As part of this year’s EMF Camp I organised a workshop to share information on how to build inclusive makerspaces. In the first part of the workshop I presented some of the results from my research on diversity and inclusivity issues in makerspaces, then I opened the floor up to a roundtable discussion with other hacker/makerspace folks about successes and challenges they’ve experienced in their own spaces around engagement.
There were participants from hacker/makerspaces around the UK and the Netherlands including Weymouth Makerspace, Lancaster & Morecambe Makers, HACMan, Newbury & District Hackspace, South London Makerspace, Transition Stirling, Ipswich Makerspace, Surrey & Hampshire Makerspace, Bristol Hackspace, Nottinghack, Derby Makers, Hitchin Hackspace, Fab Lab Altrincham, Leeds Hackspace, Sheffield Hardware Hackers & Makers, and Oxhack.
As with the Hackspaces Round Table event that happened at EMF I thought it would be useful to make a summary of the discussion available.
Part 1: Presentation
My slides from the first part of the workshop are available here, but here’s a summary of what they cover.
Why is it important to have inclusive makerspaces?
Technology plays a huge role in our everyday lives: we rely on technology in our work, to keep in touch with friends, and to run our homes (things like washing machines and ovens are technologies, too). It’s therefore essential that all people:
- Understand technology, know how to operate tools and computers, know what technologies can and can’t do, and know what the risks involved with specific technologies are.
- Feel comfortable with technology, feel a sense of ownership over technology, feel like they can learn about technology as it evolves and changes, and can make the most of the technology in their daily lives.
People currently lack opportunities to learn about and use technologies, and makerspaces have the potential to provide those opportunities. Makerspaces also have several benefits over other environments where people learn about technology, such as at school, at university, through vocational training, and through online learning:
- They have flexible opening hours so people can visit when it suits them.
- They provide hands-on learning opportunities.
- People can learn from others face-to-face.
- Access typically costs much less than formal education or training courses.
- People can learn at their own pace.
There are also a lot of tangible benefits that people can get from makerspaces. I’ve seen people use the skills they developed in makerspaces to get a new job, to start a business, to upcycle objects that would have otherwise gone to landfill, and to make bespoke items they need in their daily lives.
My personal experience as a longterm makerspace member is that makerspaces are empowering environments for learning about technology. That sense of empowerment comes from both the access to tools that makerspaces provide, and the access to a community that provides knowledge and encouragement to just try things out and to have fun doing new things.
What do I mean by inclusion?
Inclusion involves two things:
- Physical inclusion – people being able to physically get to and move around in the makerspace.
- Cultural inclusion – the makerspace being a friendly and welcoming environment for lots of different kinds of people.
Who might have trouble accessing makerspaces?
- People with disabilities and older people may be affected by physical access issues.
- Parents and caregivers may be unable to access makerspaces where children aren’t welcome. This particularly affects women, who continue to be responsible for the majority of childcare.
- Women and BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people may be more likely to be put off from entering environments where there are few people who look like them. They may also experience harassment from other members in the form of explicit nastiness (such as sexist or racist comments, sexual harassment, etc), or through more insidious actions.
- People with low incomes can struggle to pay membership fees and other hidden costs involved in accessing makerspaces, such as charges for tool inductions and public transport costs.
Makerspaces can also be intimidating environments for anyone to enter because of the levels of knowledge that makerspace members possess. This can be exacerbated if the makerspace isn’t fit for purpose and requires people to have existing knowledge to fix tools before they can use them. This also particularly affects women and BAME people who don’t typically have as much technical experience.
A few examples of inclusive practices
1. Think about physical access
People often think about whether their building is step-free when they are assessing physical accessibility, but you also need to consider things like:
- Are the doorways wide enough for people in wheelchairs to fit through them, and is there enough space between furniture for them to move around?
- Are tools fixed at an appropriate height?
- Are items stored out of reach?
- Do heavy items have to be moved around manually?
- Is the area so messy and cluttered that people can’t get to the things they need?
2. Tidy up
Messy spaces aren’t welcoming to people. As well as making your space a nicer place to spend time in, tidying up also:
- Keeps junk out of the way, thereby improving physical accessibility.
- Prevents spaces becoming a dumping ground for electronic waste and half-finished projects.
- Reminds people about broken tools that need to be fixed when the space is checked over for rubbish.
- Helps to spot whether supplies like electronic components or PPE such as dust masks have run out and need to be restocked. A lack of proper health and safety equipment can also prevent people from accessing makerspaces.
3. Make it colourful
There are some other ways to make your makerspace a nicer place to spend time in:
- Paint some murals (maybe some murals of inspirational women technologists).
- Get some books. Not just programming books, but books that people can sit down and read while their 3D prints are finishing.
- Most importantly, have projects on display to give new people ideas for what they can make and projects they can get started with.
4. Have a strong Code of Conduct
Interpersonal issues will sometimes come up between people in a community. Having a Code of Conduct (CoC) sets expectations for people when they join your makerspace and can also be used to deal with problems when they do occur.
A CoC should cover both explicit nastiness (offensive comments, harassment, aggression, bullying, etc), and also micro aggressions: behaviours that make people uncomfortable but are harder to put your finger on, such as assuming somebody is not good at something because of the way they look, or, conversely, assuming that someone is good at something (e.g. “you’re a woman, you must know about textiles”).
A lot of makerspaces do have a CoC, but their members may not be aware of it. Informing members about the CoC when they join up, getting them to agree to it, and enforcing it when the Code is violated are all as (and more) important as having a CoC in the first place.
5. Organise diverse events
It can be tricky for makerspaces to have the time and energy needed to organise events. If you do have the opportunity to organise events, go broad. Include things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a makerspace. Makerspaces can be places where people can share different kinds of knowledge and interests, but it can be hard to attract people outside of the digital technology crowd. One way to do that is to make sure that people know that you’re interested in lots of different activities by reflecting that in the events you organise.
Public events are also an opportunity to utilise tools you have but don’t know how to use: you can invite people from the local community who work with that tool to come in for a workshop, and maybe they will also become interested in getting involved with the makerspace. Attracting diverse groups of people is a matter of building communities around the tools and interests you want to see in your makerspace.
6. Make it affordable
My experience of the “pay-what-you-can” membership subscription model in volunteer-organised makerspaces has been that it can work well, and lowers the administrative overhead involved in agreeing to membership discounts on a case-by-case basis. There is a risk that this model can devalue the monetary benefit that people attach to makerspaces, so it may be worth setting a suggested membership amount to set new members’ expectations for how much they should aim to be paying.
If you are a funded makerspace charging a flat rate for access then aim to offer discounted subscriptions to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford access. Having free workshops is also an excellent way to get people from your local community involved in your makerspace.
7. Work with your local community
If you can find out what challenges people in your local community are facing then you can provide things that are useful to them. Makerspaces are a valuable resource: as well as providing tools, we can provide space for people to put larger projects together. People who make use of that space may then choose to get more involved with the makerspace community.
Acknowledge the problem
Lastly, and most importantly, acknowledge if your makerspace is struggling to include diverse people. This isn’t a matter of blaming individual makerspaces for not being inclusive, because this is a very widespread problem. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a case of “if you build it they will come”: we need to think about why we have this problem, and what we can do to counter it.
Part 2: Roundtable discussion
During the rest of the discussion participants shared their advice for building inclusive makerspaces. I’ve gathered the advice here under a few separate headings to make it easier to parse.
Membership and costs
- Introducing a small charge for events and tool inductions instead of doing them for free gets people to actually turn up, but the cost shouldn’t be prohibitive: £2 is a good amount. Another option is to charge a deposit that people get back if they turn up.
- Tiered membership with different rates for people who need 24 hour access and people who only need to come in occasionally can make membership more affordable.
- Provide an option for occasional visitors to pay on the door instead of having to set up a standing order to make it easier to visit occasionally.
- For volunteer-organised hackspaces it can be useful to have people using the space even if they can’t afford to pay the full membership subscription (see discussion of volunteers and staff below).
- The most challenging financial period for spaces is when they’re first being set up and you have costs to meet, so you’re most likely to need membership subscriptions upfront for that. Once you’re established you can be more flexible.
Volunteers and staff
Letting people exchange volunteer hours in lieu of membership fees or paying members to do admin and cleaning jobs opens up a can of worms.
- If your space provides services (e.g. prototyping services) then it provides staff for that.
- It provides more keyholders which means the space is open more often which helps people like freelancers and home-workers access it.
- It reduces burnout if you have set opening hours when you need a keyholder to be there.
- Having people around during the day doesn’t necessarily help with inclusivity as it may still mostly be White men who are the volunteers or staff members.
- It may cause resentment amongst members if you have lots of low income members who would like to be employed by the space but you can only employ one.
- It can create a weird energy in the space if one member is hired to be there all the time. They can become a very knowledgeable, powerful and “official” presence within the space. A way to deal with this if you have a large enough membership base would be to have short term contracts spread out amongst lots of members.
- It’s problematic if low-income people have to work for the space to get the same privileges as other people who can afford full membership. Having the time available to volunteer in makerspaces is also a privilege in itself, and may not be possible for people on low incomes or who don’t have stable jobs or other ways of supporting themselves financially.
Bear in mind there can be problems with firing a staff member if they’re also a member of the makerspace. A couple of spaces have made a rule where if they employ a member they’re no longer a member of the space.
There can also be a problem with getting volunteers to follow through on something they’ve said they’ll do, because there are no real repercussions for them if it doesn’t get done. Volunteer-organised spaces are often reluctant to hire people to do something that members can do for free, but hiring someone usually means that it actually gets done.
- It’s very difficult to find properties that are both affordable and accessible, but it may be possible to get spaces with the potential for accessibility improvements. For example when South London Makerspace moved into their space they installed a new floor to make the floor inside level with the floor outside.
- Accessibility happens when it is a priority to members and directors from the beginning (e.g. setting a requirement to find accessible properties, making accessibility improvements before opening).
- If you have limited money for accessibility improvements then concentrate on the areas that are going to be used most often, or that are going to be used for events and socialising.
- Get an accessibility audit for your space to review its accessibility for a wide range of people: blind people, people who use wheelchairs or scooters, people with auditory processing disorder, austistic people. Consult with members with specific requirements to find out how to support them.
- Lifts are not necessarily accessible for people who use wheelchairs or scooters as the controls might be in an awkward position.
- For a volunteer organisation, legal issues around making accessibility improvements to buildings can prevent work going ahead even if money is available. For example, there are legal complications around what to do in the event of a fire if the only exit route that people who use wheelchairs have is a lift.
- Instead of installing a lift you can install a chairlift, which is less expansive.
- Having plenty of chairs around is useful for people who have trouble standing. This is something that’s missing at EMF.
Events and activities
Spaces can be worried about being patronising by organising things like sewing nights, but there are lots of things that can help make spaces less intimidating:
- Organise programs and events aimed specifically at groups such a women / LGBTQ people / POC / disabled people. Just labeling an event as being “for women, minorities and LGBTQ (not exclusively)” attracts more participants from those groups than identical events without that explicit invitation.
- Provide space for tools and activities that are seen as “less techie” or that are more stereotypically feminine, like textiles / wearable electronics, arts and crafts, food hacking. Setting up themed craft or textiles nights can help to develop communities of interest around these activities, and for smaller spaces it ensures there is space for people to work on these projects without table space being taken up by people sitting at laptops.
- Have quieter nights aside from the main open evening for new people to have a look round.
- Bring in other local groups like Codebar (which teaches people from non-standard backgrounds how to code), Coder Dojo and Code Club (programming clubs for young people), Stitch and Bitch sewing groups. Codebar can start off with most of the coaches being men because most people who can already code are men, but then after the women taking part learned to code they became the coaches. With Coder Dojo and Code Club boys might bring along their mum / their sister / their friends. Reach out to your local Etsy team.
Put these events and activities upfront on your Twitter or Facebook pages.
- Having an online mailing list lets people who can’t physically get to the space be part of the community online.
- The way people speak to and about each other is very important. If you’re speaking to somehow who’s not familiar with the technology you’re talking about then slow down, explain the terms you’re using without being patronising, and recognise that not everyone has had the same experiences as you. Help transgender people in your communities feel welcome by making sure you use their correct genders and pronouns and making sure other members of the community know about that too.
- It can be hard to build inclusivity when your directors are all White, middle class men. Hackspaces are often set up to meet people with shared interests in electronics, 3D printers etc., and it doesn’t even occur to the founders to try and be inclusive.
- Women members can offer skills in organising, finances, etc. there are useful to makerspaces, but it can also be difficult for techie women while the men are talking about tech and they have something to contribute too.
- Members can be very disparaging of things like buying sewing machines for the space, even if they’re paid for by members or through pledge drives. Older men in particular can discourage activities like this and men often just want to focus on things like Arduinos. The sniping that comes with this kind of push back can be very dispiriting for people who are trying to improve inclusivity, and this is where having a CoC is necessary.
- Advertise to the audience you want to get. When you’re advertising a makerspace you’re advertising to people who already know what a makerspace is, so it can be hard to get out of that social media cabal.
- As with physical accessibility, developing a culture of inclusivity also relies on this being important to the space from the beginning.
- Colchester Makerspace was mentioned as an example of a great community hub with lots of different things going on (food, music, ceramics, etc).