Frequently Asked Questions

This page attempts to explain our innovative project that is constantly adapting and growing. We want to express Talking Hands’ articulations and interventions overtime and we hope that it serves as an inspiration to those who believe in self-determination and in rethinking the world of work.

1. What is Talking Hands?

Talking Hands is an art studio, a fashion and design school, a manufacturer, a clothing label, a retail shop and a community space created from the vision and skills of young people from refugee communities. 
We are a social enterprise that facilitates a range of design projects such as: training in clothing production, retail and fashion, woodwork, welding and embroidery. We also facilitate social support in the form of legal advice, language tutoring and material aid. 
Born in 2016, Talking Hands encourages participants to use the design process and manual activity as a form of narration where biographies, journeys and dreams can be explored. Over the past few years, we have proved to be an important tool for employment and social inclusion. Not only do participants learn new skills and trades that can be used in the future, but they are also given the opportunity to work with a network of recognized creatives and design and sell their own products. Talking Hands has developed several different projects including; Blue Carpet, Jaune Gilet, I Learn Italian With My Hands, Side by Side, Home Delivery, Rifùgiati, Woven Stories and Mixitè. 

2. How did Talking Hands begin?

Talking Hands was born in the midst of a humanitarian emergency, when in the small urban centre of Treviso, of 85,000 inhabitants, about 2,000 people seeking asylum arrived. We found that a large number of young men would gather in “hot spots”, and due to social isolation, unemployment and poor education opportunities, conflict would arise.
Through a process of participatory consultation, we engaged and empowered the young men to work with Talking Hands. We knew that from the beginning, design and visual communication would be a powerful means for sharing knowledge and for building a common goal. However, all this had to be supported by the needs of the participants. Originally, these needs centred on immediate crises such as food shortages, legal assistance and access to language and health services. Once these basic needs were met, we were able to focus on the creative and employment goals of the participants, thus forming a permanent design studio.
In order to set up the physical space of the studio, we participated in the occupation of a former barracks that had been abandoned to neglect for several decades. Along with other NGOs, political collectives and community members, we sought to redefine the space as an inter-cultural community centre. We focused on the interdependent relationship between art, political activism and social inclusion and set out to reshape the urban fabric and social function of the city. Participatory action helped us to understand the process of collaborating with various actors to reach a common goal. It helped Talking Hands to create a set of ethics and to experiment with participatory models and bottom-up democracy. 
Throughout these developments, the design philosophy has been a characterizing element. We have built a network of territorial solidarity, where dialogue and collaboration occurs between a plurality of actors. Through various collaborations, we have helped create a community that fosters equality and dignity in people seeking asylum.

3. Who are the beneficiaries of Talking Hands and what is the general context in which the project was born?

As mentioned above, Talking Hands was born in 2016, a time in which a large influx of people seeking asylum arrived to Treviso. The newcomers were generally aged between 19 and 28 and mostly came from sub-Saharan Africa; Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Ghana. We also welcomed communities from Chad and Central Asia; from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a substantial presence from Bangladesh. When they arrived, most of the asylum seekers were housed in Reception Centres inside of a former barracks. Despite the decline in arrivals following the 2017 agreements between Italy and Libya (over 600,000 arrivals between 2014 and 2017, just over 23,000 in 2018), the situation of Italian Reception Centres remains critical. Governing changes of the last year, namely the Security Decree 1 and 2, have made living in Reception Centres more difficult.
In fact, historical problems of the Italian reception system have not been resolved. There are very long waiting times (generally no less than two years), a low participation of municipalities in the SPRAR system, ineffective emergency facilities, and a lack of integration programs. This situation lends itself to a series of problems: higher rates of conflict from the local population and among the asylum seekers themselves, more people becoming unwell, and poor employment and education outcomes. 
Without access to effective integration programs, asylum seekers do not have the opportunity to learn the local language and develop skills useful for employment. This creates severe marginalisation, even for recognised refugees. Therefore, Talking Hands was created to facilitate employment and social inclusion pathways for people from refugee communities.

4. Where does the name "Talking Hands" come from?

The name “Talking Hands” is derived from the experience of the participants themselves. It means that if life has taken everything away from you and you no longer have even a title of citizenship, your will to thrive cannot be taken away. In every human there is a wealth so great that it cannot be measured, it comes from our biological experience; from what we see with our eyes, from what we feel emotionally and of course, from the experience of our hands. We therefore chose the name Talking Hands to represent the stories that our participants’ hands carry as well as the potential and creativity within these hands.

5. Who’s involved in Talking Hands?

We have various manufacturers, designers, asylum seekers, refugees, photographers, teachers, journalists, academics, and volunteers who work together in various aspects of our projects. 
As mentioned in FAQ no. 2, most of our participants are made up of young men from sub-Saharan Africa. We believe it is essential that the participants are accompanied and mentored by professionals for various reasons. Firstly, we want to create practical training opportunities for skills implementation. However, we also aim to collaborate with industry professionals so that we can help create social change and break down damaging stereotypes.  
Despite the exceptional work of advocates and the media, the stereotype of “exoticism” remains widespread in the fair trade production chain of the western world. This European trend represents African culture in a mysterious and almost primitive fashion, which essentializes societies as static and undeveloped. To Talking Hands, this notion does not correspond to reality. In order to raise awareness of contemporary design, we believe it is fundamental to create opportunities for horizontal dialogue and to operate in a transcultural context without losing sight of the project’s objectives. 
We aim to empower the various actors involved in our projects to re-imagine the material world through the practice of applied arts.

6. Can you describe the culture of Talking Hands?

Talking Hands values diversity, community, education, environmentally sustainable design and ethical business practices.
Each project has a small and everchanging production chain that seeks to involve the greatest number of people with different degrees of experience and knowledge. This enables participants to refine skills from various disciplines. For example, to create one of our wooden artefacts from the Home Delivery series, a specialized carpenter initially cuts the core elements, another person assembles them, and someone else manages the finishing and sanding of the product. The final worker focuses on graphic design elements in keeping with the distinct Talking Hands style. Each activity equally contributes to the successful implementation of the product.
An interesting aspect, for designers who collaborate with Talking Hands, is the everchanging nature of the participants in the studio. Due to the demands of seeking asylum, our participants may change from week to week. Therefore, when the workers change, so too does the product, as the personal history and skills of the workers is what defines the aesthetic of the artefact.

7. How does the design philosophy relate to Talking Hands?

The design philosophy represents the driving force behind a designer and their work. As Talking Hands aims to increase employment and social inclusion of people from refugee communities, we believe in the importance of creating relational networks. While the work of the Talking Hands studio is important, it cannot meet all the needs of the participants. Design is therefore used as a platform to connect various individuals and organisations who play different roles in the participants lives. 
In keeping with these principles, our collaboration with Lanificio Paoletti was born. Lanificio Paoletti is not only a manufacturer of carded wool yarns and fabrics, but also a socially conscious company who believe in enhancing and sharing industry knowledge. They have researched the exclusive study of weaves and colors, and created unique procedures that combine industrial production with artesian textile craftsmanship. With their donation of woollen fabric, Talking Hands participants have created bespoke coats that make up the mixité collection. 
We also collaborate with NGOs such as Auser-Cittadini del Mondo, who offer two weekly Italian courses in the studio. Migration legal support is offered by a network of independent lawyers as well as the workers’ rights association, ADL Cobas. To address the problem of food insecurity during winter, we created a "Call for Food" project which rallies the community to provide hot meals to participants. 
All of these essential collaborations are a direct result of our design philosophy. We work with various partners “Side by Side” to create awareness and change public perceptions for people who have experienced being a refugee. See F.A.Q number 11 for more information about “Side by Side”.

8. How is Talking Hands funded?

Currently, the sole beneficiaries of the project are the refugees; 50% of our profits go to the people who take part in the project’s activities and the rest is put into a shared fund that is used to purchase design materials, travel, and emergency relief. 
Due to the many demands and barriers of forced migration, our participants experience numerous daily emergencies. We support participants to purchase medication and food, pay legal fees and in exceptional cases, support the needs of the participant’s families. 
We are well aware, however, of the need to improve this economic model in order to maintain overheads and remunerate collaborators. We value the involvement of all of our partners and understand that in the long run, it is not sustainable to ask for their involvement only on a voluntary basis.

9. What do you see as the evolution of this economic model?

One of the challenges we face is to plan and design new models of community work and to imagine new forms of cooperative micro-income. As these are experiments, the legal and administrative processes that support an ethical micro-economy are not always present. If they existed it would be less experimental in nature. We believe it is important to conceptualise a form of remuneration for those who mobilize for social cohesion in their city. In their daily actions, social activists play a fundamental role in creating solidarity among inhabitants. This is of great public utility because when crisis situations arise, not only economic, we realize that we are able to withstand the shock wave only if we rebuild social bonds that have previously broken down. This can only happen through dialogue and solidarity. For this reason, the central themes of our newly imagined economic model must involve the right to experimentation and the creation of ethical governance.

10. What activities are Talking Hands participants currently involved in?

Currently, participants attend the fashion workshop, product design laboratory, Italian language school and legal clinic. Please click here to read more about these projects.

11. How does Talking Hands relate to the current political situation?

As mentioned in FAQ no. 3, seeking asylum in Italy is defined by social isolation, everchanging legislation, poor accountability and limited access to necessary services. We created Talking Hands to help facilitate social and employment opportunities for this population.  
Talking Hands was also born from the desire to build community development projects and foster inclusive dialogue. 
Collaborating with likeminded advocates has given rise to "Side by Side”, a political platform that unites people with diverse histories and identities: social welfare centres, independent trade unions, secular and non-secular associations and volunteers. Together with Side by Side partners we are capable of opposing the growing feeling of hostility and racism that plagues society, and to fight against all forms of social, class and gender discrimination.

12. Throughout various publications, Talking Hands use the terms “mixité”, “melting pot”, and “multicultural” to explain it’s collections. Can you explain this?


To carry out our values of diversity and community, we facilitate design projects that encourage inclusion. As Michel Serres says: "Culture is not a homogeneous and immutable block but rather a living organism that from the beginning of human history interacts with its environment, coming into contact with other cultures" (1974). 
We believe that rather than being a particular way of life merely centred on ethnicity, social norms and religion, culture is intersectional and adaptable. To us, cultural mixité, or diversity, is what makes us strong. It is necessary for abolishing outdated biological concepts of race, aimed at creating fear of “the other”. 
We live in a globalised society in which economic trade and information technology systems allow us to interact with the world. We are continually exposed to cultural difference.
We believe that our differences are unique ways of embodying human dignity and that, on the political level, it is necessary to build spaces in what Seyla Benhabib defines as “democratic interactions”. That is to say, a series of processes through which individuals define the differences between "us" and "them", as fluid and negotiable; thereby questioning and renewing the principles of inclusion. 
Talking Hands recognizes itself in this space. It is a place that reinforces democratic participation by highlighting various perspectives and experiences. We pair participants with Italian residents and mix materials from various origins. This enables cross-cultural interactions and brings us closer to our goal of changing public perceptions for people who have experienced being a refugee. Please see our mixité project to learn more.




Our philosophy originates from a democratic space where design responds to the needs of  participants.

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