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About an hour southwest of the city of Chicago lies the tight-knit community of Mokena, Illinois, home to the first Mokena Mini Maker Faire, which took place last year. This year, the event organizers, in conjunction with Chicago Pipefitters Local 597, are stepping up their game and expanding their offerings. The Faire, now called the Chicago Southland Mini Maker Faire, will be held at the Pipefitters’ Training Center this Saturday, August 22, and promises to feature a wide variety of Makers and exhibits.

The core organizing team consists of Jay Margalus, who is the chair and also runs local Makerspace SpaceLab; Tim Ozinga, who handles sponsorships and exhibitor outreach and whose family runs Ozinga Bros, Inc., a local business that’s very involved in the community; and Jim Richmond, the community maven who’s a village trustee, instrumental in working with some of the larger community organizations like the Pipefitters and Boy Scouts. We chatted with Margalus to get a window into this unique Midwestern Faire.

1. What inspired you to organize a Mini Maker Faire in Mokena?
The Chicago Southland has a long history of blue collar, hands-on work that I’ve always associated with the Maker Movement, but I don’t think that connection has been broadly made yet. My father was a telephone man; my neighbor is an electrician; and I grew up around pipefitters, engineers, and others. These are jobs with skills that are dramatically important to our everyday lives, and I’ve always had a sense that we’re losing sight of them to some extent. But more importantly, there’s a certain do-it-yourself spirit that these people embody and that the Maker Movement, through events like Maker Faire, can help promote and teach to our next generation.

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2. How and why did Chicago Pipefitters Local 597 decide to get involved?
In addition to having one of the largest venue locations in our town (we easily have over two football fields of space for our Faire this year), the Pipefitters Local 597 is one of the most involved organizations in our community of Mokena. They host charity events and community events in our town on a regular basis, and they’re a very positive influence all around. One of our village trustees is also on the Southland Maker Faire board, and he put us in touch with them.

It’s been a great process working with the people at the Local 597 Training Facility. Any time we’ve needed anything, they’ve offered their help. It’s truly humbling to see how much they care about our community and its people.

Quadcopter shot of this year's venue.

Quadcopter shot of this year’s venue.

3. How was the 2014 Mokena Mini Maker Faire received?
Last year’s event was put together in a very short amount of time. We had a pretty small turnout at around 400 people, but the folks who did come were amazed that something like this even existed in our town. Kids, in particular, would come by SpaceLab (our Makerspace) several months after to learn how to solder, take apart circuit boards, or write code. It was a really positive experience for us as organizers, and most importantly, I think the community got a lot out of it.

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4. Were the attendees mostly local, from Chicago, or from a wide range of locales?
Most of our attendees last year were from Mokena or the surrounding suburbs. We had some folks from Pumping Station: One in Chicago come out, which was fantastic! I’d like to see our attendees come from a farther range of communities in the future, but one step at a time.

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5. Why did you decide to change the name from Mokena Mini Maker Faire to Chicago Southland?
That was a pretty simple decision, really. Mokena is a great town; I live here, our Makerspace is here, and the people of the community have been very supportive of our efforts. However, it’s also a really small community! Many folks who live one or two towns over haven’t heard of it, and as a result, may not really associate with what we’re trying to do here.

The Chicago Southland is actually an economic zone with a history, boundaries, and everything. Everyone knows what Chicago Southland means and where it is, and our hope is that this will bring the event a little closer to home for folks.

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6. What effect has hosting a Faire had on the Mokena Maker community?
It’s still a little early to speak to this with a definitive answer, but I can tell you some personal stories about Maker Faire and our community.

Dale Dougherty [founder of Make: magazine and Maker Faire] actually came to speak at a local university a few towns over recently, and I took a trip with one of our Village Trustees, as well as our village’s Economic and Community Development Director, to see him speak. This was a great introduction for them to the Maker Movement and the positive effects it could have on our village, and we were able to talk with Dale briefly before the event about how Mokena could work with the Movement. I don’t think this trip would’ve happened without the awareness that Maker Faire has brought to the community about what we’re trying to accomplish.

Another story is that we hold classes at SpaceLab on working with microcontrollers, soldering, programming, 3D printing, and so on. After last year’s event, we had a pretty sizable group of local teens who started coming out to those classes because they’d attended Maker Faire and learned how to solder. We were able to teach them a lot of hands-on skills that they don’t normally learn in school, and the reaction to a lot of the classes was that their parents were so glad there was another outlet for non-traditional learning in the community. We’re currently looking into working with our local schools to expand these programs as a result.

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7. What are you doing differently this year?
This year we have a focus on much larger exhibits. Last year’s event had some great people come out and showcase their stuff, but I think it lacked the big “wow factor” exhibits. So that’s one thing we’ve focused on. In addition to that, this year’s venue is indoors, and much larger. This’ll give us more space to allow exhibitors to spread out, and attendees to mingle. In general, this is just a much grander event.

8. What are three notable exhibits that will be at the Faire?
Microsoft will be showing off a game called “Social Downpour” that they made for Maker Faire Detroit two years ago. It involves having two volunteers being placed on chairs under the Social Downpour. The crowd is then encouraged to Tweet their votes on which one to douse with water. To vote to douse the person in the Red chair, send a Tweet to @Socialdownpour #Red, and to douse the Blue person tweet to @Socialdownpour #Blue.

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The Will County Model Railroad Association will have some of their model train setups on display. I’m really excited about this one!

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We have a sizable game area with several local video and board games on showcase, including games by one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity called Fisticuffs, games by some faculty and students from DePaul University, virtual reality games, and more.

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9. Your Faire is one of the first examples of a union being actively involved in organizing the Faire. Do you see a connection between organized labor and the Maker Movement?
Absolutely. I have great respect for trade unions, their members, and the skills they bring to the table. My father was in the local IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) as well as his father before him. Many of us in the Chicago Southland have family histories like that, and in many ways we all have their hard work to thank for where we’re at today.

I think there’s this misguided notion that working with your hands and being part of a union somehow makes you less, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Aside from providing a very stable, fulfilling career, the skills that you need to learn to do some of these jobs require a lot of training, which in turn means you need an organization to provide that training. For example, at the Local Pipefitters 597 Training Facility, they teach their members traditional skills like welding and electrical work, but they’re also exploring working with drones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. These are people who have perfected their craft and pursue it for a living.

The Maker Movement, in many ways, is a microcosm of this same thing. We, too, are a community-oriented group that promotes the learning of hands-on skills (albeit on a much lower professional scale). We appreciate the value in being able to work with your hands, and we work to share that knowledge with others. I definitely think there’s a strong relationship, from the standpoint of how we all look at the world, between these two groups.

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10. What do you think uniquely defines the greater Chicago Maker community?
I’ve co-founded two Makerspaces in the Chicagoland area now: Workshop 88 and SpaceLab. There’s definitely a sense at both of those spaces, as well as other spaces in the Chicago like River City Labs, that we’re trying to craft things of value. A lot of the Makers in our communities are very hands-on focused, with things like carpentry, welding, and blacksmithing. I’m not sure if this is particularly unique to the Midwest, but it’s certainly a strong vein that I see running through many spaces out here.

For all the information you need to attend the Chicago Southland Mini Maker Faire, head to their site!