The Strengths of Community-Based Makerspaces

Resources encompass more than pricey gadgets and materials. Embracing a broad definition of resourcefulness can promote equity in the maker movement.

If you heard that a makerspace was well-resourced, what would you picture?

Maybe a 3D printer. Probably a soldering iron. Ample table space and crafting materials, at least.

But resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials. Embracing a broad definition of resourcefulness can promote equity in the maker movement—and is often a necessity in community makerspaces—found researchers from George Mason University.

As we head into a week of exciting maker events, their work provides insight into including everyone in the ongoing celebration of making.

Hosanna House makerspace in Wilkinsburg / photo: Ben Filio

photo: Ben Filio

In their paper “Resourceful and Inclusive: Towards Design Principles for Makerspaces,” Kimberly Sheridan, Abigail Konopasky, Asia Williams, and Grace Wingo share their take-aways from studying makerspaces in underserved, mostly African-American communities. They spent time at Game Design through Mentoring and Collaboration, a weekend and summer program run in partnership with George Mason University in Washington; and at Mt. Elliot Makerspace, an all-ages neighborhood spot in a Detroit church basement. Although serving technically “under-resourced” populations, the leaders and participants at both locations epitomize resourcefulness, the researchers found.[pullquote]Resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials.[/pullquote]

Asset-mapping is a common practice at the spaces they studied. A popular approach in some community development circles, asset-mapping involves identifying existing strengths and resources and working from there. It’s a reaction to the common process of determining what a community lacks and starting from scratch to fix the problem.

The GMU researchers found that the people at George Mason and in Detroit were constantly thinking about the skill sets and knowledge that community members already possessed. They leveraged their connections with individuals and organizations outside of the makerspace walls.

Makerspace at PPS Obama / photo: Ben Filio

In the maker movement, the authors write, resourcefulness is too often “celebrated as an individual and self-contained trait—doing it yourself, making it from scratch, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

In the sites they studied, by contrast, a community-oriented resourcefulness built vital bonds with the outside world. Though these “third spaces” created comforting refuges from the norms and power structures in the larger community, they also granted participants access to it. Leaders at George Mason combed the surrounding community to recruit tech experts willing to come teach the youth about their professions. The young people got a window into industries they might not otherwise have considered or felt they could access. The Detroit program had a partnership with Earn-a-Bike, where kids learn to repair and customize bicycles, eventually taking the bike and the skill set home with them.

Leaders at both of the sites had an important understanding that participants themselves were resources.

“The common practice of teaching as soon as you learn is used as a strategy for broadening the resource base,” the authors write.

At George Mason, youth took on the role of mentors. The practice had a dual purpose of empowering the young people and spreading their new skills to other participants. In Detroit, a group of girls developed a popular YouTube channel, broadcasting playful fake newscasts. The project was an important creative outlet for the kids, and through its active follower base drew new participants to the maker program.

These researchers are far from the first to catalog successful practices for designing a makerspace and maker program. The quick traction the maker movement has gained across many learning environments raises the question of what works where.

MakerEd’s Youth Makerspace Playbook is an extensive handbook for starting a maker program from scratch. Written for all kinds of making communities, it also advises readers to do something akin to asset-mapping.

First-timers should “see possibilities in all things, especially the resources they already have,” the authors write. “They should view their community of users as their greatest resource and asset.”

Next week, making will be in the spotlight. The National Maker Faire on June 18 and 19 kicks off the Week of Making, a call from the White House for people across the country to tinker, imagine, and build. Case studies on different communities’ takes on making, like those from George Mason, are good reminders that the call can include everyone.

The research shows that a community-oriented take on resourcefulness is a critical coping strategy for makerspaces lacking the bells and whistles of a well-funded fab-lab. It’s also a great approach for any maker program interested in genuinely empowering and engaging it’s participants and taking advantage of the rich world outside its door.




Published June 14, 2016