By Maris Harmon
Anyone can take a look at the petri dish of Silicon Valley and notice the alarming lack of women and non-white folk. The highly discussed gender and ethnicity gap in innovative tech spaces feels mammoth and discouraging at times. All of the hiring ads on Angle’s List can feature an eager clause urging women and people of color to apply, but the chasm started forming way before the interview.
Philly-based Hacktory, a space designed for learning and experimentation with new technology, has built into its mission not just freedom to play but also wide-reaching accessibility. An inclusive and affordable makerspace like this has profound implications in our enduring process to the diversify the tech scene and better reflect the palette of our people.
The Hacktory offers a membership option, weekly workshops, an open and free project night, after-school programs three days a week, and a summer camp program. The paid programs, along with unpaid volunteers, are how they maintain their small budget while also keeping fees to a minimum.
Image: Maris Harmon.
When The Hacktory was founded in 2007, their accessibility was limited. Georgie Guthrie, now Hacktory Executive Director, remembered it as “a very small space in a weird attic room that smelled funny and was hard to find. We did classes in there for many years.”
Fortunately, circumstances progressed, and the group was invited to join a collaborative maker space with Nexfab, Public Workshop, and Breadboard. Though a cool experiment, it wasn’t the most successful arrangement.
“Initially we thought we (collaborating organizations) all wanted the same things, but we had different ideas of how go about that and what it would look like. That led to a lot of friction, which was stressful” said Guthrie.
However, it was this experience that helped The Hacktory understand what set it apart. With its second wave of leaders, the commitments to decreasing digital divide and increasing women and people of color’s participation in STEM careers began taking top priority.
If you’ve never experienced the intimidation or exclusivity of a maker space, it may not be so clear why this is unique or special. Its importance became especially clear to Georgia when she completed her graduate program in Industrial Design, and was looking for a new place to experiment.
The struggle to find a place that was welcoming to her as a beginner and as a woman was real.
“The spaces are a bunch of dudes hunched over a computer who don’t even say ‘hi’ when you walk in. Even when someone is friendly, if you’re a woman, you always wonder ‘are they interested in me as a dating prospect, or do they care about the skills I have? Are we ever going to talk about those skills?’”
Image: West Philly Local.
That’s not exactly the kind of place where women come jumping at the opportunity to learn about technology. It’s proven that more diverse teams come up with more creative and effective outcomes. More inclusive spaces aren’t just better for individuals, but for our collective future.
When The Hacktory moved into its own building at 3645 Lancaster Avenue, they were able to start sculpting a reality based on their values and create the kind of place people like Georgia needed.
Guthrie explained, “You can have your values represented in every action you take, how you frame your classes, how you speak to people. [The other groups] didn’t see that.”
In one of the efforts to make the environment more welcoming, The Hacktory put forth a set of social guidelines adapted from The Recurse Center, aimed largely at encouraging members to ask questions, make mistakes, and avoid singling out people who seem out of place or unknowledgeable.
They also acknowledge that these rules still need to leave “space to be human.” The agreement states, “Interacting with people of different orientations or backgrounds can mean stepping on toes from time to time. Our rules aren’t meant to intimidate or prevent anyone from being themselves.”
Recently, one of the girls in an after-school program largely composed of boys felt comfortable enough to talk about her identity. She shared that she was gay, but made clear she identified as a cisgender female. While it was hard for the twelve-year-old group not to crack jokes to break the silence, the support staff at Hacktory made sure to diffuse tension and maintain an open space.
Imagine a tech scene where women and people of color are equally represented. What kind of projects would we see next?