - with a flair for the creative on limited resources. This community pushed my emotional and creative development, helped me assume responsibility for my actions, and gave me a first sense of belonging.

After graduation, I left the HER house to craft a life in New York City, but initially felt something was missing. I realized that it was the feeling of community and one of the first places I found it again was the New York City Ballet costume shop. The women working there were from Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, and had come to New York after the fall of the Soviet Union. They shared with me the secrets of tutu making-how to transform steel and silk. As we worked, I helped them with their English and citizenship tests and we would celebrate each success with schnapps an chocolate.The experience of building friendships with these remarkable women taught me that bringing people together around a point of common interest, such as sewing, facilitates conversation and in turn helps to bridge differences and foster understanding.

Just as developing a relationship with housemates and coworkers is essential to the feeling of belonging, so too is the relationship between a host society and newcomers. This summer, while collecting testimonies of refugees at a mobile clinic in Rome, I observed how desperate these displaced people were to form community as part of a new life for themselves. Many of these newcomers shared with me how difficult it was to find acceptance and a sense of normalcy. These are critical but missing components for many refugees, who want to move beyond struggling for basic human needs to realizing their personal potential, developing meaningful relationships and finding fulfilling work. These individuals do not want to be isolated or judged by stereotypes, instead they seek opportunities to build, and belong.

Experiencing these realities has led me to question how we can develop and improve collaborative relationships between local communities and asylum seekers and refugees, while simultaneously preparing them for the thing they seek the most- a job. I came to this conclusion after meeting Adama, Mohamed, Malang, and Wiye, dressmakers from Gambia. They were staying at a reception center in Rome while their asylum claims were being processed. With a few tools and some fabric, they were preparing for the future, trying to improve their skills. They reminded me of my ballet friends and I wished for them to have the same opportunity to use sewing as both a way to earn money and build community. With the support of Fulbright, I am using expertise in dressmaking and my background in International Education to develop a program for people in similar situations. I hope it will help shed light on how best to serve their needs, while validating their past, and giving them a real chance to enter the Italian job market and to find community, their own wooden spoon. 

 
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