As you may have read earlier this month, I’m stepping down as executive director of The Hacktory. If you aren’t familiar with The Hacktory, we are the first “makerspace” in the region. This November marks 10 years since we held our first class, “Intro to Arduino.” Over the years we’ve made Laser Graffiti, Hacked the Gender Gap, offered an Artist Residency, and have made a wide range of technical projects, like a virtual reality headset built with a Raspberry Pi for our after-school kids.
We also helped save Philly’s reputation when a helpless robot was destroyed here in our city in 2015. I’m extremely proud of these milestones and the other work we’ve done and the small, fiercely loyal community we’ve built.
Taking some time to reflect on all we’ve done, I wanted to share some thoughts and observations with our larger community. There are signs that this type of work isn’t as valued or cared about within our city as I think it should be.
Philly needs a place like The Hacktory
Community-focused makerspaces are critical for Philly to continue to advance and flourish.
Last year professional web developers reported that fewer than 55 percent have a formal degree in their field, and 90 percent of them reported that they are self-taught in the skills they use in their professional roles. Couple that with the fact that 50 percent of STEM jobs do not require a formal four-year degree. These jobs pay higher average salaries, so attaining such a position would have a significant positive impact on the lives of many Philadelphians.
Our ecosystem isn’t actually supportive of the hands-on learning, curiosity and collaboration that makerspaces thrive on.
Informal learning opportunities have been shown to be an effective pathway into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) for groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences. In addition, early interest in STEM is a better indicator than formal grades of future likelihood of pursuing a STEM career. If we want to build a workforce in our city with a higher level of technical skill, one of the best ways to do that is to get young people to just be interested in STEM. One of the best ways to get them interested is to provide opportunities for young people to have fun tinkering after school and with family members. No other space in Philly provides as much opportunity for this as The Hacktory.
Furthermore, manufacturing industries are being revitalized through technology provided by makerspaces. With it, many U.S. cities are making a comeback.
The Hacktory excels in a few key areas
Last summer at the Nation of Makers meeting at the White House, I heard from dozens of other makerspace leaders that many of them struggle with drawing participants of different genders and ethnic backgrounds.
At The Hacktory, participation by women in our programs and as volunteers has been a steady average of 50 percent for years. During the past few weeks at our Summer Hardware Bootcamp (hardware as in 3D printing, wearable electronics, and internet of things) more than half the participants over the course of several weeks were women, 30 percent were people of color.
While NextFab offers access to a wider range of tools than we do, The Hacktory provides an on-ramp for those who don’t need high-end tools right away, but have an idea they want to explore and build themselves. And our social rules ensure that people feel comfortable in our space.
We’ve become a hub for educators in the region seeking to learn more about specific hardware to incorporate into their teaching. Numerous regional schools have started makerspace-type classrooms or programs, and many of their educators have reached out to us for advice, attended classes, or become a member to network and get support.
We are also one of the most accessible makerspaces in the city. A trolley line runs right outside our door, and stops on the Market-Frankford line are a few blocks away. Our storefront is clearly marked and our door is directly on the street. We offer a free Project Night every Thursday, our memberships start at $15, we offer the lowest rates for laser-cutting in the city. No other space is as accessible in terms of transportation, parking or price. This type of accessibility is really important because of the many barriers people impose on themselves in deciding whether or not they belong in a space like ours, even before they walk through the door.
Why I’m stepping down
It’s time to acknowledge that the stress, failures and exhaustion I experienced while The Hacktory was part of the Dept. of Making + Doing have had a lasting impact on me.
At the beginning, I thought that project and partnership would be a career launchpad, and I was OK volunteering my time to help plan and run programs there. Even before our opening party though, it was clear the partners had vastly different priorities and availability to contribute to the project. Before long this manifested as burnout, erosion of trust and disengagement. Funds from grants that I helped write were wrapped up in bureaucracy and turf wars that required fantastical feats of paperwork just to get a check in hand. Other people involved in the project were exploited or treated poorly. Though I think the other partners in the project have great skills and vision, and we all had the best intentions, once the partnership went south, none of us were equipped to turn it around. Despite our success in fundraising, those funds couldn’t be used to cover the critical time it takes partners in a venture like that to build or repair trust and confidence in each other to make it work.
(Editor’s note: Read our 2016 feature “The life and death of the Dept. of Making + Doing” to learn more.)
While many were sad to see DM+D close, I couldn’t wait to be free of the bureaucracy and stress, and for The Hacktory to finally step out on its own. I thought for sure we would be able to be a fully community-supported makerspace in no time at all. I was so dedicated that I took a small inheritance that my grandmother left me and used it to live off of while I tried to make the organization into a sustainable entity. In my excitement and optimism I didn’t think the stress and exhaustion I experienced working on DM+D would follow me.
Now, two years later, I know I need to take a few steps back before I can move forward at all. Though being at the helm of The Hacktory has been my dream position (except the part about not being paid), someone else needs to take over. Contemplating this move, it dawned on me that there are some other signs that our ecosystem isn’t actually supportive of the hands-on learning, curiosity and collaboration that makerspaces thrive on.
Maker activities have struggled a lot in Philly
Last spring the founder of Make:Media and Maker Faire, Dale Dougherty reached out to me personally. He asked me to bring The Hacktory to Washington, D.C.’s Maker Faire to provide fun hands-on activities there, and of course our group of scrappy makers was happy to do so.
While at that Maker Faire, Dale came and found me specifically, and asked how to get Maker Faire to come to Philadelphia. He said he’s reached out to people at institutions he thought would be willing partners here, but hasn’t gotten anywhere. In his mind, Benjamin Franklin is a clear patron saint of making, and he pointed out that lots of smaller cities have hosted Maker Faires. I pledged to do what I can, but being a volunteer without many resources, I can’t offer more toward this goal than what I’m already giving.
I also want to highlight the many maker-type spaces that have come and gone from Philly: 3rd Ward, DM+D, WorkshopPHL, the Sculpture Gym. One of these spaces was famously mismanaged, but for the others, lack of financial support from the community and other funders was instrumental in their closing.
I share all of these details because I think our community is missing a high-level conversation about what is working and what’s not in spurring innovation and maker activities in our city.
I think we need to consider our failures, what has been tried over and over again, who is being served by the tech community and related organizations, what big goals we share and what is holding us back. There is a real downside to these spaces failing, which is that all the knowledge gained by the passionate people who started them are scattered to the wind. To make some real progress, we need to break this cycle and build on what these spaces and people are learning.
If you’re thinking Why don’t they get some grant funding or donations?, this has always been a goal of ours, but it’s harder than it looks. Though we may look like a fairly large operation from the outside, for many funders, we are still too small to qualify for grants that would offer meaningful financial support (like enough to fund a full-time staff person for a year). The grants we do qualify require significant time and effort to write and report on, so we’ve opted to focus on building up our membership and program revenue instead.
What you can do
If you want to see The Hacktory stick around for another 10 years, or even one more year, become a member, buy a T-shirt, join our board, or do all three. Our lease is up this fall and our board is considering moving yet again. In my view, if we move again, we will never regain the potential we have now.
I first got involved in The Hacktory as a volunteer, not as a cofounder as many assume. At that time I did not consider myself a “tech person,” I just wanted to learn more about technology in general. The fact that I’ve been able to become a teacher in technical topics shows how spaces like The Hacktory can transform participants.
I think we’ve demonstrated that building a contingent of technically sophisticated citizens from all corners of our city (even with minimal resources) is possible. Please show me that Philly wants this kind of transformation to continue here.
Knowledge is power!
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