Made in Baltimore: Community Engagement for Makerspaces

Education Workshop
Made in Baltimore: Community Engagement for Makerspaces

We have been building Open Works on the premise that everyone is a maker. In many ways, that is a radical notion, and one that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of Baltimore. Today the Baltimore City population is majority female and African-American with a median income of $40,800 and a 26% college degree-attainment rate. The school system faces significant challenges, the city contains at least 16,000 vacant houses, and as many as 65% of Baltimore citizens don’t have Internet access at home.

These statistics are grounded in the last fifty years of declining manufacturing employment, population flight to the suburbs, and a shrinking tax base – a familiar story in Rust Belt cities across the United States. From 1950 to 1995, Baltimore-area manufacturing employment dropped from 34% to 8%, replaced largely by service-sector jobs. The loss of these middle-income blue-collar jobs has stretched the divide between the very rich and those just getting by to historic highs. Baltimore ranks 10th out of the largest 50 cities in America in income inequality.

Open Works sits at the confluence of three neighborhoods in central Baltimore: Barclay to the north, Greenmount West in the middle, and Johnston Square to the southeast. All three communities have suffered from population loss and vacancy. Greenmount West had been a thriving manufacturing center as recently as the 1950s, with several factories making suits, shoes, and bottle caps. However, the factories gradually went out of business or moved elsewhere, and the jobs went with them.

Intersection of Greenmount and Oliver Streets, 1957. Image courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry.

So what does this have to do with makerspaces and maker culture generally? Makerspaces have a unique potential to break down the barriers to access that have hindered disadvantaged communities from moving forward. In doing so, they can act as both bridges between historically divided communities and ladders of economic and educational growth within communities. But, to do that, we’ve got to do a lot of dedicated work on the ground first.

In some ways, Open Works is a traditional development project. In other ways, it is also a community-organizing project. We are trying to organize with a lot of different groups: makers, manufacturing businesses, universities, artists, and nonprofits. We’ve tapped into many organizing strategies used by political and social groups to lay the foundation for Open Works’ community-facing programs. No matter what the dynamics of your particular community, these methods generate interest in your project, create strong alliances with neighbors, tailor services to those that need them, and, hopefully, build long-term value for users. This is a survey of our community outreach efforts to date, with the understanding that this is an evolving process that will not end when we open.

Organize with the organized

“Organizing with the organized” is this notion of meeting with folks that are already coming together around a common interest or goal. We started by attending community association meetings in each of the local neighborhoods. We talked with folks, presented the project, and listened to community concerns. From there, we worked outwards to residents’ groups at various apartment buildings, artist groups, neighboring businesses, maker organizations across the city, and social service agencies and nonprofits doing work in the area. For each of these groups, Open Works presented some sort of opportunity – space, tools, education – and the ongoing dialogue began to shape our thinking about how to design our programming.

Boy Scouts of America Baltimore Area Council visit with Taadie Robinson and Open Works general manager Will Holman.

Work with schools

Schools are a natural partner for makerspaces – filled with eager audience and engaged educators. We have spent time at every one of the six schools within walking distance of our site. Each school, be it public, parochial, or charter, had a vision of how they wanted to participate in Open Works. For some, we started right away: a group from the Baltimore Design School, a magnet middle-high school with tracks for architecture, fashion, and graphics, has been coming for construction tours once a month this semester. They’ve been documenting progress and learning about how the different trades interact to build a building. With other schools, it’s been a matter of sitting down with teachers and administrators to hear about their challenges and how we might help address them through access, training, or after-school programs.

Focus group meeting with staff and faculty at Dallas Nicholas Elementary school in March. Photo by Will Holman
Focus group meeting with staff and faculty at Dallas Nicholas Elementary school.

Create inclusive staff and governance

This is one of the biggest challenges inherent in this project, and one facing the tech sector generally. Technology professions – computer science, engineering, architecture – tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. That profile does not reflect the city of Baltimore, or the world today. To that end, we have built a diverse, representative board for Open Works. As we move into hiring our first staff members, principles of equity and inclusion are top of mind. That means taking deliberate, mindful steps in recruiting: pushing job descriptions out very widely; being willing to accept non-traditional resumes and experiences; and leveraging groups like Baltimore Corps and the Baltimore Women’s Maker Collective to expand our network outwards.

Invite everyone in

For our groundbreaking, back at the beginning of October, we hosted an event we called “Makescape.” We didn’t have a facility yet, but we had a great big empty warehouse, so we invited 22 community groups, maker educators, other makerspaces, craftspeople, and nonprofits to set up tables inside our space for a day-long celebration. One of our friends and neighbors, local community leader Dale Hargrave, set up a grill and cooked out. Several hundred folks came out and got a taste of what Open Works would be able to offer once we were open. This past week, we had a second open house in tandem with a neighborhood first Friday art walk called Alloverstreet. These types of welcoming events are critical to de-mystifying the place and making sure folks have a chance to give us their input.

Alloverstreet art walk on May 6th
Alloverstreet, May 6th, 2016.

Leverage social media

Community organizing has a great asset that didn’t exist even a decade ago: social media. Between Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, nearly everyone has access to an online community right in their pocket. Now that the Internet has migrated to our phones, it occurs cheaply, in real time, without the need for a landline connection. Social media has allowed us to be deeply transparent with our construction process and get in front of a lot of people that we may not have been able to meet face-to-face. It allows for immediate, unfiltered communication with our audience – everything from complaints about construction noise to suggestions for class ideas.

Show up and listen

This one’s the most obvious, and the easiest, but often the first to be forgotten. We may think we have a world-beater of an idea in Open Works, but it won’t mean anything if we are not responsive to people’s needs. To find out what those needs are, we’ve got to show up and listen. We have to work with, not for, filling our space with programs that serve the needs of our neighbors. Then, we can get down to our core mission – unlocking everyone’s creative potential.

Community outreach meeting at Barclay community center in April, where local kids built a cnc-ed chair held together with zip-ties. Photo by Will Holman
Image: Community outreach meeting at Barclay community center in April, where local kids built a cnc-ed chair held together with zip-ties.

In our next post, we will hone in more closely on our community outreach efforts around youth, and how we are planning to bring maker education to kids, parents, and teachers.

Construction Update

Since the last post, we have:

1. Finished drywall and begun painting.

2. Finished interior lighting downstairs.

3. Installed the staircase handrails and prepped the treads.

4. Installed all of the interior windows.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Will Holman is the general manager of Open Works. A maker himself, he is the author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now from Storey Publishing.

View more articles by Will Holman