Take Five: I followed my dreams to work for a society for everyone

Birgitta Notlöf is the founder and manager of a Swedish non-profit Livstycket, which is a contemporary knowledge and design center in Tensta, Stockholm in which refugee and migrant women from all around the world participate. Livstycket applies functional pedagogy, which combines artistic practical activities with theoretical teaching. She recently talked to Empower Women, UN Women’s online platform on women’s economic empowerment, about how her business model integrates refugee and migrant women into the Swedish community.


Birgitta Notlöf . Photo: Livstycket
Birgitta Notlöf. Photo: Livstycket

How did you create this Livstycket ?

In 1992, I got the idea of creating an organisation that would help immigrant women to break their isolation, learn our language and become completely self-sufficient in their new life in a new country. I followed my dreams to work for A Society for Everyone. I named my non-profit Livstycket which means “the bodice” in Swedish: this is an ancient garment worn by women to keep them warm and at the same time give them support.

I made use of the contacts I needed from my extensive network of contacts and in this way I got help with premises, free of charge, and also Swedish teachers. I held a jumble sale and sold my own car to have something to live on. I applied for money from various foundations, funds, municipalities and other stakeholders. I told them that I wanted to work for a society for everyone – and that this was founded in my belief that the question of integration was the main issue. To cope with living together.

We have always involved in many different forms of projects and always have explored new ways of implementing them. We have also started projects for women in Turkey and Uganda. Today our premises in Sweden are much larger, we have a knowledge and design center in Tensta, Stockholm.

How is your learning methodology?

We have developed our own working model through functional pedagogy: we combined theoretical classroom learning with artistic activities through which words gain a function and a context in real life. Our activities are aimed at women, but men are of course welcome to participate. Artistic activities like sewing, embroidery and textile printing are combined with theoretical education in Swedish, social studies and IT. The participants create patterns by drawing what they see, feel and experience. Then, a Livstycket’s professional designer turns the sketches into a pattern. 

The knowledge of Swedish and the previous education and experience determine which group the participant will be in. If her Swedish is reasonably good, then she will have more theoretical than practical training. Is she needs more basic Swedish training, she can start in the workshop group in which the participants speak Swedish while they learn to print on a fabric, create patterns and sew both by hand and by machine. They also participate in the theoretical training. And all participants at Livstycket take part in wellness sessions. Once they acquire a functional language that allow the participants to participate in the community, we also help them to look for a job.

What were your challenges, and how did you overcome barriers you faced?

Overcoming barriers. You have to work constantly towards your goals. Set your goals, believe in them yourself and then go for them. When it felt hard and heavy going - and it has been, several times - then I often think that tomorrow is a new day. By this I mean new opportunities, new contacts, new financial resources. By believing in success you get success.

The real challenge then, and still is today, was to obtain financial resources to run the operations from year to year. To ensure continuity, I have been forced to know what I want and stick to that and fight for it - no success ensues without personal sacrifice. I've never counted the hours.

It is true that we are very dependent on external sponsors. Even though our funding needs may change from year to year, the City of Stockholm carries the largest part. However to be able to implement more targeted projects, we really need the contributions from individuals and foundations.

What were your inspirations?

It may sound simple, but for me it was about, and is still is all about making a difference. For every woman who has learned the Swedish language and about Swedish culture and then gone out into the work market work has been a victory. A happy and contented mother has happy and satisfied children. If you teach the women you teach the whole world.

What is your business model, how do you work with refugee women?

Our model is simple but can be developed indefinitely. At Livstycket, we know that there is a language that everyone can speak: that of our hands and it doesn’t not matter where do you come from, if you are illiterate or educated, men or women. We believe that a refugee who is safe and warm but also who can hold her head high, can face the new world with greater ease and adapt to the society. We want to break their isolation in the community and we want to be a place where hope is constantly alive and where they can meet and develop. We believe every individual wants to grow and they can grow if we believe in them.

My idea is that in order to learn a language, you have to want to learn that language. By that I mean that you must have a use for the language. We have highly educated staff with various educational and artistic backgrounds. We work constantly with a variety of partners who provide us with more contacts within the Swedish society. Our artistic work approach has lead to many beautiful patterns that can be used in various ways, and they all tell a story. A female, societal and integration story.

We look forward to sharing our knowledge and experience from 24 years of working with empowerment thorough the many channels that Empower Women provides. Livstycket is a sustainable way of working towards a sustainable world. Let us work together!

This story is cross-posted from Empower Women.