Opinion
Science Opinion

Makerspaces: Building Community and 21st-Century Skills in Detroit

By Bart Eddy — April 12, 2018 8 min read

Editor’s note: Brightmoor Makers is a youth employment and social entrepreneurial initiative that has developed programs in woodworking, bike/industrial trike mechanics, screen-printing, and gardening/landscape design on the west side of Detroit. This group of over 40 students from Detroit Community High School, their intergenerational instructors, and community volunteers is led by Bart Eddy, co-founder and director. Here, Bart shares the value of maker spaces and some tips for creating one using Brightmoor Makers as a case study.

A maker space is a place or location where people come together to discover their innovative and creative capacities through hands-on activities. From the advanced technologies of Fab Labs, 3-D printing, laser cutters and machining to arts and crafts, the maker movement is an expression of both the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture and the necessity to fill the gap in the education system that has removed hands-on/practical learning and the arts from the curriculum. Very much a place-based endeavor, the movement for maker education appeals to professionals, tradespeople, and young people who want to work with their hands, design innovative products, and express their individuality. A common thread between all maker activities is that they promote high levels of engagement and focus through project-based and/or science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) activities.

Through a process that replicates the Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master continuum of learning a craft, the Brightmoor Makers gain proficiency in their respective fields and are able to market their products to the community. Here are some guiding principles that have evolved out of our work since starting the program in 2009:

The Value of Maker Spaces: Fashioning Identity

Beyond the joy of making things and deriving satisfaction in a job well done where the results are immediately tangible, the activity of making has a deep connection to social-emotional learning that leads to the fashioning of a participant’s identity. The maker environment becomes an incubator for the development of 21st century learning skills such as teamwork, creativity, imagination, innovation, and the one-to-one learning environment created by the relationship between the instructor and student. We like to refer to our maker space as an “innovation lab” where mistakes are encouraged and maximum engagement is expected.

Creating the Space: Know the Place

It is essential to know the particular needs of the community in order to structure a maker spaces program. To begin, we got involved in community meetings through the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of community-based organizations that represents local schools, businesses, neighborhood block clubs, and other associations. This led to our first activity: turning a vacant piece of land owned by the Leland Missionary Baptist Church into a memorial park for the parishioners. Through our participation in the community, we became connected with the urban gardening movement and were made aware of the extreme lack of afterschool activities and employment opportunities for youth in the area.

Abandoned houses, empty lots, and a high rate of unemployment characterize the Brightmoor neighborhood. Unlike the more traditional maker space facilities and given the neighborhood economy, we understood early on that we could not charge a membership fee for participation in the maker activities, nor could we supply high-end technologies to operate our programs. Furthermore, with the extraordinarily high rates of youth unemployment, we also concluded that we needed to provide a stipend whenever possible for our youth who, more often than not, used their small amounts of income to help with basic family needs.

Getting Started

Starting a maker space is not as complex as one might expect, particularly if you start small. When other schools or community organizations have asked how to do it, our answer has been to use the example of woodworking and suggest they find a room or space in their school or community organization, engage the students in building their own workbenches, and then begin with hand tools such as mallets, clamps, and chisels. The costs of setting up such a simple operation that will serve 10-12 students will be less than $2,000. Typically, we will send one of our instructors and youth interns to help train the staff and initiate the program. An inexpensive rider attached to the general insurance policy of the organization covers the safety issues surrounding the use of hand tools.

Self-Development and Community Transformation

We have witnessed that hands-on work has a healing force for youth that have experienced a high level of trauma in their lives, which many of our youth have. Indeed, we can testify to the fact that maker activities can serve as a powerful antidote to youth violence, disengagement, and disenchantment. This becomes especially evident as young people begin to realize that what they are doing is far more than receiving a paycheck and is intimately tied to the betterment of their community.

One of our major social entrepreneurial projects has been to create a water purification industrial trike as an emergency response vehicle to the water shut-offs in Detroit and the lead contamination of the water in Flint, MI. Our renewable energy vehicle is a collaborative effort between the gardeners (water filtration system and rain barn), the bike mechanics (trike rehab and electronic assist installation), screen printers (logo design and printing water cycler t-shirts), and the woodworkers (sides and framework for the vehicle). The water cycler project has served as an introduction to sustainable energy, brought all of our work disciplines into a collective focus, and attracted the interest of a wide range of community organizations and leaders. In turn, we have developed a speaker’s bureau and gone out into the community as a team while inviting neighborhood activists and spokespersons to come into our workspace. For example, the University of Michigan Stamps School of Arts and Design will bring a group of university students to work with high school students at Detroit Community High School in a course that is called “Resilient Design.” One of their projects will be to create a rain barn to collect and store water from rooftops for both purification and drip irrigation for the garden.

Engaging the Community

Programs such as the Brightmoor Makers cannot exist without the help of multiple partners, and we have been very fortunate to secure the interest of neighborhood organizations, youth employment initiatives in the City of Detroit, and Detroit Community High School, in addition to the University of Michigan.

When we first began our woodworking workshop out of an abandoned garage, we created and installed hand-carved wooden signs as a community service beautification project for the neighborhood block club association. Having done this, other community organizations contacted us and began to order signs, and thus, our entrepreneurial endeavor was born. The local block club and a councilman from the City of Detroit helped to spread the word. This led to our youth being nominated for and receiving the “Spirit of Detroit” award for community service and leadership. Additionally, we received a donation of 150 industrial trikes for rehabilitation from UAW Ford, and with students from the U of M Stamps School of Art and Design, we began the screen-printing program. Over time, we began to grow into the idea that school is community and community is the school, and with this in mind we began to prepare the Brightmoor Maker Space building as a place for community workshops while actively participating in community events and meetings.

Funding

From the outset, we have resorted to multiple sources of funding that include local foundations, city agencies, the school district and other partners, as well as crowdsourcing. This has led to the establishment of the Sunbridge International Collaborative, a 501c3 non-profit organization, which is dedicated to experiential and hands-on learning. We have also offered fee-based workshops and trainings here and abroad.

Given the population we serve, we do not charge any fees for use or occupancy of our facilities, and although we are largely dependent on grants for our operational costs, we have been able to demonstrate movement towards economic sustainability with the products that we sell back into the community. The sale of the products has provided additional income for our youth beyond a stipend and has allowed us to defray the costs of supplies and materials while teaching financial literacy.

Next Steps

In the spring of 2018, the Brightmoor Makers in collaboration with the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design will open the Brightmoor Maker Space building. This building will serve as an invitation to the entire community to partake in creative, hands-on programming. We intend to do the following: expand our programming areas to incorporate more emerging means of production through digital fabrication and 3D printing; extend this work to other community groups in the city of Detroit through a series of short-term, experiential learning workshops; connect university students with local youth for specially designed workshops in artistic and functional creative living; provide intergenerational workshops for parents and grandparents; establish connections with our international network of friends who are interested in projects such as the water purification trikes and cultural exchange; and expand the Brightmoor Makers program to the next level, which will entail developing sustainable, entrepreneurial endeavors for the current Brightmoor Makers and, particularly, for the 18-24 year-olds who are looking for alternatives to traditional employment and education opportunities and to engage their skills through collaborative change-making work.

Follow Bart and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos taken by and used with permission of David Grossman. Quote image created on Pablo, image by David Grossman.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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