With Nathan Pritchett of Fab Lab Tulsa
In episode #22 of Make:cast, I learn about the new building for Fab Lab Tulsa from its Executive Director, Nathan Pritchett. The new building is under development and scheduled to open in 2022. The project had started well before COVID-19 but has stayed on track even during the pandemic, although any building project in 2021 faces delays because of shortages of materials. Overall, the future of Fab Lab Tulsa is bright. “I’m just really bullish on the future of fab labs and maker spaces,” said Nathan.
The current building for Fab Lab Tulsa, which opened in 2011, is a former car dealership with lots of windows. By 2015 they had simply outgrown the 3,400 sq. ft. space. By that time, Nathan and others realized that “the skills and ability of the community that uses the lab grew.” Tulsa has a lot of talent in the community but the makerspace needed more resources to keep up. “We started looking at what the right size facility would be for us and for our community,” said Nathan.
Nathan describes focusing on connecting an ecosystem that Nathan describes as pyramid; it has five segments. The ecosystem involves reaching out to the community, meeting the educational needs of students, serving its 425 members, providing workforce development opportunities and offering a launchpad for entrepreneurs. He makes the point that if you want to grow any of the constituencies, you have to grow the ecosystem, not just that constituency.
“We learned how resourceful we are,” said Nathan about Fab Lab Tulsa during COVID-19. Like many makerspaces, Fab Lab Tulsa began producing PPE. “At the local level, we also learned how valuable makers are.” Fab Lab Tulsa was able to keep its membership during the pandemic as well as the momentum for the building project.
The new building will be called the Hardesty Hub for Makers, named after donor Roger Hardesty, a local entrepreneur with a family foundation. Nathan cites broad community support in Tulsa.
A local foundation had originally acquired the land where the new building is being built and approached Fab Lab Tulsa about developing it. Fab Lab Tulsa had to raise $370,000 to buy that land, which was close to their current location. Nathan admits that the opportunity to acquire the land came before they had really planned what kind of makerspace they would build. “We kind of did things backwards,” he said. “Then we had to go back and do all of the work we should have done before we bought the land.” They were awarded a local economic development matching grant of $400K. Because the new building was located in an innovation district, they became eligible for a loan of $1.8M.
Tulsa is a manufacturing town, Nathan told me. He said: “Tulsa is actually world famous for making big things. We produce a lot of things. So the manufacturing side, for example, aircraft and HVAC systems that go on top of skyscrapers and oil field equipment, and things that barely fit on the back of semi-tractor trailers. We’ve got this history here, so there’s a lot of people that understand the value of making and they also see that we lost some of that for whatever cultural reasons.” He added: “There’s also a huge deal here in supporting economic development and growing businesses and supporting education.”
Note: I recorded this conversation with Nathan a month or so before last week’s recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Greenwood district in Tulsa was home to affluent African Americans and was called “Black Wall Street.” It became the target of a white mob that rioted and set fire to buildings and attacked residents. Over 300 people were killed. This tragic event has been largely been hidden from U.S. history until this year. I wrote Nathan and asked him about it.
Yes, it’s difficult when your city is in the news for shameful reasons, but we’re proud of our community for facing it head on. And yes, our lab is about 2 to 3 miles from Greenwood and our education programming primarily serves North Tulsa students. We’re also working really hard on inclusion with the new facility. Forgive the bluntness, but nonprofits rely on gifts from wealthy donors, who are almost always white males, so you end up with names on rooms that are not representative. We’re working with some donors right now to recognize people of color and women in honor of their gift.
One hopes that we learn from history to guide us toward a better future for all.