At the start of the pandemic, Da'Shika Street made a prayer: "If there is a way that can I be of service, that I can be of help, I offer myself in this time."
The next day, she says, she was led to her sewing machine and was compelled to start to making facemasks out of the leftover fabric that was lying around her home.
She put them on social media, and started receiving order requests within minutes. A few days later, there were so many requests that both her teenage daughter and her husband had to help manage the inbox, and within two weeks, it became so much that Street had to create a website.
More:Focus on Black-owned businesses: Read every story from the Beacon Journal's ongoing series here
A year and a half later, Street has expanded her mask-making endeavors into Project Sew United, an environmentally responsible e-commerce business that sells masks, apparel and home décor in vibrant colors and bold prints, and teaches people how to sew and then monetize their new or refined skill.
She is now looking for a space to sell and teach that she plans to call her Sew-op, a play on the cooperative work space she hopes to create.
Street has been making money off of her own sewing skills since she was in high school in Hanua, Germany, where she learned the history of fabrics and how to make her own patterns in a home economics class.
"It's a subject that's often glazed over, but it taught me lifelong skills," Street, of Akron said. "I can mend anything for my family, and in high school I did alterations for extra money."
Street dreamed of being a fashion designer with her own label and was accepted into Kent State University's fashion program, but ultimately decided to study fashion merchandizing at University of Akron so that she could save money on room and board by living at home.
She ended up spending most of her career in marketing, and started her own company, VineWorks Marketing.
She also started the now-closed BABE (Black and Brilliant Entrepreneurs) Magazine, that ran quarterly for three years and provided tools and resources to Black women entrepreneurs; and co-hosted the entrepreneurship-focused Make Life Rich Podcast with Tara Jefferson.
When COVID came to Ohio in March 2020 and Street became overwhelmed with her cloth mask orders, it was no surprise that she used it as an opportunity to encourage entrepreneurship in others.
"I began leveraging the help of other Black women in the community who had been displaced from work or furloughed due to COVID," she said. "Sewing created a safety net, because in the start of the pandemic, we were jolted into this idea that no matter how secure of stable you think your job is, it may not be depending on what's going on in the world."
One woman, for example, was a massage therapist who had zero demand for her services. Another lost her job in hospitality.
Some had sewing experience, but others did not — so Street created a remote learning module to teach them how to make her quality-controlled products. She even went shopping to help one woman find the right kind of sewing machine.
"Now she has the opportunity to fire it up and do what she wants creatively, mend clothes and have additional income if she wants," Street said. "Another woman was a retiree who who was distanced from family and this was an opportunity to stay connected and feel like her work was valuable and meaningful and helping this big, giant problem."
Regardless of their skill level, Street hired them as paid contractors, and as her remnant fabric depleted, Street began figuring out the aesthetic she wanted Project Sew United to embody.
"I'm very drawn to African prints, Batiks, wax prints and Ankara fabrics," she said. "I love the vivid colors and I love the idea of being able to tell a story with a piece. Whether its a facemask or a garment, I think that using African prints specifically or tribal inspired prints serves as an opportunity to spark conversation."
With the help of the team of contractors, Project Sew United began providing three-layer, CDC-approved facemasks to Summit County Public Health, Masks for Moms, Full Term First Birthday, Greenleaf Family Center, Ohio WIC and Project Ujima, as well as fulfilling private orders.
"It's been really incredible to see how when you set out to truly solve a problem and provide in a space where there is drastic need, how well that service or effort can be," she said. "Coming from a place of wanting to love on humanity no matter how near or far and availing yourself of that, I've been tremendously blessed to be able to serve in that way."
Meanwhile, Street, the self-proclaimed "Queen of Quarantine" was still stuck in her home and started making pillows and other home décor items to beautify her space and change its look, sometimes week to week.
"I love seeing the way spaces can be transformed and rooms can be brighten and joy can be added through a pillow or a throw blanket or a table runner," she said. "Those things excite me and COVID, I think, stretched my creativity and helped me make the most of what I did have in my home."
Street now produces pillows, coasters, handbags, bangles and earrings, and for the holiday season, stockings, ornaments and wreaths. Many of her smaller pieces are created using leftover fabrics from larger projects.
"One of my biggest goals with Project Sew United is to be an environmentally friendly brand," she said. "So I use remnant fabric to create things that are new and beautiful as a way to minimize waste."
Her products are currently available online at www.dashikastreet.com, and at Elizabeth's Bookshop and Writing Centre in Akron's Middlebury neighborhood.
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They are also currently for sale at the Kent State University Museum, which is currently featuring an exhibit called "TEXTURES" which explores "Black hair and its important, complex place in the history of African American life and culture."
"Our products went in before TEXTURES started, but I think it's very timely," Street said.
Additionally, she periodically holds DIY crafting classes at the Well CDC's Compass Coffeeshop in Middlebury.
Street recently won a "very sizeable" grant from Unleashing Potential, which helps small business owners get to the next level.
She' plans to meet that goal by finding a physical location where she can display and sell her work, where her contractors can gather and where she can hold workshops to help sewers and crafters of all skill levels explore their creativity.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.
Social: https://www.facebook.com/dashikastreetdesigns, https://www.instagram.com/dashikastreet/
The Beacon Journal is profiling Black-owned businesses in Summit County. Read more of these profiles at https://bit.ly/3jb0h1e. The Beacon Journal will continue to highlight minority-owned businesses as part of its ongoing regular coverage.