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New feminist makerspace comes to Pittsburgh

“We started imagining a space where feminism could meet technology education.”

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From an initial peek, Prototype PGH, the new Oakland-based feminist makerspace, doesn’t look like much. In the infant organization’s room in the old Blumcraft building, tools hang on the wall and there’s a unicorn mask in the corner, but what you see isn’t all of what you get.  

Louise Larson and Erin Oldynski, the brains behind Prototype, say the organization is rhizomatic in nature: “‘Rhizomatic’ refers to a type of plant that has roots that are very expansive,” says Larson. “The comparison with Prototype is that we are not just one room.” 

Members of the makerspace won’t just have access to the tools and resources in Prototype’s room in the Blumcraft building. The organizers are also working out partnerships with the other tenants, including a woodworking studio in the basement.

Like Prototype, the Blumcraft building itself is a work in progress — much of the space is still being renovated, including a theater where Prototype will host workshops. Other tenants include organizations like 1HoodMedia, a socially conscious collective of hip-hop artists and activists; WERK, which specializes in textiles, wearables, home goods and fabrication; and Accessible Recording, a recording studio and creative learning space.

“It feels exciting to be here right now,” says Larson.

During Prototype’s introductory period, membership costs $25 for six months or $50 for one year and includes weekly studio time, access to equipment, Wi-Fi and coffee. So far, the equipment includes a soldering iron, a scroll saw, hand and power tools, a sewing machine, jewelry-making tools, a vinyl cutter and a typewriter. 

The space’s premier tools are two BoXZY devices — a combination desktop CNC milling machine, 3-D printer and laser engraver. The device was invented at TechShop — both Larson and Oldysnki work at the Pittsburgh location — and was made in Homewood. 

“[Members] get access to equipment, to workshops, and perhaps most importantly, to a community of people who are passionate about equity, innovation and technology,” says Oldynski. “Louise and I have been talking about creating a space that was feminist for a couple of years. We started imagining a space where feminism could meet technology education.”

They’ll be offering “pay-what-makes-you-happy” lectures and workshops; topics so far include how to negotiate a higher wage, soldering your own synthesizer, and doing 3-D modeling. There are a lot of workshops scheduled over the next 100 days to coincide with the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Many believe Trump’s administration will set back women’s rights. 

“We’re being very intentional about having a ton of workshops during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency,” says Oldynski. “This is very much a way to combat a lot of the sexism and discriminatory remarks that we’ve seen the incoming president make.”

Larson and Oldynski say the idea for the feminist makerspace was born out of the discrimination women face in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“Women are vastly underrepresented in the [STEM fields]. Most women are told from an early age, whether explicitly or implicitly, that they don’t belong in these fields,” says Oldynski. “We need a space where women and all feminist allies can create.”

According to the Elephant in the Valley report released last year, 84 percent of women have been told by colleagues that they are too aggressive in the workplace. The survey also found that 88 percent of women have had clients address questions to male colleagues which should have been addressed to them, an example of unconscious bias. 

“I have often experienced being in meetings with men where my knowledge and expertise is completely dismissed or not acknowledged at all,” says Oldynski. “I mean, this happens almost daily.

“This is the problem of 2017; pervasive, subconscious bias where people don’t even realize they’re being discriminatory, but the knowledge and contribution of women is systemically undervalued.”

Prototype is part of the Sprout Fund 100 Days campaign, which is awarding grants of up to $5,000 for innovative projects. But unfortunately, as part of the campaign, Prototype is competing against dozens of other projects in the categories of labor and women.

“They’re all incredibly worthy,” says Larson. 

More than 300 people came to Prototype’s grand opening on Jan. 8 ,and so far 75 people have signed up to be members. Last week, member Stacey Becker stopped by to pick up fliers to spread the word about the new space, then stayed to work on her knitting. She’s making hats for the Women’s March on Washington, on Jan. 21.

“Mostly I just joined because I wanted to support what they’re doing here,” Becker said, “the effort to create a space that is feminist.”



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