Q & A with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

1A. Please introduce yourself and give a background history of Fab Lab.


My name is Cathy Chen. I grew up in New York City and have been living in El Paso, Texas for the past four years. My husband and I co-founded Fab Lab in 2013 and opened our doors in 2014 to the public. We are part of the MIT Fab Lab network but each makerspace is independently operated and funded. Our organization is grassroots, community-facing and non-profit, which focuses on digital design, personal fabrication, and education.

1B. What was the driving force behind the creation of Fab Lab El Paso? Can you describe the city of El Paso and it’s economic and social relationship to Juarez and the Mexico-U.S. border?


As you may or not may not already know, El Paso is a border city with a population of about almost 700,000. We share the Rio Grande with Juarez in Mexico which has 2.7 million people. The border is fluid, dynamic, and multicultural. El Paso has a large Hispanic community, most of which are Mexican Americans. Before NAFTA, El Paso had a booming textile industry, especially in denim production—all of which disappeared when all the jobs went across the border. Juarez was also an industrial giant until Cartel violence, again caused in part by NAFTA which opened the floodgates of commercial trucking across the border, devastated the legal economies.


Fab Lab draws on the global Maker’s Movement which started gaining momentum around late 2000s, which was by no coincidence, a response to the economic recessions, large scale job cuts, in the United States and in Europe. Spain, specifically the city of Barcelona, has become the intellectual mecca of the Fab Foundation after experiencing economic upheaval. We founded Fab Lab on the border because we believe underserved communities in need of economic revitalization benefit the most from the democratization of design and fabrication.

2A. What do you see is Fab Lab’s role in the El Paso community?


Fab Lab strives to provide tools, resources, and education for both entrepreneurs, hobbyists, and students who are looking for more agency in the prototyping process for hardware, software, and product development. By having an open-door and open-source policy, we hope to incubate more product-driven entrepreneurship and help people reach the seed stage of a startup business.


2B. How does Fab Lab engage with the community? What programs do you provide? (STEAM etc.)


Fab Lab’s engagement with our community can be broken down in four ways. First, we offer tools and resources through a highly affordable Membership. Second, we provide product prototyping professional services to individuals and small businesses who use to be handicapped by this cost bottleneck. Third, we have workshops and classes for adults and students that focuses on fundamental tech skills such as robotics, computer aided design, coding, etc. And last but not least, we host social events that help network local leadership and emerging creative talent.


3. How did you go about partnering with local public schools, other NGOs or the local government? 


We are currently equipping and installing ten makerspaces in ten high schools in the El Paso Independent School District. The City of El Paso’s Museum and Cultural Arts Department has also been huge supporters, sponsoring our free Fab Kids programs, which was awarded First Place by Chevron’s STEM Education Award in 2016. We also partner with various other Foundations, workforce task groups, museums, and educational institutions to promote makerspaces and the Maker’s Movement.

4. What was the process for funding a grassroots space?


Non-profits often have a hard time being funded for the first three years. Almost all operational grants require three years of audited history before you even quality to apply. We started the Fab Lab on a shoestring budget and we were very fortunate to have the support of the community from the start through participation and small donations. The most important part of financial survival for a grassroots space is to have a solid business plan. You don’t have to overcharge but you need to keep the lights on and doors open. Most grassroots spaces have to rely on dedicated volunteers because salaries can quickly use up life-sustaining initial funds. It gets easier as you build a track record of service.

5. Is there work Fab Lab does that is related to the Mexican-American border? Has the Trump Administration affected the participation at or activities of Fab Lab in anyway?


Earlier this year, we helped Fab Lab Juarez open its doors by providing technical and network support. We have also consulted for Tech Hub Juarez to help build a concurrent Maker’s Movement across the border. The government of Mexico, in the State of Chihuahua where Juarez is situated, is providing far more monetary support to its Fab Lab than what we have received in the United States. Under the Obama administration, the White House had its inaugural Maker Faire, inviting thousands of emerging inventors and entrepreneurs to showcase their breakthroughs. He was on the right track of building our economy from the bottom up. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is more focused on trickle-down Reaganomics, with severe funding cuts to both the sciences and the arts.


I’m glad to say that so far, we have not seen Trump’s policies impact participation at the Fab Lab. The border community here in El Paso is vehemently against Trump’s border wall. We believe in building bridges and doors, not walls. Wall or no wall, Fab Lab El Paso and Fab Lab Juarez will still continue to exchange information and ideas—and that is the resilience of a global network. We design globally and fabricate locally.


6. What are kids most excited to learn about with regards to fabrication and computer design? How do you make programs appealing to children or their parents for participation?


Our approach is to focus on multidisciplinary learning. The Fab Kids programs intersect science and technology with art and design. The STEM curriculum in the US is often designed to promote competition rather than collaboration. By integrating the arts into our programs, we allow kids more freedom to express themselves with technology and humanize it. Not only does this create more synergy in group-learning experiences, but it also teaches students to think beyond the nuts and bolts and about a product’s social impact.


7. What are some roadblocks or resistance Fab Lab face or faces when creating a grassroots community space?


Initial funding is definitely a roadblock. However, limited funding also forces you to be smart, resourceful, and creative—which are important qualities for a successful organizer. Building a community movement to a critical mass also doesn’t happen overnight. There will always be luddites, naysayers, and pessimists—but you have to always stay true to your vision and mission through difficult times.


8. What are some advice you would give to students looking to go into community development and grassroots work?


First, do your homework. Research, research, research.


Second, no man is an island and no one can do it alone without infrastructural support. Networking is very important.


Third, treat your grassroots organization like a business. If you rely solely on grant funding, your organization won’t last through a bad funding cycle. However, if you build a sustainable business, you will be able to do a lot more good.


Fourth, treat your organization like a brand. Always be true to your mission and vision. Don’t stray from them.


Lastly, hang in there. It gets easier.

9. How did you take new and advanced technologies that are typically only accessible to universities or private firms, and make them accessible to children and the local community? What was the process like to introduce these technologies and how has Fab Lab’s approach or organization evolved during this process?


The Maker’s Movement and the emergence of Fab Labs is possible only with the expiration of patents on 3D printing technologies and with the rise of often crowdfunded desktop fabrication tools. We also put emphasis on using open-source technologies and freeware to help open up access.


10. In many American cities, the economy that had created has disappeared (auto industry, coal industry, etc…) Do you think Fab Lab can serve as a model that could revitalize American towns and bring education and a healthy economy back, as it teaches the next generation useful technical skills?


Absolutely. Fab City Initiative, spearheaded by Fab Lab Barcelona is a new urban model for a globally-connected, locally-sufficient model of a sustainable city. The idea is that citizens are empowered to actively participate in the production of consumer goods. From there, a local economic ecology evolves because movement of materials and energy consumption is drastically reduced. The Fab City has been initiated by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Foundation. Fab City Summit was hosted this month in Copenhagen. Even though Fab Lab and the Maker’s Movement originated in the United States, we have fallen behind our European brethren in the magnitude and scope of the digital fabrication revolution. With no support forthcoming for the foreseeable future from our current government administration, it is up to grassroots organizers and local Fab Labs in the US to take the charge and move our communities forward to be both competitive and sustainable on a global scale.

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