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Hooray for The Social Studio

June 1, 2010

The good news is: Vodafone has got a kick-ass initiative called World of Difference – a program which gives five Aussies the chance to work for a charity or NGO of their choice while being fully funded and supported for a year.

The bad news is: I didn’t get it! (I proposed a project on this theme).

The good news: Grace McQuilton did. Grace is an amazing woman and visionary, dedicated to creating social change through innovative design and social enterprise.

In 2009 she started up The Social Studio, a Melbourne-based design house and social enterprise dedicated to empower young refugees to achieve their dreams. The main barriers faced by newly arrived members of the community, she says, are unemployment, isolation and difficulties accessing education and training. The Social Studio addresses these problems by creating jobs, providing education, encouraging community engagement and offering social inclusion.

The studio is set up as a training facility, providing opportunities to obtain qualifications in retail, fashion and hospitality, the main focus being clothing design in a program where young trainees learn production skills through creating original garments from recycled and excess manufacturing materials gathered from local industry.

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Having worked for several years for a non-profit organisation Lentil as Anything (a restaurant chain allowing the customer to decide what they want to pay for their food(!)), she says she was tired of seeing her efforts to train and provide employment for refugees and migrants workers go nowhere. Looking for a way of providing ongoing opportunities for workers, she began thinking again about artists who used design to create social change.

In an interview on indesignlive, Grace says: “It occurred to me that rather than trying to change this group of people to suit mainstream employers, it would be better to create a business that is actually designed around their skills, their culture, their talent and their creativity, and give them an opportunity to express that.” She came up with a plan to grow the passion for fashion in the young community, by setting up the studio/shop/cafe.

I couldn’t reach Grace for an interview, but her chat with the Sportsgirl website late last year was so inspiring and beautiful that I feel obliged to reprint it:

Sportsgirl: The hardest thing for people trying to make a difference in the world is often where to start. Can you tell us about the birth of Social Studio and how you initially got started?

Grace: The Social Studio was a proactive and direct response to seeing many talented young people from the refugee community who were struggling financially and socially. Many young people who have come to Australia from war-torn countries have to support themselves financially and often have to send money to family members living in difficult circumstances overseas.

It is very hard to get a job when you have never worked before, and when your English is not perfect, and when you don’t have social networks in a new country. The Social Studio is a dynamic attempt to turn this situation around. Starting up was the easy part, because so many people recognised the need and wanted to support the initiative. Understanding the problem, however, took several years of engaged community work.

There are so many ways that you can engage a community – why did you choose fashion as a focus for your work?

Grace: Fashion is the focus of The Social Studio because it is fun, creative, and empowering. It offers an outlet for cultural expression, and provides skill development in many different areas – from manufacturing and design to retail, business and administration! It is also an industry with a lot of excess and waste which we believe can be used in environmentally sustainable and socially beneficial ways. Most importantly, newly arrived communities in Australia have got an abundance of beauty, style, and fashions to share. We can learn so much from other cultures and the Social Studio offers this opportunity.

What’s the one piece of advice that you’d give to young people who want to make a positive impact on the world around them?

Grace: The one piece of advice I would give to young people who want to make a difference is to start now! Don’t compromise your values and don’t wait for “the right time” – start thinking about the world you want to live in today, and help make it a reality.

Go, Grace! Go Social Studio!

And the rest of you, check out her work on The Social Studio.org or drop in to their shop on 128 Smith Street, Collingwood for a coffee and some retail therapy. And if you can go minus the caffeine, they’re on etsy, too.

(Photos by Raphael Kilpatrick)

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