Our City, Their Words: Boss Lady Edition // Jennifer Owens: Forai

St. Louis is home to thousands of immigrants and refugees from around the world. Starting a new life and becoming self-sufficient here can be challenging for families. “Boss lady” Jennifer Owens, executive director at Forai (Friends Of Refugees And Immigrants), is working to make that transition a little easier for women in the city. Forai teaches immigrant and refugee women how to make jewelry and textiles, and then sells the pieces they make. The artisans work from their homes and earn money to support their families. Read on to learn more about what Jennifer does and why she does it.

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What's your inspiration behind starting Forai?  The real inspiration came after hosting some refugees in our home for a meal. In 2008, our church offered the opportunity to host meals for families who had recently arrived from refugee camps. We said ‘yes’ and two families came to our home for dinner. One of them was a single mom with her two school-age children. She spoke no English, had maybe a second-grade education level, and had lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. Her husband passed away in the camp, and here she was responsible for the kids on her own. I couldn't get her situation out of my head. How would it even be possible for her to find a job that could support her family of three? I kept thinking and praying, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Through all that, what came out is the idea of working with our hands, because that bridges the language barrier. When you’re working with your hands, it's helpful to speak English, but not necessary. Lots of women have handcrafting skills, so that is a starting point. So we went to more groups of refugees to ask them if they thought the opportunity to create products in their homes would be beneficial. If they didn’t think it would be helpful, there was no use in trying it. However, we found lots of interested people, and that’s where Forai started.  

Who would you say Forai is for?  First, Forai is for women from the refugee and immigrant community in St. Louis. That is who we're focused on bringing into our program. Many of them are at home because of health reasons or they have young kids, and they benefit from the dignity and empowerment of learning new things and being able to create additional income for their families. We also provide for those who want to do something that makes a difference in their community (and specifically the refugee community), through volunteer hours or donations or purchases. Over the recent years there's been more media attention showing how many people are displaced and a small picture of what life is like for them, so we’ve seen people asking what they can possibly do to help. Their purchases actually do make a difference in a life in their community. We also want to educate the broader community, rewrite the refugee narrative, and demystify some of the information out there about refugees - putting faces on the rhetoric so it's more positive and accurate.

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What has been your proudest moment since you started Forai?  Sometime last year, as I was interacting with one of the women who I've been mentoring personally and have known for 5 or 6 years, she said to me, "You're like the big sister I never had." She's from Bhutan, and lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 16 years. We come from completely different backgrounds, but for her to view me in that way felt like a really precious moment. On more of the business side, as people reach out to us to sell our things, it makes it seem like people really like our products. That feels exciting, like it's really working.

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What are your future goals for Forai?  In the very immediate future, we’re working on setting up a permanent workshop space in South City that would allow us to consolidate all our supplies, finished products, and equipment. We could do drop-in classes for women there as well. We visit women in their homes, but this would allow them to come to the workshop if they ran into a problem with something they were making. We could offer classes and additional training beyond just the products we're making, as well as classes for the community to help fund what we're doing. Further in the future, we’d like to have our own retail space, a space where people could come buy our full line of products in person. All those things would lead to training and employing more refugee and immigrant women. They could take on positions beyond making and could gain more skills that could lead to other jobs in the future.

What piece of advice would you give to other women trying their entrepreneurial success?   Another small business owner once told me that you need to be sure of what your vision is, and don't let anyone talk you out of it. We need flexibility and to be willing to listen and change, but everyone has their own ideas. So if you really think this is what you should be doing, stick with it.

What's the biggest challenge in starting a non-profit organization?  One of the biggest challenges is having enough manpower, because as a non-profit, we rely on volunteers to do a lot. We can't just go hire a bunch of people. Volunteers are volunteers, and you want to respect their time and make them feel appreciated. You need them to do a lot for you, but they have lives and jobs; volunteerism isn't their full time job. So having enough staff is difficult.

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What is the best thing about living in St. Louis?  I love all the fun things you can do that don't cost much or any money. I also love the diversity of our city. My neighborhood is diverse, and I’m part of a faith community that is committed to racial reconciliation. While that commitment doesn't reflect all of St. Louis, I really appreciate being part of that community. It’s helped me see my need to learn more and be in relationship with people who are different than me, and I can't imagine that not being a part of my life.  

Why do you call St. Louis home, and what are some of your favorite activities here?  It's the longest place I've lived my whole life, so that’s part of why it feels like home. My favorite activity is going to the Botanical Gardens. I homeschooled most of my kids for awhile so we spent a lot of time at the Gardens. I love Tower Grove Park too… really anywhere there are trees and flowers!


We love the work that Jennifer is doing through Forai to help immigrant and refugee women in our city. Visit Forai's website to see the jewelry, accessories, and textiles available - all handcrafted by women in St. Louis. On the site you can also find a calendar of upcoming festivals, and events, as well as a list of retail partners where you can find Forai products.

This Saturday, August 12, Revive is hosting a Forai Trunk Show from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. We hope to see you there!

Our City, Their Words: Boss Lady Edition // Emily Ponath: Rack + Clutch

You’ve seen it parked around town, and hopefully you’ve gotten a chance to shop inside the fabulous Rack + Clutch fashion truck. There’s a beautiful “boss lady” behind the wheel of this mobile boutique: Emily Ponath. Emily graduated from the Textile and Apparel Management program at Mizzou, and she’s been a buyer for three different St. Louis companies. She dreamed up and created the truck after the boutique where she was a buyer closed in 2012. Rack + Clutch became the first fashion truck in St. Louis.

At Revive, we’re inspired by her creativity, pioneering spirit, and perseverance, and it just so happens she’s a big fan of Revive and MIssion: St. Louis too!

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Who would you say Rack + Clutch is for?  Rack + Clutch was created for a busy woman who doesn't really like the mall. She wants a personal shopping experience and she likes that it comes to her. She doesn't want to spend a lot of money on her wardrobe, but she doesn't mind to spend a little more to have a unique shopping experience and find special pieces she won't see everyone else wearing. She wants to feel like she is supporting her local community by shopping and she is!

What's the biggest challenge in starting your own business?  I think our biggest challenge was getting our mobile retail permit for the city of St. Louis and figuring out if our business was legal or not and where we would be allowed to operate. We had a very rough start because we were the first fashion truck to hit the streets and the city kept shutting us down, but we eventually figured out where we could park legally and who we could partner with to make our business happen!

Do you feel like the business aspect of your job takes away from the creative aspect?  Yes. Only because I spend most of my time setting up the truck for business each day, fixing things that are broken, checking out customers, being a retail salesperson, booking our schedule each day and ordering inventory. Being creative gets put on the back burner most of the time because we don't have employees and we must do everything we can to keep the business running, but my creativity re-emerges when I take time off in January and February and I take that time to come up with new ideas to keep things fresh.

What is one of the most difficult things about the work you do?  The hardest thing for me is being the person who makes most of the important decisions about the business and who is responsible for doing the things that keep the business running on a daily basis. My mind is constantly spinning, going over what I can do to make it better and if I should do this or do that instead. It can be very stressful at times, knowing I'm the one who is responsible for our success or failure.

What are some of your favorite activities in St. Louis?  We love trying new restaurants that open up and getting ice cream at every ice cream spot on a regular basis. We also go to different local parks on our days off each week and enjoy taking our dog for long walks in different neighborhoods. We just like being outside anywhere when it's not hot or freezing.

What is the best thing about living in St. Louis?  I think the best thing about living in St. Louis is how supportive and generous people are. When I had some surgeries in 2015, people constantly asked my husband how I was doing and offered to help us run our business when I couldn't work. They also came out and bought stuff just because they knew we needed extra support at that time. By building this business, we've also built a little system of support and have people who care about us as friends. I tell people when they stop by sometimes that I don't care if they come to buy stuff. I'm just happy that they stopped in to say ‘hello.’

 


We are encouraged by Emily’s work ethic and commitment to the St. Louis community (and especially her devotion to every ice cream shop). Keep your eyes open for her hot pink and orange truck around STL, and check out her website and social media to see where she’ll be parked next.

Emily with be at Revive with the truck THIS Saturday, August 5 at Revive from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM! We hope you’ll stop in and say ‘hello!’  

Our City, Their Words: Boss Lady Edition #2

“The most important thing I learned was the difference between solidarity and charity. Charity temporarily fills an immediate need… Solidarity calls for us all to work against biases and prejudice that are ingrained in policies, practices and behaviors towards many of the most oppressed in our communities.”

Rachel Cramsey is the Executive Director of a local nonprofit in St. Louis called Let’s Start. Rachel is a friend of Mission: St. Louis and a huge fan of shopping for work outfits at Revive. She is a local St. Louis “boss lady” that contributes to our community. Rachel came to speak with some of our staff to discuss the services her organization provides. Let’s Start works with previously incarcerated women and their families to provide support for recovery and reentry. Rachel and her staff work alongside the women that participate in the program, enabling them to have a smooth reentry transition while empowering them to actively advocate for change.

Rachel is originally from Quincy, Illinois. She completed a year of service with Catholic Charities Service Corps working with a non-profit in Buffalo, NY. She refers to this time as a “seed-planting year,” and encouraged our current Mission: St. Louis VISTAs by informing them that even when it doesn’t seem like it, skills and values are being cultivated and developed. We had the opportunity to ask Rachel questions about her community service background and her professional experience as a woman working in the nonprofit world.

During your year of service, what was one of the most important things you learned?

“The most important thing I learned was the difference between solidarity and charity. Charity temporarily fills an immediate need, which many people do rely on. Solidarity calls for us all to work against biases and prejudice that are ingrained in policies, practices and behaviors towards many of the most oppressed in our communities. As my understanding about these differences grew, so did my awareness of my own internal bias. Beginning to unpack that and be more self-aware has been an ongoing opportunity for me to grow. There was a saying in our year of service that this experience ‘ruins us for life,’ that is, we wouldn't be able to unlearn or turn a blind eye to the realities and the injustices we would understand better in that year. For me, that saying was so true. I've been changed by the year I spent in Buffalo, NY, and it's greatly influenced who I have become.”

How did you end up being an Executive Director in St. Louis?

“Two years ago, I began working with Let’s Start as their Program Manager. My job was to organize bus trips so children were able to visit their mothers who were presently incarcerated. I also helped connect caregivers to resources, and I was responsible for other needs as they arose. After some transition in the organization, the role of Executive Director opened up. I took it on an interim basis at first because there were things that needed to be taken care of in the absence of a full-time director. I loved my role as Program Manager because it put me in direct contact with our families on a regular basis. As Executive Director, however, I found my experience informed me in some of the decisions I had to make or the reports I had to put together, and it made that transition much easier. It was because of my experience with our families that I decided to apply for the position full-time, and I am grateful for the people in Let's Start who supported that process."

What is one of the most difficult things about the work you do?

“Combating the stigma that still targets formerly-incarcerated people is one of the most difficult pieces about what Let's Start does. Women we work with who have been through the criminal justice system aren't necessarily forgiven for their charges, despite having served their sentences.  Think about that. Women come home; they are trying to return to their families and make better decisions, provide for their families, take care of aging parents and so on, but they don't have access to jobs that pay above minimum wage; they don't have access to safe housing options; they don't have health care. They have a lot of things stacked against them. Additionally, I have been asked why we would take children to prison to visit their mothers and if that's a healthy place for kids to be. My response to that is if that's where their mothers are, that's where the children want to be. Those are important relationships, and the separation of this person from her family has long-term effects that continue to go ignored by those who prefer to put non-violent individuals struggling with addiction and mental health diagnoses behind bars rather than support their recovery in the community. When someone goes to prison or jail, more than just that one individual becomes incarcerated. This is why Let's Start advocates with local and state lawmakers; this is why our women are in the community speaking to groups about their experiences with incarceration, poverty, trauma, addiction and other pipelines that raise their risk of entering the criminal justice system.”

How does Let’s Start empower the women that are a part of the organization?

“Twenty-seven years ago, Let's Start was begun by a School Sister of Notre Dame and women who served time in the criminal justice system. There are seats on the Board of Directors reserved for participants in our organization. We operate the women's programming from a peer support model, which designates that the women will be the ones to facilitate and guide their group every week. The role of Women's Support Coordinator has always been held by someone with personal experience with the criminal justice system so that women feel supported by someone who has been through what they have been through. It's important for us to provide opportunities for the women's voices to be amplified as much as possible. Our education and outreach efforts are fulfilled by the women as well. When we have church groups, school groups or community groups who want to hear about Let's Start, it's oftentimes the women who share their stories. Those are powerful opportunities for the women and for their audience. When someone who's recently been released from prison or someone who's just started her recovery has her first speaking engagement, yes, she's nervous, but afterward, she often wants to do it again. More often than not, there will be members of that audience who approach the speakers afterward and share a relative's struggle with addiction or their own mental health diagnoses. When those connections are made, I think that's incredibly empowering for the speakers. They've been fed negative messages about their self-worth for years. Being in front of groups who receive their stories and can relate to aspects of them change that narrative. Let's Start also connects with lawmakers and legislators. This year we are planning to participate in the National Day of Empathy on March 1, in which we'll travel to Jefferson City with members of our community and with members of Criminal Justice Ministry, an organization that also works in reentry, to speak with legislators about criminal justice reform. The National Day of Empathy hopes to have groups in every state traveling to their Capitols, and I am really excited for our participants to speak directly to the lawmakers who represent them. That's an empowering experience.”

What is the best thing about living in St. Louis?

“I live in South City, and I love the diversity of that neighborhood. One of my favorite things to do is stoop sit with my roommate. We'll invite friends over and make an evening of hanging out on our front porch. It feels like our version of a backyard BBQ only on a smaller scale. I've lived in St. Louis for seven years now, and it's home to me. I love being outside and seeing my neighbors or visitors enjoying our neighborhood as much as we do.”

What is one philosophy you live your life by?

“I'm not sure I can pick one philosophy, but something I work on regularly is staying balanced, as that has an impact on both my personal and professional lives. I appreciate the work Let's Start does because it relies on relationships, and supporting our participants means we also have to make support part of our office culture. It can be easy to get caught up in the work that needs to be done. For me, balance means I know when I need to bring work home and when my focus needs to be on friends or family.”

What are your professional goals?

“First, I want to ensure Let's Start's support is available to the women and families we work with and that we expand our outreach to new families. There are still a lot of people in this community who haven't heard about Let's Start and I want to change that. I know there are more women who could benefit from our support group, and there are certainly more children with incarcerated mothers who could use our monthly bus trips. Secondly, when I took this position it was because I felt informed by the work I'd been doing with our families, so as Executive Director I want to continue to have a relationship with our families. I can't be at all the events and meetings I once was, but I call participants to check in with them and I make sure they can reach me. It's important they know that though my role has changed, I'm here for them.”


We are so excited to highlight women like Rachel and the work they do for our community. We are honored to be chosen as one of her go-to shops for professional outfits. Rachel’s necklace ($8.00) and blazer ($4.00) were both found at Revive. We applaud the work that Rachel and her staff are doing at Let’s Start. She is a shining example of a boss lady that serves the community in class and style.

Enjoy Your Valentine's Day Single or Taken!

Enjoy your Valentine's Day Single or Taken!

By Brittany Forrest, Guest Blogger.

Love is in the air, and the pressure is on to find a date before the 14th. Relationships are definitely wonderful, but I believe you can have just as much fun with your friends and family. Let Revive help you make this Valentine's Day memorable if you're going on a romantic date or a night out with friends! 

6 Great Romantic & Friend Valentine Day's Dates, STL edition

 

Arts

1. Hearts for Art: St. Louis Art Museum is hosting a event where the public can show love to their favorite artwork. Each person can pick a free paper heart upon arrival and display it underneath art pieces they like the most. Make sure to post pictures on social media using the event's hashtag #HeartsforArt and #SLAMheart.

Feb. 14, FREE admission. Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Dr Forest Park, St. Louis, 314-721-0072.

Feb. 14, FREE admission. Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Dr Forest Park, St. Louis, 314-721-0072.

Fitness Fun

2. Run For Chocolate: Trying to stay fit while indulging in sweets? This 5K run/walk is just for you. A great way to spice up your Valentine's Day. The event includes chocolate finisher medals, chocolate goody bags, water stops, gallons of hot cocoa, and St. Louis' very own Bissinger's chocolate. This is indeed a chocolate lover's heaven.

Sat., Feb. 11, 9 a.m., $35-$120. Bissinger's Chocolate Shoppe, 1600 N. Broadway, St. Louis, 314-615-2400.

Sat., Feb. 11, 9 a.m., $35-$120. Bissinger's Chocolate Shoppe, 1600 N. Broadway, St. Louis, 314-615-2400.

Romantic

3. Untamed Hearts: A Valentine's Day Mystery Dinner: Spend your Valentine's Day at the Saint Louis Zoo. Treat your loved one to a three-course meal and wine, live music and dancing. 

Fri., Feb. 10, 6-10 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 11, 6-10 p.m., $150/couple, call 314-646-4897 for reservations. Saint Louis Zoo, 1 Government Dr., Forest Park, St. Louis.

Fri., Feb. 10, 6-10 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 11, 6-10 p.m., $150/couple, call 314-646-4897 for reservations. Saint Louis Zoo, 1 Government Dr., Forest Park, St. Louis.

Night Out

4. Love Stinks, Let's Drink: Life's too short to dwell in loneliness, enjoy good drinks and meet someone new! Big Daddy's on The Landing has nights full of games, trivia, dance-offs, sing-alongs and more. 

Feb. 10-14. Big Daddy's-The Landing, 118 Morgan St., St. Louis, 314-621-6700. FREE admission.

Feb. 10-14. Big Daddy's-The Landing, 118 Morgan St., St. Louis, 314-621-6700. FREE admission.

Comedy

5. Funny Bone St. Louis: Get your laugh on this Valentine's Day and be entertained by today's funniest comedians. Tickets are pretty affordable with shows are even as low as $5! For more information visit, Funny Bone St. Louis.

Funny Bone St. Louis, 614 Westport Plz, St. Louis, Mo 63146. Johnny Beehner and Joe Marlotti will be the comedians for Valentine's Day and weekend. Open Mic night on 2/13.

Funny Bone St. Louis, 614 Westport Plz, St. Louis, Mo 63146. Johnny Beehner and Joe Marlotti will be the comedians for Valentine's Day and weekend. Open Mic night on 2/13.

Explore

6. City Museum: Take a trip to St. Louis City Museum, "where imagination runs wild!" This museum has great attractions such as a funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, rides, and more. Unleash your adventurous side and learn something new this Valentine's Day. For more information visit, City Museum.

City Museum St. Louis, 750 N. 16th Street St. Louis, MO 63103. $12 (plus tax) or $10 (plus tax) after 5pm Fri. & Sat.

City Museum St. Louis, 750 N. 16th Street St. Louis, MO 63103. $12 (plus tax) or $10 (plus tax) after 5pm Fri. & Sat.

Date ideas from The Riverfront Times.

 

We hope everyone has an enjoyable Valentine's Day and weekend!

Love,

Revive