By Brenden Rearick
Inside the Protohaven lab, a dull whir drifts through the air — a member is toiling away on the lathe back in the metalworking studio. In the front workspace, another sits hunched over the electronics desk, tinkering on boxes of wires and capacitors. It’s anybody’s guess what they are doing; with the time and resources offered through Protohaven, they can create anything they want, whenever they want.
The Wilkinsburg-based nonprofit is a shining example of the makerspace, an increasingly popular type of creative laboratory for local communities around the world.
Here, paying members of the organization can freely build whatever they can think up using an array of machines. Others come on a class-by-class basis, learning skills through instructors that allow them to reach a greater creative potential.
“We can essentially build Protohaven, with Protohaven,” Violet Brooks, director of community engagement, quips as she shows off the facility. She isn’t wrong; with timber planers, CNC mills, lasers and more filling up the workspaces, members can take their visions to industrial levels.
Protohaven opens the door for community members to make any sort of arts and crafts projects they want. Jewelry, graphic design and vinyl cutting classes are just a few examples of the ways members can tap into their inner entrepreneur. One workshop conducted alongside BikePGH taught women and non-binary students how to strip and powder coat bicycle frames, giving them new life.
However, the site also teaches people how to contribute to improving the community itself. A workshop with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce, for example, teaches participants how to recycle discarded pallets and turn them into garden boxes.
Recently, Protohaven has been taking this goal to new heights via a partnership with fellow nonprofit Catalyst Connection. Through its textile workshops, Protohaven teaches students the skills they need to secure full-time jobs in the field; since beginning these classes in April, several Protohaven students have gone on to find employment through Catalyst Connection in the textiles field. Brooks says Protohaven is looking to grow this partnership and branch out to support other skills.
The organization works diligently to fully include every person in the community, too. It offers income-based discounts of up to 70% for low-income members. Recently, the Opportunity Fund awarded Protohaven a $10,000 grant to offer discounts for BIPOC individuals. Other organizations, such as Hazelwood Green, have paid for ASL interpreters in some Protohaven classes.
Full-price membership starts at $55 a month for weekend access and up to $105 a month for unlimited access. Students pay from $60 to $360 for classes ranging from how to make a breadboard to welding and jewelry making.
Though as things keep growing, Protohaven’s new Executive Director, Amber Epps, has a lot on her plate. As she tells NEXTpittsburgh, there’s no shortage of new students — not a week goes by without at least one new member joining. Rather, the challenge at hand is in bringing in new help and securing new funding.
For the last two years, Protohaven has been funded largely through a $400,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. This grant helped cover the organization’s operating costs as well as membership discounts. Now in its last year of the grant, Epps seeks to secure $200,000 per year in additional funding from new sources, as well as adding to its three-person staff to assist with operations.
The biggest need for a makerspace like Protohaven is covering the not-so-glamorous cost of maintenance; it takes thousands of dollars to keep its equipment in tip-top shape.
As Epps says, donors don’t like paying for these costs. “Most organizations don’t want to provide maintenance funds, they want to provide programming.”
But as both Epps and Brooks want to make clear, “our equipment is our programming … [we] would love to see organizations coming in and seeing that.” Indeed, without its equipment, there is nothing for members to utilize, no tools for students to learn with.
Epps says attracting new shop techs and teaching fellows is an immediate priority. Through these positions, workers can both utilize the Protohaven workspaces for free, while simultaneously learning crucial leadership skills and helping to maintain equipment.
Some citizens take part in community building by sourcing land for a public garden. Others might prefer to tend it. Protohaven is the place for makers who want to forge the trellises, build the planters and design the signage.
Brenden Rearick is a journalist who covers a variety of topics from finance to the arts and everything in between. When he’s not writing, you can find him on the tennis court or at one of Lawrenceville’s many coffee shops.