Following the popular success of its crafting-builds-community-themed exhibit at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Miracle Mile, Yarn Bombing Los Angeles (YBLA) connected with the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), a nationally recognized nonprofit serving the needs of women overcoming poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, to support residents of the Center’s permanent supportive housing. By providing comfort through repurposing the crocheted granny squares leftover from the original exhibit into handmade blankets, YBLA joined DWC in fostering values of creativity, community, and social engagement. The one-time collaboration then blossomed into a long-term project that would support DWC’s job-readiness programs and leave a lasting impression on its community of women.
DWC is home to 119 formerly homeless residents of downtown Los Angeles and also houses a Day Center that provides services to homeless and low-income women on a drop-in basis. In addition to a wide range of basic needs, health, and education programming, DWC offers a series of skill-building workshops called SET (Skills Enhancement Training) to Create. By creating handmade products that are sold at wholesale chains and in MADE by DWC, the Center’s two social enterprise stores, the women of DWC break down social barriers, increase self-esteem, and re-engage with their communities while pursuing vocational goals and gaining supplemental income. The SET to Create program and MADE by DWC also provide the community a safe place within an urban context to be creative, while advocating for women’s equality and addressing issues of homelessness.
DWC partners with local artists, designers, and community activists to facilitate SET to Create workshops and support design efforts for an eco-friendly product line, handMADE. MADE by DWC is committed to connecting social profit to environmental sustainability and strives to create recycled and repurposed products from materials that would otherwise go to waste. All products are made by program participants onsite in DWC’s skill-building workshops. This community-based approach aided the collaboration with YBLA when the organizations worked together to develop a new product for handMADE and build upon SET to Create’s 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 to continue teaching them once the group’s commitment ended.
Prior to YBLA’s involvement with DWC, SET to Create program participants expressed an interested in learning to knit and worked with Center volunteers to begin building the foundation of their knitting skills. The YBLA collaboration added value to this initiative by channeling those skills into a new product, a knit ‘HOME’ ornament, that seamlessly fit into MADE by DWC’s brand, likewise enhancing and supporting the emerging skillset of the women. The group also showed an ability and willingness to create a cohesive curriculum that fully represented their vision and could easily be conveyed to workshop participants. They offered the women of DWC an opportunity to hone their talents and to engage in a dynamic public art project that linked their community with networks across Los Angeles. YBLA acted as a catalyst for crafters to come together to create prototypes, prepare a cost analysis, train facilitators, and raise awareness about the causes of homelessness.
Magdalena, a SET to Create participant at DWC, participates weekly in the knitting workshops. After working as a live-in babysitter and housekeeper, she became ill and was unable to pay rent. Magdalena was sleeping on the streets of Skid Row when a friend told her about the Center, where she started participating in workshops to make products like soap, ornaments, journals, and candles. According to Magdalena, making products taught her to express her feelings, and she built her skills one step at a time after seeing how successfully she could create. She had lost confidence in herself after enduring verbal abuse from previous employers and her ex-husband; she was quiet and closed off. After regularly participating in the SET to Create program and working with volunteers like those from YBLA, she now has the confidence to communicate with others and has used the job skills she learned making products to complete a work-readiness internship. “I learned how to make products and how to be patient, and I felt encouraged. It has improved my life a lot,” she said. Magdalena is now a proud resident of DWC, a workshop leader, and a mentor to her peers overcoming similar challenges.
Ultimately, this collaboration between YBLA and DWC emphasizes the importance of art and creativity as platforms for supporting community engagement and social change efforts in our neighborhoods. The handmade ornaments 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 show that solutions to homelessness do exist. The partnership between Yarn Bombing Los Angeles and the Downtown Women’s Center redefines the scope of visual art as a tool that can be utilized on multiple levels for a social cause: a visual attraction, ties between socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, and community investment to end homelessness and chronic unemployment.