The Story Of Pittsburgh’s First Feminist Makerspace.
By: Amy Maurine Edwards
Photos By: Devon Dill
noun: makerspace; plural noun: makerspaces a place where people with shared interests, particularly in computing or techonology, can gather to work on projects while sharing knowledge, ideas, and equipment.
– The English Oxford Dictionary
Erin Oldynski and E. Louise Larson are the founders of Prototype, a feminist makerspace in the Bloomcraft building of Pittsburgh’s North Oakland neighborhood. Together, they’ve built a space for feminist makers in the city that expounds a DIY ethic and have united a collective of like-minded fabricators. Their mission statement, taken from prototypepgh.com, states, “We see Prototype as a space where feminists of all genders are welcome to make things, fail quickly, and find the support to start all over again.”
Prototype also provides a forum for many feminist teachers and makers to share their skills with a larger audience. Artist, Jenn Gooch and recording engineer, Madeleine Campbell, both teach workshops for Prototype. They each have their own studios in the Bloomcraft building, adjacent to Prototype. Mary Mulvihill and Hadley Pratt are also regular teachers that lead workshops for the BoXZY 3-in-1 CNC desktop milling machine/3D printer/laser engraver and are available during Open Swim sessions to help makers with the machine. “When thinking about people to do workshops with, it was easy since there are so many talented artists in this city — we are really privileged to know a lot of amazing makers and educators in Pittsburgh,” Larson said.
As important as access to this equipment, the lectures given at Prototype are varied and pertinent to maker’s daily lives. Oldynski recently facilitated a workshop on how to negotiate a salary raise. Just before the workshop was scheduled to begin, she found out that her partner would have to work at the same time as she would be facilitating. As she had no childcare available on such short notice, she decided to bring her son with her. At first she was nervous, but that nervousness quickly dissipated to relief as she explained the situation to the workshop attendees. Everyone chipped in and took turns playing with and distracting her son. “I left that workshop feeling very empowered and supported,” Oldynski said. She knows firsthand the importance of childcare for makers. Prototype is working toward providing childcare during all workshops, and is currently offered every Thursday evening.
Miriam Devlin, a general contractor who teaches a woodshop class for Prototype, recently talked about the ways that binary standards of dressing have been socially conditioned to interfere with work. Long hair gets caught in rotary equipment; jewelry, rings, flowing dresses, and other adornments prevent those wearing them from engaging in certain types of work. Most Prototype workshops provide a larger sociological context or anecdote before engaging in the content. “Almost all classes have conversations about the contributions of women to each field, and personal stories of [the instructor’s] experiences in the field,” Larson said.
The history of Prototype can be traced back to when Oldynski and Larson met while working as independent contractors for The Sprout Fund in 2014. They were instructors for Sprout’s Digital Corps program, conducted at the JeronX Grayson Community Center in the Hill District, where they taught skills such as robotics and basic computer programming. At the time, Oldynski was two months into motherhood with her first child and not sleeping much. Sharing the technology with her students was one of the only things that brought her out of the house. “Working with Louise and Digital Corps was a reintroduction to life and the professional world after becoming a mother,” Oldynski said. Larson and Oldynski would often stay late after Digital Corps, imagination and inspiration abounding.
The two have been involved in a multitude of projects, both together and independently, in Pittsburgh, and cite a slow growth towards the merging of their common interests and the inception of Prototype. After the Digital Corps program, Larson secured herself the position of education manager at TechShop, a commercial makerspace in Bakery Square, and later hired Oldynski as a Summer Camp instructor. She then created a full-time position to keep Oldynski on board as Youth Education Manager, a science, technology, education, art, and mathematics, (STEAM) position that she enjoyed for a year.
Oldynski founded the Pittsburgh Zine Fair in 2011 and later organized The Feminist Zine Fest. The Pittsburgh Zine Fair had grown to the point of self-sufficiency and she has since handed off the project in order to focus on other endeavors. When Oldynski took the job as a summer camp instructor for TechShop, she already possessed a background in teaching, but lacked the experience with tech and robotics. To remedy this, she enrolled in classes at TechShop to familiarize herself with the equipment and thereby gained the proficiency and confidence to teach basic engineering and design concepts. After a year as TechShop’s STEAM Manager, she is now the Senior Account Manager, and is focused on securing foundation support so that low income students from nearby neighborhoods, such as Homewood, Wilkinsburg, and East Liberty, have access to TechShop.
Larson moved to Pittsburgh five years ago from Montana, where she co-owned a screen printing company with a Pittsburgh ex-pat. “What brought me to Pittsburgh was a one-year technology consulting job. After my contract was up I wanted to stay in this city and was hired by Assemble,” Larson said. Wasting no time since her arrival, she’s been active in a number of initiatives that she describes as an, “education, art-making, technology matrix.” She has worked at the STEAM focused experiential learning space, Assemble, located on Garfield’s Penn Ave. Currently, she is involved with Manifesto Moto, a DIY, community-oriented workspace for motorcycle enthusiasts.
Prototype views the city as their makerspace with the Bloomcraft location as a hub in which to birth ideas. The Bloomcraft building and community of makers contained therein is inarguably important to them, but partnerships and off-site presences provide them with flexibility. Louise describes this as a “Rhizomatic concept — the city as their makerspace — a larger ecosystem of makers that are all connected and can pop up where ever necessary.” To this end, Erin and Louise want Prototype to be able to sustain itself if they were ever to step back. “The future of Prototype should reflect those using the space and what is needed at that time. We are taking a nimble approach toward this project.”
I sat down with Oldynski and Larson on a sunny Sunday afternoon to learn more about Prototype and how their first couple of months have been forging forward:
Why is access to Prototype and its tools/network important for Pittsburgh women in particular?
Women who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continue to be under-represented. We decided to create a makerspace that would be explicit about its mission to engage women, gender variant people, and feminists of all genders in hands-on STEM learning as a way to combat this inequity.
How many members do you currently have? How many are ideal? Do you have a long-term vision, or strategy, for growth and expansion?
Prototype currently has 150 members and is still growing. We think of the whole city as our makerspace, so there is no limit to the number of members we can have. We are not bound by the walls of Prototype, so keep those membership applications rolling in!
How did you decide that the Bloomcraft building was the appropriate location for Prototype?
Bloomcraft is home to dozens of incredible artists, makers, musicians, and activists from all over Pittsburgh, so we knew that we would be in good company. We share our corridor with amazing folks like Accessible Recording, 1Hood Media, Prevention Point, WERK, and Just Seeds, to name only a few of our neighbors.
How do you feel about Prototype’s reception since inception? Were there any initial goals that you hit or any otherwise unexpected reactions to the project?
We were amazed by the number of people who came to our Grand Opening in January. About 400 people came to check out our space and tour the Bloomcraft building. People who live in other cities have reached out to us about collaborating from places like Toronto, LA, and New York City. The reception was really affirming. It is clear that this space is not only wanted, but needed.
Do your workshops/tutorials or Open Swim sessions seem to be more popular? Open Swim being “a time to work on your projects, learn a new tool, and meet your fellow Prototypers.” What are the most utilized items at Open Swim?
Our premier equipment is BoXZY, and we have two of these 3-in-1 CNC desktop milling machines / 3D printers / laser engravers. People can come to a workshop to learn how to use BoXZY and then stop by during an Open Swim to work on it. We are currently open about 30 hours a week and staffed by a dozen dedicated volunteers. If you stop by during one of our Open Swim times, you will find people like Jayla Patton and Anny Chen, two knowledgeable instructors who have a ton of experience in design. Jayla teaches classes at Prototype on animation using Adobe Flash and painting using Adobe Photoshop. Anny is a fashion designer with a background in architecture. Currently our Open Swim hours are every Thursday and Friday from 12-9pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 12-4pm.
Are you currently seeking additional makers and artists to offer classes and workshops?
Yes! We are always open to getting more workshop proposals from artists and makers of all backgrounds. Please fill out the “get involved” form on our website. Our workshops are currently booked through March so we are looking for April workshops.
How can you sustain your project and the requisite tools/software licensing at your current low price vs. other organizations such as Tech Shop, and why is this important?
We are not the end-all be-all makerspace. It takes a lot to feel comfortable around new equipment. We joke that our function is to serve as a place for people to get their feet wet before they get their hands dirty. Just putting yourself out there, like in taking a class, is a starting point for learning a new skill.
The most unique attribute of our space is its size. Although our headquarters is small, we are collaborating with other organizations, like TechShop, to create programming all across the city. This allows us to create unique partnerships, apply for grants, or offer joint classes at other locations.
We are actively seeking grants, sponsorships, and continued membership fees for sustaining Prototype. As a small space with big ideas, community support is critical to us. Most recently, we received grant support from the Sprout Fund, as well as donations from community members. Both of which allow us to offer free and low cost programs. Maker-related spaces like TechShop, HackPGH, Assemble, AlphaLab, Bunker Projects, and Filmmakers have also been very supportive of this endeavor.
Prototype was just awarded grant funding from The Sprout Fund’s 100 Days campaign. What was the purpose of the 100 Days campaign and what will this funding enable Prototype to do that they otherwise would not, or would not have been able to as quickly?
The purpose of the 100 Days grant is to engage in community building during the first 100 days of the new presidential administration. Our goal is to engage 100 women in hands-on STEM workshops in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, and we are well on our way to doing it. Without this funding we would need to rely on membership donations much more.
Are your memberships tax-deductible, and are contributions made through purchases on your Amazon wishlist also tax-deductible?
Yes! Contact us for details at email@example.com
Prototype views the city as their makerspace with the Bloomcraft location as a hub in which to birth ideas. The Bloomcraft building and community of makers contained therein is inarguably important to them, but partnerships and off-site presences provide them with flexibility. Louise describes this as a “Rhizomatic concept — the city as their makerspace — a larger ecosystem of makers that are all connected and can pop up where ever necessary.” To this end, Erin and Louise want Prototype to be able to sustain itself if they were ever to step back. “The future of Prototype should reflect those using the space and what is needed at that time. We are taking a nimble approach toward this project.