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Michelle Smart, founder of Bags to Butterflies, center, with employees Luci Dorsette, left, and Machelle Pearson, right. Courtesy photo
Until 2015, Michelle Smart didn’t know anyone personally who had been incarcerated. Then she found out her close friend’s daughter, whom Smart had watched grow up, had been sentenced to seven years in prison at the age of 26. The news hit Smart hard at a time when she was already struggling and in the middle of getting a divorce. She dove into art to process her emotions, working with stained glass and crafting wooden handbags she designed, built and painted.
Soon, the Oak Park resident realized the hand-painted bags could serve a better purpose: to provide transitional employment for formerly incarcerated women in Michigan.
“I wanted to make it a mission to empower women returning to the community from incarceration as well as women in general,” Smart said.
She ran with the idea, leading focus groups in 2015 at Oasis of Hope Christian Church in Detroit with groups of women who had been incarcerated up to 30 years, and found her hypothesis was right — making the handbags was not only a creative outlet, but it gave women a sense of purpose and a paycheck upon returning home.
“If you’ve been away for 40 years, you don’t have that employment history,” Smart said.
From there, Smart gathered referrals from the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and developed her social enterprise, Bags to Butterflies, in September of 2015.
“The whole mindset behind [Bags to Butterflies] is that we as women carry a lot of stuff in our bags, and sometimes we need to downsize it and carry it gracefully,” Smart said. “It’s a message to women to let go of the past, to live life today and to focus on our dreams.”
The L3C hit a major milestone about a year ago, finding a home in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, the community where Smart was born and raised.
This Bags to Butterflies headquarters, also known as The Butterfly House, is located in a restored home on Goodwin Street next to Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Smart is looking at more opportunities to collaborate with farm director Jerry Hebron on initiatives for the women and community-based events this coming year.
“We are providing employment, and the farm helps with sustainability,” Smart said. During the fall and winter months, women at Bags to Butterflies are offered food boxes with fresh produce on Fridays from the farm.
When women first join Bags to Butterflies, they learn quickly how to work with wood and paint by creating their own handbag as a keepsake that represents rebuilding their life.
Since 2015, Smart has employed a total of 12 women. They receive minimum wage and the flexibility to attend outside appointments as needed. Women can remain in the program for up to a year, and between three to five women are typically involved in the program at one time.
Luci Dorsette, 35, has worked at Bags to Butterflies while pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in graphic design. After serving a three-year sentence at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility, she held jobs at a family restaurant and a Checkers Drive-In. Dorsette had high hopes for a promotion at Checkers, but was told by her employer that because of her felony, that would be impossible.
When her aunt heard about Bags to Butterflies on the news, Dorsette felt a glimmer of hope.
“I was excited not only to have a decent job, but to have a job that understands,” Dorsette said. “[For] a lot of these jobs, you can have four or five degrees, but once you have the felony you’ll be discounted.”
Dorsette has used her graphic design skills at Bags to Butterflies, creating custom T-shirts, mugs, masks and prints as a lead designer. She also has her own cooking show that she streams live on their Facebook page, “Luci’s Cook Along.” Her latest cook alongs include a three-ingredient homemade pasta and fluffy buttermilk biscuits she grew up making as a child.
During the pandemic, volunteer assistance and resources diminished due to in-person restrictions, and referrals from MDOC stalled, Smart said, and they pivoted to creating masks, custom gifts and jewelry.
“The biggest challenge was being shut down and feeling like we were not doing our job to help the women,” Smart said.
Dorsette, who will hit her one year mark at Bags to Butterflies in November, said connecting with Smart and working at Bags to Butterflies has allowed her to grow.
“When you try to rebuild your life and nobody believes in you, and you find someone who doesn’t hold your mistakes against you, this person has a heart made of gold,” Dorsette said.
See Bags to Butterflies’ offerings in their online store, or find them at Eastern Market on Saturdays.