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Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Project

The amount of creativity coming out of Detroit is just astounding, and Veronika Scott is one maker who has put her time and energy into making a difference in the community. Veronika spearheaded The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based humanitarian project which centers around the Element S Coat, a self-heated, waterproof garment that transforms into a sleeping bag at night. The coat is made by a group of homeless women who have been paid to learn and to produce the coats for those living on the streets. Veronika is one of the hundreds of makers who will be presenting at Maker Faire Detroit, taking place next weekend, July 30 and 31, at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

1. Tell us about The Empowerment Plan project. How did it start and how will you be bringing it to life at Maker Faire?
This project really started for me as a student at the College for Creative Studies. Up until then, as young industrial designers, we have been working on products, such as cellphones and medical equipment, that were really just aesthetic and couldn’t exist in the real world; they were purely conceptual. When I started The Empowerment Plan, it was the first time I had to think beyond the scope of just “user” or “client” — this had to pertain to a community of individuals. And to me it was no longer just a concept, it was something that I was trying to make happen. So working within the scope of reality was pretty new to me.

The reason The Empowerment Plan has gotten as far as it has is because of a culmination of people, timing, and place. I wouldn’t have been able to start this as a 21-year-old student if I had not been in Detroit, because really, Detroit is this wild, wild west of creativity. We are notorious for just doing things. We spend a lot of time creating what most people just talk about or dream about doing. I think Maker Faire is a great representation of this. As a city we are a group of makers, and in the next five years I am planning on buying a series of buildings. Now where else in the world could a college student accomplish such a feat?

2. How did the idea for the Element S come about and what went into designing it?
To me the Element S coat is a sideliner to the more poignant part of The Empowerment Plan. The Element S coat is a product, and that is essentially what I am trained to make as a student of the College of Creative Studies, so to me it was very utilitarian. It’s like redesigning a shoe — it’s not the same shoe, but we’ve improved on certain things. So I added a sleeping bag to a coat, and I only did this because the people I have worked with at Neighborhood Service Organization needed it. I designed a product that they already needed, a coat that they could wear in the day, a product that would keep the heat in so when it was freezing outside, they wouldn’t freeze with the temperatures.

The sleeping bag aspect of the coat came out of a more emotional need, strangely enough, rather than a physical one. I added it to address the need of pride. There are a lot of homeless individuals that refuse to go into shelters. Their daily needs depend on the whims of others. Most people, including me, just want to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want to ask for things just to survive, I want to be able to take care of them on my own, and that is a basic desire everyone has. I added on the sleeping bag of the Element S coat so that those individuals who did not want to be in shelters or whom the shelters could not convince to come inside could have something to keep them alive in the winter, designed in their size in the colors they want and made of new materials that they could claim ownership of.

3. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I have heard about Maker Faire for a few years now. Since I live in the city, and also go to school in the city, those that are Detroit natives always talk about it. I have always wanted to participate, but I have never felt that I had anything to share with the community until now.

The Empowerment Project Maker Faire Detroit

4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I started making things when I was a kid. I don’t know if they were particularly useful, mostly it was just contraptions that would trip my parents on the stairs, or wake them up at night. I also enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together, and seeing if I could get them back in working order; 70% of the time I wasn’t successful, but the other 30% was fantastic.

One of my inspirations, when I was really young, and it took me a while to realize it was Tyree Guyton. When I was five, my grandparents took me to see the Heidelberg Project, and as a semi-inventor artistic kid, this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It wasn’t until just recently that I realized the battle that Mr. Guyton had to go through to keep his art alive, battling city government and hostile individuals. He’s been around for as long as I remember.

5. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
Haha. I am a full-time student, and I don’t have a day job yet, and this, The Empowerment Plan, is quickly becoming my career. What started off as a school project turned into a fascination, and into something that I will be investing 100% of my self in for at least the next 5 years.

The Empowerment Project Sleeping Bag

6. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
The Girl Effect is a project that is truly inspiring to me. They took their non-profit and gave the power of marketing into the hands of the public. Everyone tells their story their own way. The Girl Effect realizes that there is more to helping people then doing damage control, but actual prevention. They have been a great example as I find my way through the non-profit world.

7. What is your motto?
Anything easy isn’t worth having.

8. What do you love most about Detroit?
Well that’s a broad question. I’m stuck between people, food, music, and fierce city pride. I am going to be diplomatic and say all of the above, because they usually go hand in hand, where you can be at the Woodbridge Pub getting an awesome meal, across the street go to the Green Shack and see about 5 bands from throughout the world for free, and a group of people that are so fiercely and intensely proud to be where they are right now.

Thanks for the inspiration, Veronika! If you’re in the Detroit area, come out to the Faire next weekend, and prepared to be amazed at what your community is making. For all the information you need, head over to the Maker Faire Detroit site.

NOTE: Top image of Veronika Scott by Ruby Troyano.

Goli Mohammadi

I’m senior editor at MAKE and have worked on MAKE magazine since the first issue. I’m a word nerd who particularly loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon as a whole. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for the ideal alpine lake or hunting for snow to feed my inner snowboard addict.

The maker movement provides me with endless inspiration, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. The specific beat I cover is art, and I’m a huge proponent of STEAM (as opposed to STEM). After all, the first thing most of us ever made was art.

Contact me at goli (at) makermedia (dot) com.


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Comments

  1. So, uh… you took a Slanket, slapped Tyvek on the outside, some velcro as opposed to a decent zipper and you’re patting yourself on the back? 
    I like the idea, but the execution thus far is dreadful. Also, the material is not self-heated, the correct term would thermally insulated.

    1. Tom Karches says:

      At least she is doing something. It’s easy to be critical from the sidelines. I’m guessing that the homeless people are not too concerned about the “dreadful execution”

      1. Critical, as long as it’s not too personal and includes actual factual detail (like Euler’s does), is EXACTLY what she needs.  She IS doing something, and that IS a good thing but if it isn’t done RIGHT then it can, actually, HURT the situation.  It would be very possible to make a coat that is even worse in cold weather than whatever used piece of crap the homeless usually end up with anyway.  Releasing such a coat could, easily, erode people’s opinion of her and her organization and make it very hard or impossible to get people to buy into the next iteration.  If someone can point out weak points now, before it’s released, that can help eliminate the problem.

        For instance, anyone with some cold weather camping experience will tell you that a sleeping bag, alone, can be almost useless in cold weather if you’re putting it directly on the ground (as can be seen in the picture above).  Your body weight compresses the insulation between you and the cold earth making it almost useless (what makes most insulation work is the air captured in it when it’s fluffy).  Once your body weight forces most of the air out of the insulation between you and the earth, your body heat, very quickly, gets sucked out into the cold ground.  This is why cold weather campers, like Boy Scouts, bring along closed cell foam camping pads to sleep on.  While it may provide some extra comfort from pointy rocks on the ground, the real reason for them is that they are stiff enough to not crush flat when your body is spread out across them.  Even the fraction of an inch of closed cell foam provides an immense amount of difference in insulation when you’re sleeping on cold ground.

        One way she could try to compensate for this might be to sew pieces of closed cell foam into the back and sides of the coat.  In bulk, the material should still be really cheap.  By breaking the normal sleeping pad into “plates” (one for the back, one for a pillow, one for the butt, and an assortment of smaller ones for the back and sides of the arms and legs) you should be able to provide the same kind of sleeping pad effect while maintaining the flexibility of the coat at the joints.

      2. If I were homeless I’d be all like “pffft, my six raggedy trench coats and bed of corrugated cardboard (think insulating air gap) are what’s up– we gotta reduce thermal conduction between my indigent ass and this here concrete heat sink.” In the cold streets, you’re grateful for things that work, not for industrial design student projects that blow non-heated smoke up my ass and nets them a feel good A and “community service” on their CV.

        Look man, we all do something, but not all of us get up on the soapbox and holler about it so we can feel affirmation about our good deeds. A little humility and self-deprecation usually leads to a much better product because you know there is room for improvement, but instead here we have a bee jay of an interview with a bunch of fluffy look-book stylized pictures that are all magical-realism concept and no technical execution.

        Saying that you’ve got homeless women sewing them up is not enough to overcome the fact that this design is bad and not thought out. Show me a picture in which the coat doesn’t look like a potato sack when in coat-mode, show me a photo where the “sleeping bag” doesn’t look like my undone sheets in the morning, show me a photo of a little technical skill and effort being put into the sewing and execution.

    2. Lori Aylwin says:

      That is hurtful! She is amazing and came up with a great concept that is a work in progress. Give her time to perfect it! Gosh, she has created jobs and is keeping homeless in Detroit from freezing to death, literally! All because she cared! 

    3. Lori Aylwin says:

      That is hurtful! She is amazing and came up with a great concept that is a work in progress. Give her time to perfect it! Gosh, she has created jobs and is keeping homeless in Detroit from freezing to death, literally! All because she cared! 

    4. Lori Aylwin says:

      That is hurtful! She is amazing and came up with a great concept that is a work in progress. Give her time to perfect it! Gosh, she has created jobs and is keeping homeless in Detroit from freezing to death, literally! All because she cared! 

  2. Anonymous says:

    As an artist myself, I have heard about this  project before-Kudos to the girl for doing something creative and useful! I don’t think she is patting herself on the back (like some people on here say) they interviewed her and she answered-what did she need to do- say nothing? She decided to do this project to TRY to help someone-she really didn’t have to do this. There are people that will try to find flaws-those are the jealous people because they didn’t think of it sooner! You go girl! Keep it up-your future is already looking brighter!

  3. Leo Drake says:

    Young lady, As long as you have vision to try and help those less fortunate you are doing a good thing,as for the other technical blowhards that are being negative (as is there right ) I myself am pretty sure they would not last a month on the street or in the bush, they can only comment while you did something, and i can understand the materials used, camo of the urban landscape maybe or readily availiable materials,it works.

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