Image courtesy of South London Makerspace
If you want to lose the attention of a group of people, one possible way is to start talking to them about diversity.
Turgid corporate training days will come to mind, in which consultants lectured them on self-evident things, and they will turn off and think about football, or what they had for dinner last night. Diversity training is an annoying experience because people are either being told again what they think they already know, or they are being confronted with things that might be slightly uncomfortable and which they would prefer not to hear. There really are few things more boring or demotivating than a company diversity training day.
But diversity doesn’t always have to be about lectures, and about making people feel as though they are somehow transgressors, when in fact they are simply required to be there as part of their employment or education. Instead, diversity should be about opportunity, about making the most of the resources a diverse range of people represent, and about benefit rather than boredom.
A typical hackspace can present an inspiring and interesting membership with an astonishing variety of skills, but it is undeniable that those members will often look and sound very similar. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it does hide an unintended consequence. For people with different backgrounds and life experiences, such a homogeneous gathering can be somewhat intimidating. The opportunity to enrich and increase the membership is lost, because potential members who come through the door are often put off and never return.
Those of us who have been involved in the running of hackspaces will be very familiar with this. We will all have seen potential members interested in using the laser cutter or the 3D printer, perhaps women in their twenties slightly on edge having found their way to what is usually a slightly insalubrious location due to cost constraints, being put off by well-meaning but socially inept members. The aim here isn’t to separate groups of people, but to ease a new member gently into the social aspect of life as a hackspace member.
Less obviously problematic to observers, but every bit as off-putting for new female members, is when through being polite and friendly they accidentally acquire the attention of an overly keen helper. That is, a member who will pop up constantly every time she is in, wanting to accompany her in her hacking, and asking to keep in contact. Though this member often has the best of intentions, this amount of attention can make the new member feel uncomfortable. Since it doesn’t appear to cross any boundaries, there is rarely any intervention, but do not doubt that she will soon make her polite excuses and leave.
Solutions not problems
The answer to this problem of how to retain rather than repel these members is very easy to say but extremely difficult to achieve: ensure that the space is a welcoming environment for them. The verification of this goal lies in how many members from diverse backgrounds you are attracting and retaining, and any answers should come from the impression those people have of your space rather than the self-impression of the dominant group within it.
In the first instance there is an easy win when it comes to attracting and retaining members: how welcoming does your space look? What does a visitor see when they approach your front door? It’s true that most spaces have to take whatever they can get and they are often in the cheaper parts of town, but that notwithstanding, are you doing everything you can to make your entrance look welcoming? Walk up to it both in daylight and after dark; is it clean, bright, and, most importantly, well lit? And finally, is it well signed?
Once a prospective member crosses the threshold, their first impression is crucial. Therefore it’s most important to pay attention to how new arrivals are handled by the first people they encounter. Our community attracts people from a significantly technical background, and it is fair to say that among the members of a typical hackspace are likely to be people with all levels of social skill. They may all be well-meaning, but in situations where it is the first impression that matters, there will be members who you would be happy to greet new arrivals, and those who perhaps you wouldn’t. If you are running a hackspace, it is important that the job of meeting and greeting new faces falls upon someone with the right selection of skills to put them at their ease. It is a job that requires charm and diplomacy, something which if you are a hackspace director you may have to employ yourself when selecting a member of your team for this crucial task.
So you’ve attracted your visitor and they’re excited about being shown the laser cutter; can you now pull a Club-Mate from the fridge and enjoy your reward? Not just yet, because things can still go wrong. Until the newbie has got to know the members a little and learned that they are nothing to be afraid of, there is still a chance that you could lose them. If your resident Fidel Castro launches into an hour-long lecture on the benefits of anarchist-hacker collectives and nobody rescues them, that may be it. A hackspace director’s job is never done, and on social nights that means keeping an eye out and having a trusted team of helpers ready to extricate and shepherd new members should that be necessary.
We’ve covered the aspect of increasing your space’s diversity that involves making it a more welcoming environment for new arrivals who perhaps don’t feel entirely at ease. But there is another completely different aspect to the issue, that of attracting those arrivals in the first place. For that you will need a much more fundamental diversity strategy, as well as a series of attractive and interesting events and activities. It’s time now to take a look at a real-world example of a space that managed this.
Diversity at Oxford Hackspace
Oxford Hackspace (Oxhack) is a typical medium-sized makerspace in the ancient British university city. At the start of 2017 it had about 70 members, but, due in no small part to a well-executed diversity and events strategy, that admirable number rose 66% over the course of the next nine months. To find out how they approached the question of hackspace diversity, we interviewed long-standing Oxhack director Lauren Hutchinson, a leader in diversity within the UK makerspace and innovation community.
HSMag How did you come to this, what gave you an interest in hackspace diversity?
Lauren H Diversity and inclusion in civil society, and fairness in accessing the means to building a good life, have been topics close to my heart for as long as I can remember. It sounds trite but this stuff really matters to me. Suffice it to say that I have witnessed, experienced, or helped others through enough exclusionary and/or difficult situations as a youth and young adult that, as an empathetic and ethical person, I have found that I can’t easily let arbitrary exclusion lie.
Image courtesy of Oxford Hackspace
Experiences working in youth politics, Aboriginal legal aid, international development, with deaf people, EFL learners and offenders, and advocating for health patients definitely inform my thoughts. Like many in the maker community, I was a geeky child with trouble fitting in, and for many years as a young woman I had great trouble accessing the makery tools and upskilling opportunities that I would have liked to have done.
I also had, and still sometimes have, trouble being listened to when I speak about the latter challenges. So on my watch in the hackspace movement, I am quite keen for everyone who wants to grasp these democratised opportunities for learning and making to be able to bloom, without any arbitrary barriers getting in the way.
HSMag Did you prioritise targeting any particular group or section of society?
Lauren H No, not particularly. People with physical disabilities, people on the autistic spectrum, and women, minorities and LGBT+ were all people we tried to include, and there were multiple things I identified or theorised and experimented with that we thought might help them gain access and feel welcome.
One of the first things we did on moving into our new place was survey it from an accessibility perspective and remove ledges and obstructions to entering rooms. We conducted a risk assessment on the lift and found out that people in mobility chairs could get stuck if they entered the small space one way but not the other, so it was important to signpost from outside where the interior controls were located.
Same process with the loo, though the building didn’t implement all recommendations. We created some comfortable spaces centred around traditionally ‘female’ activities for new people to use as a safe hub, and we ran a number of events targeted at women, minorities, and LGBT+.
Image courtesy of Oxford Hackspace
HSMag Why did Oxford Hackspace consider this to be important?
Lauren H Due perhaps to the divided nature of Oxford and life hardships, some of our founding members were pretty passionate about inclusive principles being built into our model early on. Accessibility was named in our mission as an important goal, and our minimum fee set to £10 for inclusiveness. Years passed but somehow, a diverse membership never magicked itself into being, despite people being generally friendly and welcoming. As co-ordinator, it seemed to me that we weren’t meeting our mission unless we made ourselves as physically, financially, and geographically accessible as possible, and actively encouraged a healthy diversity balance in the membership. The other directors were lovely and supportive of this. For some time I was loath to push on diversity for personal capacity and drama avoidance reasons, but once we achieved a much larger space I decided to champion the issue to hopefully help make us into a place to be proud of, one that could really improve some lives.
HSMag Where did you see your greatest challenges at the start?
Lauren H There were a few challenges. One was getting many members to think that a diversity push was more than shruggingly important, to buy into helping me run these events and implement environmental changes in an active way. On inquiry, people were mostly passively supportive of inclusiveness, but many often didn’t go ahead and volunteer time towards things unless I approached them directly or unless they were given direct responsibility for supporting specific people. Then once they had specific actions requested of them personally, they tended to be great helps.
Mind you, a small core of members, many with teaching, queer, and/or autism spectrum backgrounds, did actively contribute and offer enthusiasm and support, which was really lovely. A second issue was the question of holding targeted events for minorities, because our regular events weren’t drawing many people who were not youngish, technical, male, and white. We had some drama and discussions over whether targeted but non-exclusive events, or even mildly exclusive ‘safe’ targeted events at which non-attendees were asked not to linger, were OK to hold to get more people coming along and comfortable with us.
There were a handful of objections on the basis of feeling excluded, and we even got a drive-by attack on Twitter, but our regular events were demonstrably just not drawing a diverse crowd, while tailored events did.
Image courtesy of Oxford Hackspace
HSMag How did you decide on what individual projects your diversity strategy would contain?
Lauren H The short version is that I brainstormed a lot on it for months, visited other spaces, spoke to friends, asked for ideas from members, and in particular from minority visitors who turned up. I dug into my own experiences of alienation and anxiety in tech spaces, and invited my intuition to suggest incremental improvements to me over a long time. I also read various Nesta and PhD thesis-type documents about welcoming spaces that are floating about, and occasionally bounced ideas off sympathetic directors from other spaces.
My advice on developing a diversity strategy is to put someone from a minority background in charge of thinking it through gently over a few months, and tell them explicitly to listen to their intuition and that it’s OK to experiment. Importantly, listen to event participants’ feedback.
We have a few members who really get the importance of diversity, and having them take ownership of implementing parts was a great help. And finally, remember that it’s important to take account of what resources you have and honestly don’t have to work with currently: think about who you have with a high charisma rating from a minority background, who might be able to reach out or be an ambassador, who would be happy to teach a minority-targeted instance of a workshop. Even things like tea, snacks, and interior design skills can help make a place feel like home.
Image courtesy of Oxford Hackspace
HSMag Which were the easy wins, and which were more difficult than you expected to implement?
Lauren H I’ve talked about a few above, but here are some easy wins:
• Put charismatic people with good personal social development and empathy in charge of greeting visitors – at the very least on open nights. Also, make sure you give them a backup person or two so that if several new visitors come in separately one after another, it’s not like the tour guide is already busy and the second and third visitor are going to fall through the cracks.
• Create a dedicated textiles room or area, and ideally an explicit crafts area that does not get overrun by all sorts of computers and cabling
all the time. The goal is to not make it a requirement of crafting that someone needs to first be confident enough to ask other members to move.
• Think about getting someone female or from a minority background to write up your event descriptions in a welcoming way. Ideally someone empathetic. You’d be surprised at the difference this can make for readers when descriptions are not overly brief, technical, or mildly forbidding-feeling for people with imposter syndrome. Explicitly say what is needed to bring and if all levels are welcome, say so. Stick these descriptions wherever you normally advertise events, and tweet the link with an inviting and targeted title at relevant communities or individuals in your town who might retweet you to their followers. In general, try to build good relationships with these groups, where you help each other out when possible.
• In terms of interior design, consider creating some hidey holes, so to speak. You want various different seating and working layout options, and also to provide some choice to members around noise and interaction levels required at any given seating position. This will help shy people, people who may be low-level uncertain about their belonging or safety, privacy advocates, and people on the autistic spectrum feel comfortable. There should always be a few seats with their backs to the wall so passers-by can’t see screen contents – I can’t emphasise this enough! Having snuggly places to sit that are behind bookshelves, protected by friendly plants, or in corners behind piles of fabric are good things to explicitly and intentionally build in. Not everyone will feel as OK sitting at a long table in the centre of the room with random people walking behind them – to some that feels too exposed.
• Consider doing what we did with our vehicle mechanics classes: schedule a workshop twice on the same evening: one for general all-comers, and one targeted at women, minorities, and LGBT+ people 30 minutes to an hour later. Write them up exactly the same way, but specify the audience and clarify ‘exclusion’ guidelines (if any) explicitly in the latter. Tweet them out separately, mentioning potentially relevant local groups. Tell your members to follow and retweet the space Twitter stream too! And if you want to make a chain of workshops on the same topic, say four Fridays in a row, know that for whatever reason, we found that placing the diversity one earlier and the general one later maximised attendance for us. It seems a lot of women and minority women, at least, need or want to be at home earlier than other groups, often due to dinner or child duties, but for some at least because they don’t like being out on their own so much after dark. In the winter, this may mean scheduling your workshops earlier!