The Rapidian

Treetops Collective welcomes neighbors to grand opening of new storefront

Dana Doll, founder and Executive Director of Treetops Collective, invited city residents to visit her new retail store. Located on Division Avenue, the store sold items produced by refugee women.

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/Nathan Slauer

/Nathan Slauer

Sewing machines stood beside thread and needles on tables, lining wide-open windows. Striped onesies, pottery wares, and patterned pillows filled the shelves of simple, wooden cases. The quote “creating a more welcoming community” covered a chalkboard paint wall.

This retail store became the new home of Treetops Collective, a refugee-focused non-profit. The grand opening, which took place on November 1, celebrated in defiance of a challenging year for refugee advocacy.

All items on display came from a social enterprise made up of refugee women. Clothing and home décor featured organic materials crafted by hand on-site in the “maker space.”

Beyond selling goods during the holiday rush, the event highlighted ongoing programming. Opportunities ranged from English conversation groups to baby showers, mentorships to workshops.

“We’re about building social fabrics,” said Director of Sustainability Tarah Carnahan. “We’re making space for women to connect with each other, speak their first language, and find the food they ate in their home country.”

International travel proved a source of inspiration for Carnahan's work. In Asuncion, Paraguay, Carnahan worked in a garbage dump and assisted 17 local women with a small business. Upon return to the U.S., Carnahan sought ways to use the passion for collaboration that she developed overseas. 

Adjusting from life in Paraguay to Grand Rapids proved difficult for Carnahan at first. City residents already had strong networks and did not seek new friendships. 

During a UICA craft show, Carnahan met Dana Doll, founder and Executive Director of Treetops Collective. They hit it off and discussed their mutual interest in art, travel, and community development. 

The name Treetops Collective came from Doll's desire to build connections between those who felt unconnected in Grand Rapids. Doll hoped to make a space in which newcomers, refugee or otherwise, could engage in creative endeavors and build lasting relationships with one another.

“We’ve always liked the imagery of trees and asking, ‘what does it take to sink your roots down deep in a place and flourish, and in turn giving back to your community once you’re rooted in a place?’” said Doll.

In April of 2016, community partnerships formed and small donations trickled in. Doll also started brainstorming the launch of a full social enterprise and the establishment of a pemanent venue.  

Doll, a former international aid worker, used to serve at a local refugee resettlement agency. She left this role because she wanted to establish a new type of orgnization, one that focused on refugees after the initial resettlement process.

“There is a clear distinction between relief and development,” said Doll. “I definitely saw resettlement as the 'relief' portion. It's this life-saving stuff of landing in a new place that is absolutely necessary for survival. But resettlement is different than feeling like you belong in a place.”

To establish a unique model, Doll chose not to promote her own mission and values to refugee leaders. Instead, she offered resources, training, and a space to refugees with their existing business and program ideas. 

The model also involved offering alternative ways to relate with refugees. Prevailing attitudes often held refugees as either a threat or a burden. Even well-intended people risked developing a "white savior complex," if only offered aid to refugees without etablishing a deeper relationship.  

"In this current political season, the narrative says that refugees are dangerous and we need to fear them,” said Carnahan. “They’re expensive, and they’re going to sap our cities’ social systems.”

Not enough people understood how generous refugees could be, according to Carnahan. Nadiya, an Iraqi woman, once offered to deliver a meal to Carnahan’s sick son, Lincoln, despite her lack of transportation.

“Nadiya told me that ‘I just wish that I had a car because I would’ve driven to your house and given you soup to make sure your son is okay,’” said Carnahan. “Although a car would be useful to her for a thousand reasons, the thing that was bothering her was accessibility for helping a friend.”

Beyond facing public scrutiny, refugees experienced hardship due to federal travel restrictions. Nadiya decided against visiting her family in Iraq out of a fear of permanent separation from the U.S. A number of refugees associated with Treetops Collective knew family members, who could not arrive in the U.S. 

The grand opening did not signal the end of Treetops Collective's expanded programming. Planned additions included small business incubation services, city tours, and more cross-cultural dialogue sessions.

“The game changer is if you know someone," said Carnahan. “Get to know a new neighbor who has walked a different path than yourself. Friendships can start with a cup of coffee.”

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