After a life-changing experience in Central America, Michele Dudley started Fashion & Compassion, a program designed to help women all over the world get their lives on track after overcoming abuse, sex trafficking, addiction or incarceration. Fashion & Compassion teaches women how to design and sell jewelry, yet it’s about so much more than jewelry. It’s about giving women in need the opportunity to grow and overcome — whatever their situation. We’re excited to tell you all about Fashion & Compassion and introduce you to today’s FACE of the South, Michele Dudley.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up outside of Boston and left when I was 17 to attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where I lived and worked for six years. I moved to Charlotte in 1993 and met my future husband a week later! We have four teenage children and a college student from Burundi, who has been a part of our family for five years.
What made you decide to leave the corporate world to start Fashion & Compassion, and how did you come up with the idea?
In between my career at Bank of America and starting Fashion & Compassion, I worked for my husband’s company, Overground, handling the accounting part-time while raising our kids. During this time I participated in volunteer work with children from underserved communities and also became the director of our small family foundation. I felt a stirring in my heart that God had something bigger for me to do but I wasn’t sure what that was. I began reading and learning about local and global poverty, specifically its impact on women and girls. Through my church, Forest Hill, I connected with an African organization, African Leadership & Reconciliation Ministries and was deeply impressed with their work training leaders in Central Africa. In 2008 I had the opportunity to go to Rwanda and Burundi and see the work first hand … the experience truly changed my life.
When I returned from Africa I helped ALARM start a sponsorship program for a girls’ school in Rwanda for survivors of the 1994 genocide. I also learned about a program ALARM had empowering women in Kampala, Uganda, through handmade paper bead jewelry. To raise funds, I began selling this jewelry to friends out of my dining room. Additionally, I met Antonia “Neet” Childs, a local survivor of sex trafficking here in Charlotte and began to learn about the issues impacting women in our own community. From time to time we began employing some of the local survivors Neet was working with to make necklaces from some of the broken paper bead necklaces. In the meantime, ALARM asked if I would take over their paper bead project in Uganda. Other connections came about with projects in Ecuador, Mexico and Ethiopia, so we launched Fashion & Compassion as a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2014.
In the fall of 2013 we launched a weekly jewelry project in the Hidden Valley community of Charlotte in partnership with Northside Baptist Church. These jewelry projects have become the heart of our work in Charlotte and provide part-time employment to women transitioning from lives of abuse, trafficking, incarceration and addiction in a gentle, loving environment. The projects include community volunteers and staff who build relationships and trust across racial, socio-economic, cultural and religious divides in an environment that builds confidence through dignified work and community support. We currently lead three weekly jewelry projects in Charlotte, one outside Atlanta and one in Charleston. Each one is four hours and includes a “lunch and learn” meal we share together. The women are paid for their participation, and we connect them to resources in the community to help them move forward toward their life goals.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Like most working moms, balancing my work with my family is my greatest challenge. Fortunately, my husband Eric and my children are supportive. Our children have had the incredible opportunity of having a young leader from Burundi become their big brother over the past five years. Also, whenever possible, I take one of my children with me on my trips to visit our international projects and partners. As a result, they have insight into the world — and Africa in particular — in a way that most teenagers do not.
As the leader of an organization with a strong and supportive staff, I’ve been able to maintain a flexible schedule so that I drive carpool and work from home in the afternoons to be available for my kids.
Yet, leading a growing organization that I am passionate about is all-encompassing, and it is easy to be consumed with email, meetings, crises or the next big opportunity and miss small moments with my family — I am currently striving to improve my ability to be present both physically and emotionally for my family.
How about the most rewarding part?
This is an easy question! I have had the opportunity to develop friendships with inspirational women from all over the world who have overcome unbelievable circumstances. Each week I witness healing conversations and encouragement between the women we serve (our artisans), our volunteers and our staff. I especially love it when I see our artisans encouraging the volunteers and volunteers becoming friends with people far different from themselves. This is true dignity and empowerment!
What is the biggest message you hope people take away from the work you and the Fashion & Compassion team do?
We have a saying at Fashion & Compassion: “It’s not about the jewelry.” Yes, we make a lot of jewelry and spend a lot of time designing and selling jewelry, but making jewelry is simply the tool we use to build community and empower women. Our artisans are not given a handout – they earn the money they take home as we come alongside them to help them prepare for the next step on their life’s journey.
What is your hope for the future of Fashion & Compassion?
My biggest hope for Fashion & Compassion is that we deepen the impact we have on the women we serve locally and globally. Developing and growing Fashion & Compassion has been a huge learning process. Naturally, we’ve made mistakes along the way that we’ve learned from, and we are currently focused on honing our operations and infrastructure so that we are prepared to serve more women, more effectively, while selling more jewelry to fund our work.
Not only do you run Fashion & Compassion, but you’re also involved in a number of other local organizations. How do you find the time and energy?
Most of my time is spent with Fashion & Compassion and my family, but the other organizations I currently serve — ALARM, Education Equals Hope and The Barnabas Group — are all connected to my passion for education and empowerment, so it feels natural and cohesive.
Best piece of advice?
Don’t clutch anything in your life too tightly. Live life with your hands open to give and receive, with a willingness to change course as needed to follow the path that God has laid out before you with gratitude.
How do you like to relax and unwind?
I love to travel, read and run with friends.
What’s your favorite thing about Charlotte?
Perfect size, great weather, beautiful scenery and caring people. Recently our family was returning from a trip to Paris, and as we landed in Charlotte, my son Ben said, “It’s great to be home. There is no better place to live than Charlotte”
What are three things you can’t live without, besides faith, family and friends?
Travel – I love the diversity and beauty of the world.
My iPad – I love to read in bed using the Kindle app on my iPad.
Running shoes – While I haven’t been running as much as I used to, it is important to my physical health and emotional stress level.
Thank you to Michele for taking the time to tell us about your life and Fashion & Compassion. Fashion & Compassion is located at 1717 Cleveland Ave., Charlotte, NC 28203. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
As always, thank you to Piper Warlick of Piper Warlick Photography for the wonderful pictures.
Read about more inspiring women in the South — check out our FACES archives here.