Erin Oldynski and E. Louise Larson sit it in a small, cozy office surrounded by various tools. A rubber unicorn mask—a gift from Larson’s mom—hangs in one corner of the room. Located in a former manufacturing facility in North Oakland, the newly renovated space serves as the hub for their project Prototype, a feminist maker space dedicated to supporting women.
“We wanted to see a place that taught people how to make things, but centered on women’s experiences,” says Oldynski, who co-founded Prototype with Larson and describes their roles as directors and “boss ladies.”
With Prototype, they intend to create an environment where maker culture—a field that involves everything from metalworking to computer design—is more welcoming to women and those with gender non-conforming identities. People can buy memberships to access tools and attend workshops taught by volunteers skilled in various fields. They can even try it out during Open Swim, a series of free events open to anyone who wants to hang out and learn a piece of equipment.
“We want people to feel like they can put themselves out there and admit that they may not know something and then feel comfortable learning with other people,” says Larson.
They also plan to keep their prices low so people of all income levels can join. Right now, the Prototype website offers a $25 introductory rate that guarantees 10 hours of access a week for six months. There will also be options such as pay-what-you-can, scholarships and payment plans.
The project draws on Oldynski and Larson’s shared experiences in education and making. Both women work at the Bakery Square maker space TechShop and taught STEAM skills to kids through after-school initiatives like the citywide Rec2Tech program.
Prototype also addresses the challenges women face when trying to succeed in maker communities, which are often dominated by men. As an example, Larson recalls one “bizarre” experience she had when she went with a male friend to buy wood for a project.
“The cashier didn’t make eye contact with me and was telling my friend about the benefits of the different kinds of wood that I was purchasing,” she says. “I was miffed.”
They also want to encourage women to try things they would never otherwise consider. Oldynski, whose background is in business and sociology, says her time at TechShop empowers her to learn new skills such as basic sheet metal manipulation and operating a laser cutter.
Oldynski points out that while everyone can utilize Prototype, their focus remains on “supporting women and people who express their gender differently.”
“Men are welcome to join, but with the understanding that this is a place where our main priority is making sure that women and gender non-conforming people feel comfortable and supported,” says Oldynski.
Right now, Prototype offers tools for a variety of uses, from sewing to soldering to screen printing. Thanks to a partnership with the local startup BoXZY, they will soon have a desktop unit with CNC milling, 3D printing and laser engraving capabilities.
Prototype also plans to offer more resources to members by working with other area maker spaces like TechShop.
“We’re meant to be a collaboration between different maker spaces doing this kind of work,” says Oldynski. “We’re not trying to compete. We’re trying to create our own pocket of individuals who feel passionate about feminism, social justice, equity and technology.”
They also plan on applying for a grant through Sprout Fund’s 100 Days campaign, an initiative that supports local socially-conscious projects in the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency. With the money, they hope to buy more equipment.
Prototype will officially launch with a reception on Sunday, January 8 at 460 Melwood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. Those interested in purchasing a membership or volunteering can apply on Prototype’s website.