How Protohaven is making inclusivity a top priority at its new Wilkinsburg maker space

Head to a free class on Friday.

Joel Johnson, president of Protohaven’s board and creator of BoXZY, chats with attendees of the Protohaven holiday party at the BoXZY factory.

Joel Johnson, president of Protohaven’s board and creator of BoXZY, chats with attendees of the Protohaven holiday party at the BoXZY factory.

Courtesy of BoXZY and Joseph Wyman Photography
MJ Slaby

Less than two miles from the former TechShop Pittsburgh in Larimer’s Bakery Square, the newest local maker space, Protohaven, is opening its doors.

After signing a lease at the beginning of December, members cleaned and painted the space at 214 N. Trenton Ave. in Wilkinsburg. There are two laser cutters there to use, and this week marks the first safety class and the first open-to-the-public class.

Created by a tight-knit community formed at now-closed TechShop Pittsburgh, Protohaven has made civic involvement and inclusiveness top priorities. But how does an organization formed on the tight-knit bond of members make sure the new location is welcoming to newcomers? That’s a question that Protohaven Board of Directors is working to answer.

From the start of member meetings in response to a May announcement that TechShop Pittsburgh would close after four years, attendees talked about how they would change TechShop given the chance, said Protohaven Co-Founder Devin Montgomery.

A more inclusive maker space came up repeatedly.

“One of the things that TechShop did awfully was it was terrible at moving beyond the early adopters,” who were typically white and wealthy and usually male, said Joel Johnson, creator of BoXZY, and the president of Protohaven’s board.

Olga Pogoda, a former TechShop employee and now a Protohaven board member, said TechShop Pittsburgh’s staff tried to be inclusive and welcoming and had some successes, especially in youth programming.

It’s something they both said Protohaven wants to do better — the maker space’s website lists being “more civic-minded and inclusive” first among four ways the new space differs from TechShop.

“To be intentionally inclusive, you can’t just sit back and say we are inclusive,” Pogoda said.

Creating community connections

Selecting a location for Protohaven meant finding a space that was affordable, and it meant finding a location where the shop could engage with the community, Montgomery said, adding that Wilkinsburg fit both criteria.

“It’s hard to serve an underserved community when you’re in an over-served community,” added Johnson and said travel can be prohibitive.

“I’m glad they chose Wilkinsburg,” said Yvonne James, president of the Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce and owner of James Flower & Gift Shoppe.

James said the maker space will be useful for entrepreneurs in Launch Wilkinsburg, a New Sun Rising program that promotes equitable community development by helping founders of new nonprofits and companies, as well as the overall community. Plus, James said, members of the maker space are all potential customers for the borough’s business district.

Wilkinsburg Council President Patrick Shattuck said members of the Protohaven team met with council in November, and the councilors were impressed with Protohaven’s goals of civic involvement and inclusivity. Shattuck said the council looks at the maker space’s move as it does anything else: Is it of value to our residents? Will it attract others to the community? He said the answers seem to be yes.

Protohaven board members told The Incline that they are aware of what they don’t know, too.

“It’s really hard for someone with a limited network of people of one color to seek out a diverse network and know what they need,” Johnson said.

So the Protohaven board is creating an advisory board that will include Wilkinsburg leaders and residents and others for a group that is “diverse in race, age and varied experiences,” Pogoda said. That board will help Protohaven leaders learn about community needs. The longterm goal is for at least some of the advisory board members to become Protohaven board members to make its board more diverse as well, Johnson said.

Protohaven is working on a variety of partnerships in and out of Wilkinsburg. And partnerships have thrived in Wilkinsburg in 2017, Shattuck said, adding that in 2017, the borough was able to bring back youth summer programs and launch senior programming.

Naomi Chambers, a former TechShop employee, said she was excited that the maker space is which “is TechShop but not TechShop” is moving to the borough. Chambers is a co-founder of FlowerHouse, a creative space that offers workshops, retail, rental and gallery space in Wilkinsburg. Part of the inspiration for the space to have gallery space for multiple black artists, Chambers said.

“Most of us are black, [and ] there aren’t a lot of spaces that are willing to take on a lot of black artists at once,” she said.

Chambers said TechShop was wasn’t always comfortable for black people and women, so she hopes Protohaven corrects that and wants to take students to the maker space.

“You have to include people in order to survive,” she said of the space. “I’m hoping my presence helps them to achieve that.”

Building a maker base

During Protohaven fundraisers, one of the things that the team asks for is for donors to sponsor memberships.

Instead of asking for money for the general fund, this is a specific way to get members who couldn’t afford it otherwise in the door from the start, Pogoda said. While TechShop did have some scholarships, this is a grassroots way to make sure those funds are available, she said.

Membership pricing details are still being finalized, but Montgomery said the team envisions a sliding scale to make the space more accessible financially while still paying rent.

Per Montgomery, a monthly TechShop membership was $150. Right now, membership is discounted at $85 per month and could increase, but still be lower, at around $105. Protohaven plans to add a membership in the $30 to $40 range per month for members who only need the space a few times a month, as well as a more expensive membership for members who start businesses and want dedicated space and storage.

There are also plans for income-responsive discounts and free classes, he said. The first of those free classes — to learn to laser cut a holiday ornament — is 2 to 7 p.m. Friday and doubles as an open house.

Protohaven has the help of New Sun Rising, which aids projects around the region, as a fiscal sponsor of the maker space, meaning it will help the new nonprofit with fundraising, donations, strategic planning and more. Keeping the maker space affordable is especially important, said Dan Stiker, director of culture and operations at New Sun Rising.

Chambers agreed and added that in order to have diverse makers, there needs to be a price scale, so people are not priced out. Once price is removed, there’s a more robust community, she said.

Having that robust community also depends on having a community where people feel welcome, board members acknowledged. If someone from Wilkinsburg walks in for the first time, they aren’t going to feel immediately comfortable if the space is full of a tight-knit group of people with no people of color, Johnson said.

Pogoda said she knows that means it has to start small. Every small business started and every kid who wants to go to Protohaven after school are signs of success to her.

Johnson agreed, and added that the more diverse the maker space is, the better proving ground it will be for new companies. He said TechShop is not only the place where he first built BoXZY, but it was the place where he found the first customers, employees and testers to understand a diverse market. Protohaven can do the same thing.

“I want people who are reaching across the economic and social gap in meaningful ways,” he said.