By Tunde Wey
March 21, 2012
It is no small wonder that we are constantly inspired to conceive and create. From prehistoric times, when we dragged our knuckles next to our feet as we walked, human ingenuity has continued to advance unabated. No matter how complex the world or its problems, we seem to provide impactful and near-miraculous solutions. We were cold so we fashioned fire from flint. We could not walk fast enough so we built cars. We could only swim so far, so we steam-powered ships. And we could not leave our communities broken, so we invented miracles.
In a Lower East Side Detroit church basement, a miracle foments. Under the first floor of The Church of the Messiah
, a magnificent 19th
century stone building with bright red heavy wooden doors, sits the Mount Elliot Makerspace
A makerspace is a community space where people share physical tools, knowledge and a workspace to individually or collectively create. At MEM, “making” ranges from building mini synths and woodworking to creating instrumental tracks and bicycle-powered lights.
Jeff Sturges, founder of MEM, further defines a makerspace as having “a social mission to connect people with each other,” providing a space for people to “explore their talents and passions and hopefully leverage them towards new entrepreneurial opportunities.”
Sturges moved to Detroit from New York in 2009 and founded MEM the following year. In New York, Sturges was part of a similar program called GreenFab
, a project-based learning program to teach high school students in the South Bronx science, technology, engineering and math skills. His time there and at NYC Resistor
, another hackerspace
, inspired him to move to Detroit to start a makerspace.
Sturges, along with his colleague Ted Sliwinski, works full time at MEM. Here they teach, share and co-create with the community. The idea of MEM, as Sturges describes it, is “local capacity building instead of information hoarding.” By providing community members with the foundational resources and skills to design and build objects, MEM fosters a self-empowering learning environment. “More people showing evidence of self-directed and peer-supported learning, more people completing projects based on their talents and passions, and more people succeeding in finding professional opportunities based on their talents and interests.”
MEM achieves this learning environment by developing its members’ skills through a systemized, multi-step product development process of idea presentation, system analysis, research, entrepreneurship, leadership, teamwork, and project management. Using this intentional curriculum of skill development, MEM then provides community members the opportunity and space to design, build, repair and repurpose objects related to transportation, electronics, digital tools and wearables.
In describing MEM’s philosophy, Sturges speaks of the importance of having “an integrated process between design and function.” A product’s design, after all, is only as good as its use. Simply put: it has to work.
Concurrently, Sturges understands that design plays a pivotal role in how community spaces are used. He says MEM is a community institution to provide learning experiences “based on what the community needs -- based on observations and workshops and prioritizing what is necessary.” Through the efforts of Sturges and Sliwinski, MEM is the practical synthesis of function (practical community educating tools) and design (a community-centric curriculum).
In the basement of a Detroit church, a seven-year-old girl is soldering, a group of teenage boys are recording music, a young boy and his middle-aged mother are working together on a bicycle, a middle school girl is fixing a stereo. Observing this scene, it becomes apparent that good intentions and eager wishing cannot constitute a miracle. Rather, as the MEM is showing us, a miracle can manifest itself as a well-developed plan flexible enough to accommodate people’s interests and talents.
Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.