- By Kara Larson - When I stepped off the elevator and into the American Refugee Committee Headquarters in Northeast, Minneapolis, there was a tangible and welcoming warmth. I glanced around the cozy, yet modern space, marked with lots of exposed brick and big, brilliant windows on all sides, and made a note of the quote on the lobby wall, “to be human is wondrous.” I was soon greeted by Jessica Phinney and Jenna Myrland, who have both worked at ARC for eight years. As they showed me around the office, I was able to appreciate secondhand the beautiful, meaningful, and inspiring work of the American Refugee Committee. I walked past a sea of colorful post-it notes with reminders and goals and ideas, wall to wall dry-erase boards filled with long lists and the occasional doodle, another wall featuring outlines of visitor’s hands in every color (mine is a pink outline with “Kara” next to it), and finally, I found countless proud photos of refugee projects, most featuring vibrant smiling individuals from all over the world. Jessica and Jenna lit up talking about these projects, sharing stories and special moments—and in their passion, I was able to experience the hope, the courage, and the depth in their desire to make change through their work at ARC.
The specific change-making project I was there to learn more about was a collection of locally made goods called The Maker’s Collection. As the creative minds behind the project, Jenna and Jessica sat down with me to share their vision.
Three and half years ago, this collection began with an idea. An idea that quickly inspired the question: “How do we make this happen?”
Jenna begins, “We were very aware of what was happening in our own community—just seeing the wealth of talent around us—and that was really exciting to us. Knowing that our work is only possible through connecting with more and more people, we thought, how interesting would it be to collaborate with these unique, talented makers?”
And so, I inquired, “Why these makers?”
Jessica admits, “That’s a good question. We’ve always been wildly fortunate to work with extraordinary makers. Each year, we have fantastic groups of people we get to work with and this year is no exception to that.”
Jenna adds, “What we’ve found in the past few years is that the maker community in the Twin Cities is really, really connected, so once you start tapping into that community, people just come out of the woodwork from all around and you see the connections and relationships. We’re incredibly fortunate to get connected and into that web and that has helped to inform a lot of our decisions.”
One maker story that is especially full-circle within The Maker’s Collection is that of Tia and Souliyahn Keobounpheng, makers behind Silvercocoon. Three pairs of striking earrings conceptualized and made by Tia are being sold in this year’s collection, earrings inspired by the sights and sounds of Thailand—a place in which Tia’s husband, Souliyahn, has close ties. Though Souliyahn was born in Laos, as a child, he and his family were forced to move to a refugee camp in Thailand. Tia explains, “Souliyahn’s father needed to escape Laos—at night under gunfire—and was picked up on the Thailand side of the Mekong River. His mother and siblings ultimately left her family farm in Thailand to join his father in the refugee camp. They spent about 16 months as a family in the refugee camp before being sponsored by a church in Richfield, MN.”
Tia illustrates that their arrival here was not inspired by a choice to move from one place to another, but based on a need to flee an incoming communist government into Laos after the Vietnam War. “It is very much in line with the flow of refugees today—normal people with families trying to find a safe place,” Tia begins. “In all the ways that matter, refugees are no different than you and me. They have the same cares and worries for their family. They have the same hopes and dreams for love and peace and the pursuit of happiness.
She adds, “Being part of The Maker’s Collection has been one of the most meaningful collaborations of my career as a maker thus far. It is such a powerful statement that I can simultaneously do what I do best AND support the work of the American Refugee Committee. So often, we think that there is only one best way to help. As humans, we each have our own truest contribution to the world, and for ARC to recognize the power in bridging that with the needs of others is truly inspiring.”
Connecting with makers like Tia in this bold and connected maker community, Jenna and Jessica found themselves uncovering similar goals and passions to the makers here. Jenna says, “The makers are really connected to their process, their passion, and the dream that they have for what they want to see in the world, and that’s what we are, too. We’re all working to realize that passion.”
Jessica also points out that the American Refugee Committee has been in Minnesota since 1979, so continuing to contribute to Minnesota is an important aspect of their mission. The collection works to invest in the makers by purchasing the custom-designed goods directly from them in limited quantities at wholesale prices. From there, they sell the collection of goods at their full retail value and invest 100% of the profit from the purchase in their programs worldwide. Jessica offers, “I think having the local piece adds an additional layer of meaning. It becomes personal and you form a connection with the person, the product, the story. So that becomes less transactional and more of an experience for people.”
Jenna explains that many products that are offered by organizations similar to ARC are often donated products. And that’s precisely why they wanted to take a different approach. She shares, “We thought about how much fun it would be to be able to invest in these local small businesses that are really trying to grow, make ends meet, and realize this dream that they have for themselves. So, by being able to invest in their business, and then also then sell it at full retail, we’re able to create an impact through our programs as well and connect that full circle.”
As for the specific items that make up the collection, the selection process is part of the fun for Jenna and Jessica. In the beginning, they sit down with each maker, talk about their product line, and what other people in the collection are thinking about making. The goal is to make a cohesive collection and work together, exploring possible collaborations between makers.
In this process, they’re also thinking about the people who will be buying the items in the collection. The official launch is during in the holiday season at the annual Changemaker’s Ball, which took place on December 2nd at the Depot in Downtown Minneapolis this year. Jenna reveals, “We’re always thinking about our supporters and Minnesotans in general and trying to think about the products that are gifts you want to give. There’s something about starting with a gift and a story you can share that makes the collection more meaningful to us.”
This year, nine unique Minnesota makers make up the collection—a succinct number that Jenna and Jessica view as ideal. Jessica begins, “That’s part of why we think it’s so special, because it is so limited. Each maker is only making a handful of products, so it really is unique and custom and something that you can’t get anywhere else.” She adds, “Also, because it’s small, we’re able to push and pull and experiment with new things and try to connect people back to the reason why we’re doing this from the beginning.”
One of the makers who connects deeply with the reason behind it all is Araya Jensen of Willful Goods. She has been a part of The Maker’s Collection since the beginning, selling her classic, hand-dipped wooden bowls. Beyond that, she wholeheartedly values the work that ARC does and is proud to be a part of it as a maker in the collection.
“I always wanted to go into the Peace Corps; I filled out applications twice and unfortunately, it never happened—the timing was never right,” Araya begins. It was after the second Maker’s Collection last year that she volunteered herself for any future missions possible. Lucky for Araya, last January, she had the opportunity to go to a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Mynamar. Inspired by the people, the place, and the work, she shares, “I was able to be a part of a really amazing group of people. We went there for the purpose of helping this group of kids write and perform a song alongside a nonprofit called Playing for Change. They recorded a song that these kids composed and when we got there, they had written the most amazing song and we really did nothing to help… They were so good!” Araya laughs. “We were there to support them and they performed the song for their community and it ended up being this incredible community dance party. So, long story short, for me, I feel like I’m getting more out of being a part of The Maker’s Collection as opposed to the other way around.”
The American Refugee Committee works with refugees around the world in eleven different countries and in each place, their work depends on the context of the situation. Jenna explains, “We’re working in places like Uganda in a refugee settlement that’s been around since 1959 and it has over 120,000 people living in it. It’s an entire city of people who have been there for generations. So the services we’re providing there are like water and protection for women and kids.” She continues, “Those kinds of services are much different than an emergency in Syria where we’re helping people survive from one day to the next. Getting them the food and emergency care that they need to see it through.”
The Maker’s Collection exists as an extraordinary combination of this impactful global work facilitated by the passion, hard work, and stories of local makers. For Jenna and Jessica, this combination exemplifies one of their favorite things to do at ARC. They find depth and purpose in bringing people together, having conversations about ARC’s work, changing the world, solving problems, and unleashing new value. As the collection enlists the talents, skills, and ideas of local makers, Jenna and Jessica find inspiration.
Jessica begins, “You see all of these makers coming together who are bringing their individual talents to do something to better the world. And we get to be a part of that, which is really great.”
Jenna adds, “That’s the biggest part of it for me. We say we believe in the talent and creativity of all people to contribute to this work that we’re doing, and you’re able to really see it in the collection. It’s happening all around us in so many different ways, but the tangibility of being able to see how people can contribute their talent to making that change worldwide is so real and so present that it helps to broaden your ideas of what change can look like.”