A conversation with Catherine Cazes-Wiley, her hats and homeless people. She’s having an interesting journey in life. We won’t tell you about it, we’ll let her tell you.
When I started this social enterprise I had no idea that a common thread was already running among job creation, social justice and the fashion industry. What seemed so far apart is now looking plain. Let me explain. Most quality homeless shelters in the US have some sort of job program and most job program revolve around computer skills, sometimes AC and heat tech., trucking and security guard licensing. Not everybody qualifies. Are we omitting manual skills and becoming too brainy?
I think so. Overseas we do farming, we sew, we craft and we create micro enterprises. Do you see what I see? America is becoming a third world, small jobs are resurfacing. Folks are readier to rethink their environment and are creating new methods for survival, but a lot do not have the skills. In Thailand, Cambodia and North Carolina rescued young women from the sex trade have no skills either but agencies are already in place and the young ladies are learning how to sew, creating clothing, bags even jewelry. There are more opportunities for men than there are for women in the U.S. and most of the time the small alterations businesses, which I do on the side, are held by foreigners like myself. Learning how to sew can lead to that and much more.
What is your passion with creating beautiful hats? Where does that come from?
Thank you for the compliment. This passion came from my heart where Jesus resides. I am inspired by flowers, by my childhood in the New Hebrides Islands, also by the fine craftsmanship of fashion houses in Paris, by fashion from the 40ths among other things.
Where does the name Tinaliah come from and why did you choose this as the name for your mission or business?
Tinaliah “the one who perseveres” is a tribute to myself for all I’ve had to overcome along my life’s journey. I was raised in Cameroon, France and the South Pacific and arrived to the U.S. as an exchange student. I found myself destitute on more than one occasion, but these unique circumstances opened my eyes to the reason for the U.S. homeless population, especially its women.
Are you a nonprofit organization, or are you just operating from your heart?
How did you know, I am working on becoming a nonprofit right now, for my heart is bleeding!
How is your marketing working? Are you getting enough people to come through and purchase products from you and all of the people that you are helping by selling their products?
I do shows, business expos, hat parties and I am expanding into bridal wear. People can find me on Etsy, www.etsy.com/shop/tinaliah. It is fun and exhausting at the same time but it is far from being enough, this is why I am looking forward to becoming a nonprofit or a benefit corporation to look for grants.
You worked in shelters as a craft instructor. Was that something that you proposed and organized or did they have such a program already established?
It was something that I was in my heart to create but when I arrived in New Haven such programs already existed. As I was looking for an apartment to rent I found laying on the rental agency counter a flyer advertising the very program I was imagining! I contacted them right away, the director asked me for a demonstration and I was hired that quickly.
How many different crafters are you working with right now?
There are the crafters and the artists. The crafters are part of a sewing group of seven women operating in a New Haven sewing studio. They produce shawls, scarves, wraps and aprons. I am now able to contract with them for my bridal veils. The artists draw and I coach them to produce saleable art such as hand painted caps, Tee-shirts and cards when we will have added capital.
You were homeless for about five years. How did you come to be homeless and what got you back “on your feet,” so to speak?
I was a missionary willing to experience the “open field”; I had some home bases where I would return after being sent to different locations and states. It came upon me as a surprise for I did not know it would last that long.
Homelessness is usually seen only as a curse but I now see my time as a homeless person as serendipity. Even though I was never in the streets, five years was a long time. And while it was extremely hard at times, I now see this period as a gift, just as someone who recovers from a major illness values their new found life. During that time I became more aware of who I was becoming and what I did not want to become “a cliché-women” modeled after societal stereotypes.
As Carl G Jung puts it in his memoir: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “people can be unhappy because their life does not have sufficient content. People seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they are seeking. If they are unable to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis (the unhappiness) generally disappears.”
During those five years I was forced to rethink a lot of things. For example, being disabled, I am never going to be willing to be put on the shelf. Another twist to my call was the ongoing challenge of fitting the high end of fashion design while dealing with the heart in a social enterprise. It is still a thought mix. Thank God my faith kept me afloat. It just happened that when I was finished learning what I was to learn, it was time for me to get a job and to create Tinaliah and its caring Co-op.
Is this how you became interested in helping other homeless people, because you could relate to them and wanted to help?
Yes, I already had a good education but was in need of the actual experience. After my roaming period, I felt like I finally had both parts of the puzzle and Tinaliah “the one who perseveres” was born. I continue to build the environment, in which I move today, that attracts others like you since you invited me for this lovely chat.
It is true what you said about the lack of people developing craft skills in the U.S. Why do you think it’s like that – teenagers and adults alike don’t learn how to make things?
It is not the custom any longer. Society undervalues manual skills. The US marts galore sell cheap everyday objects which end up as trash somewhere. It is easier to buy, replace and not rethink consumerism meanwhile we stay poor, enslaved and ignorant. My teaching, coaching might just be a drop in the bucket, but I know many would find joy in learning how to make things. We might just create a revolution!
You see this as something that is coming back in this country. How so?
I really cannot answer that as bad habits are hard to change. What I can tell you is only what we personally are doing to help change that as value with education is added to the process. Value because when you make a hat with your own hands or an object or still, when you put your heart into writing a good article you feel good about yourself. The education will come through discussions like this one, with time and with the help of other crafter teachers I am networking with to broaden Tinaliah product line.
What do you do for a living now? How do you support yourself?
I also work as a French interpreter in the Court, plus I have an amazing husband.
What would you like to see happen with Tinaliah and how can others help with that vision?
I am thinking about a store near New York, possibly in the Bronx, with a warehouse to host classes for the community. I am looking for grant avenues that would benefit such venture, creating employment with the homeless and strengthening the ones in recovery. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to help, have questions or suggestions. God bless, thank you.