Bright Idea

Brightmoor Maker Space builds a community of craftsmen in one of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods.

A makerspace is like a gym for craftsmen. Typically, a membership is required, there’s a host of high-end equipment (in this case, fabrication tools), and, of course, there’s the community aspect. But a new makerspace has arisen in a particularly unlikely location: a high school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood.

The Brightmoor Maker Space is slated to open this spring at Detroit Community Schools (DCS), a charter school on the edge of the beleaguered area. The project is the latest result of a long-running partnership between DCS and the University of Michigan’s (U-M) Stamps School of Art & Design. U-M raised more than $30,000 for the space through a campaign on the crowdfunding website Patronicity and got additional matching funds of $75,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The money helped fund the renovation of a 3,200-square-foot area in an outbuilding on the back of DCS’ 120,000-square-foot former industrial property. The makerspace includes equipment like a miter saw, a kiln, a 3-D printer, and a band saw, for use both in Detroit Community High School (DCH) classes and by members of the Brightmoor community at large.

“It’s a level of community engagement that we haven’t had yet,” says DCS superintendent Sharon McPhail. “This will give us the opportunity to bring people from the community in and give them some training that they may be able to use to get work and a place to express some of their own artistic leanings, which doesn’t exist in this community.”

The partnership between DCS and U-M bore considerable fruit long before a makerspace was even thought of. The relationship began in 2009, when DCS founder Bart Eddy met Nick Tobier, an associate professor at the Stamps School. Tobier was already working with U-M’s Semester in Detroit program, which engages U-M students in a variety of educational opportunities through community-based work in Detroit.

Tobier says Brightmoor reminded him of the New York neighborhood where he grew up, a place with  “more vacant lots than buildings.” He recalls his own drive to flee that environment as he grew older. “I recognized that the same thing was going to happen (in Brightmoor), that the most capable students were going to leave and never come back,” he says.

Tobier began bringing one of his classes, titled “Change by Design,” to DCH on a weekly basis in the fall of 2011 to collaborate with DCH students on art and design projects. Three university personnel now work regularly at DCH, and Tobier estimates that 60 to 80 U-M students are actively involved at DCH per year.

The DCH/U-M relationship has produced a variety of initiatives, the most long-lived of which is a screen-printing project that started in 2012. Students continue to run that operation as a business, using equipment funded by U-M’s Stamps school.

U-M and DCH students recently collaborated to design heated clothing and build water filters in response to Flint’s water crisis. “It gives them a reason to understand why they’re taking science and math,” McPhail says. “A lot of them are like, ‘What do I have to do this for?’ It connects them.”

In the case of the makerspace, some students connected directly with the facility while it was still in the planning stages. DCH senior Kevin Moore Jr. worked in DCH’s screen-printing business last summer and helped draw up plans for the space in his advanced art class late last year.

“We were to build a community where ideas or forms of art can be expressed, and these projects could be beneficial not only to the Brightmoor community or DCH but possibly to other programs as well,” Moore says.

There are still kinks to work out at the makerspace, as U-M and DCS staffers establish after-school hours to open the space to the public. But McPhail and Tobier are excited about the makerspace as a new way to connect the community.

“The more you do together,” Tobier notes, “the more you’re bound to one another.” That translates into a stronger community for all.

“I think that support and that warmth is something that the makerspace has to have if it’s going to be successful,” he says. “It’s not just a place where there are tools, but it’s a place that builds confidence and you come and feel confident and secure and appreciated.”