When youth worker Elliot Rivera first saw promotional material for the city’s maker space, "Technocopia," he was excited for the possibilities for the kids he works with. Rivera saw pictures of the whole floor of an old factory building overlooking downtown Worcester, filled with laser cutters, 3D printers, metal working tools and a fully stocked woodshop.
The images also made him feel wary.
“If you look at their pictures, it was a bunch of white people in this space, and I had no idea how to access it,” said Rivera.
Maker spaces, sometimes referred to as hacker spaces or fab labs, are member-groups where people build DIY projects using shared tools. You could build a bench, a picture frame, a robot or your own drone. These spaces were partly devised to take the concepts of science and technology out of the ivory tower and into communities, to benefit the people who don’t already have access to the things that Technocopia has.
But the maker space movement struggles with diversity, “across the board, across the country,” said Dorothy Jones-Davis, president of Nation of Makers, a national maker space organization. A 2018 study done by her organization surveyed hundreds of makers and found that maker space users and leadership were over two thirds male and around 85 percent white.
Jones-Davis said the overwhelming whiteness of the movement is a reinforcing feedback loop.
“I think while certainly there's a diversity of people that are in the Maker Movement, I think some people have not felt that welcoming when they've joined into the group because they don't see people like them,” said Jones-Davis. “They don't see feel that the space is taking account of their needs.”
Despite his reservations about Technocopia, Rivera had high hopes for potential programs with Worcester kids of color who he worked with, particularly the ones who don’t excel in school.
From Rivera’s perspective, Technocopia failed. Starting in 2017, Rivera and some other adults would come to Technocopia with a group of young people to do screen printing and make stickers using a special vinyl printer in Technocopia’s design studio during a weekly event called “Open Hack.” Rivera refers to what he was doing as brown-lining, or bringing people of color into a majority white space.
“[Brown-lining] is about finding a way to make your presence felt,” said Rivera. “Make yourself part of it and kind of reclaim something that was never given to you.”
Rivera said no one was overtly racist, some people were friendly and welcoming, but the slights from some members added up.
“I remember, members would refer to the kids as a gang, and I’m like, ‘They’re not a gang,’” said Rivera. “It was a lot of effort from us adults to insulate them so they could enjoy it and not feel unwelcome.”
Rivera said he felt the kids he came with weren’t being treated as well or given the same opportunities as white kids in the space. Even after coming to Technocopia regularly for months, teenagers who showed up without an adult chaperone were turned away. After about a year, Rivera and the youth stopped coming.
Technocopia’s 150 members are 75 percent men and nearly 90 percent white. Since opening in its current location in 2016, leaders in the space have struggled to attract and retain a more diverse membership. The organization was able to increase the number of women by 10 percent, but the racial diversity is largely unchanged. It’s a priority for co-founder Lauren Monroe, the only woman on Technocopia’s board of directors, who told WGBH News in August she wants the maker space to more closely resemble the demographics of the city.
Monroe said Technocopia is a nonprofit, and keeping it running smoothly takes a lot of juggling and relies heavily on volunteer labor. She said when Rivera was coming with the youth, she didn’t take the time to understand their experiences in the space. That was a mistake, Monroe said, and she’s now trying to build back trust and learn from what went wrong.
Monroe said after Rivera confronted her in late 2018 about the issues at Technocopia, she started noticing the problems in the space that Rivera told her about — small moments and gestures offensive to people from different backgrounds. She said she personally tries to intervene more often when she hears something harmful or ignorant, but says she can’t single-handedly change the culture of the space.
“It’s not inclusive here, and it doesn’t feel welcome to everyone,” said Monroe, “Being white, I know I have blinders when it comes to noticing systemic racism. As much as I wish I could see everything, I know I don’t.”
In the last year, improving the inclusivity and diversity of Technocopia has been a priority for Monroe. Since August, Monroe gave away eight free community memberships, which normally cost $75 a month, to people from communities underrepresented in the space, mostly to people from minority communities. The memberships also include a credit towards a class or a training. Monroe said she’s hopeful the subsidized memberships will help spur other changes.
“Opening the door is not enough, and having even a free membership is not enough,” said Monroe. “If we want to be a maker space that wants to be inclusive to the neighborhood we reside in, we have to make some very intentional hard changes.”
Monroe said she’s also trying to expand Technocopia’s five-person board of directors to include at least one — or more — person from Worcester’s communities of color. Monroe has hired more non-white instructors for Technocopia’s classes, and said she’s considering bringing in some kind of inclusivity training to cut down on members making insensitive comments or disrespecting people without realizing it.
On the other side of town, Spencer Mewherter, a friend of Rivera’s and a carpenter who was a member and teacher at Technocopia, said he’s working to build an alternative maker space with a greater focus on social justice for people in Worcester.
“It's vital for spaces like this to really think and put intention into who they're serving and who has decision making power in them,” said Mewherter.
As for the future of Technocopia? Rivera said he appreciates Monroe’s efforts, but he’s also skeptical.
“Technocopia needs to decide, are you going to be a space that's truly accessible? Do you want to create opportunities for the community that you're in? Or do you want to stay the status quo and keep this as a white men's club?” said Rivera. “You can have one or the other. You have to choose.”