My Farewell to GRMakers

Many of you have seen the recent board resignations and are wondering what the heck is going on over at GR Makers. We each have our own experiences, and I will set out mine here. It is a long story, but I think you deserve to hear it, so you can draw your own conclusions. I encourage you to reply to me personally (brousch@gmail.com) or via the comments on this blog post if you’d like to provide clarifications or additions to what I have to say.

I joined GR Makers not so much to make things, but to have an excuse to hang out with the most interesting group of people I’d ever met. That group started as half a dozen open source enthusiasts gathering at weekly Linux user group meetings at coffee shops, and grew to a much larger, more diverse, and eclectic gathering of developers, inventors, designers, electronics hackers, and much more thanks to Casey DuBois’ welcoming personality, non-judgemental inclusiveness, and networking prowess. A part of what brought the group together was an unstructured openness that made everyone feel like they had a say in what we were doing. When the group grew too large to continue meeting in Casey’s garage, several regulars looked around for ways of keeping the group together and growing in other locations.

Mutually Human Software offered a physical space and monetary support to keep the group together, but we had to change how the group was run. Since MHS was providing so many resources, they would own the group. There was a large meeting to decide if this was the way we wanted to go. The opinions were divided, but in the end we had to take this deal or disband the group because we’d have nowhere to meet. Casey took a job with MHS, and over the course of two years we slowly became a real makerspace. Casey continued to make connections between GR Makers, companies who donated equipment and supplies, and the community. The Socials became bigger, and so did the space.

As we grew, communication became a problem. If you didn’t attend the weekly socials and talk to Casey in person, you had no idea what was going on. Even those of us who were regularly there had no idea about how the makerspace was being run. An opaque layer existed between the community, and those who actually owned and made decisions affecting the group. Even basic questions from paying members would go unanswered when submitted to the official communication channel. Were we making money? How many members were there? Who are the owners? Is there a board, and if so, who is on it? Who is actually making decisions and how are those decisions being reached? Are our suggestions being seen and considered by these people?

Despite these issues, several interesting initiatives and projects came out of the community and makerspace: the Exposed ArtPrize Project, GR Young Makers, The Hot Spot, and most recently Jim Winter-Troutwine’s impressive sea kayak. I enjoyed the community, and wanted to see it continue to thrive.

I thought the communication problem was problem was one of scale: there was a large community and only a few people running things. I assumed those in charge were simply overwhelmed by the work required to keep everyone informed. In an attempt to fix this problem, I volunteered to write a weekly newsletter which I hoped would act as a conduit for the leadership to inform those who were interested. I asked for a single piece of information when I started the newsletter: a list of board members and what their roles were. I did not receive this information, but went ahead anyways, thinking that it would be sorted out soon. I gathered interesting information by visiting the space and talking to the community at the Socials each week and put it into a digestible format, but still that simple piece of information was refused me. Each newsletter was approved by Samuel Bowles or Mark Van Holstyn before it was sent, sometimes resulting in a delay of days and occasionally resulting in articles being edited by them when they did not agree with what I had written.

Shortly after the first few editions of the newsletter, Casey and Mutually Human parted ways. My conversations with the people who formed that initial core of what became GR Makers revealed a much more systemic problem in the leadership than I had realized. There was indeed a board, made up of those people I talked to. They passed on concerns and advice from themselves and the members to the owners, but that’s all they were allowed to do. The board had no real power or influence, and it turns out that it had never had any. The decisions were being made by two people at MHS who held the purse strings, and even this advisory board was often kept in the dark about what was being decided.

This cauldron of problems finally boiled over and were made public at a town hall meeting on March 25, 2015. Over the course of a week, the advisory board and the owners held a series of private meetings and talked for hours to try to keep GR Makers together. Concessions and public apologies were made on both sides and an agreement was reached which seemed to satisfied nearly everyone. In short, it was promised that the leadership would give the board more powers and would become more transparent about finances, membership, and decision making. This link leads to my summary of that town hall meeting, and a nearly identical version of those notes went out in an approved edition of the newsletter.

The community was relieved that the makerspace we had worked so hard to create was not going collapse, and I assumed that the board was being empowered. Bob Orchard was added to the advisory board and kept and published minutes from the board meetings – something which had not been done previously. These minutes always mentioned requests for the changes that had been agreed upon at the Town Hall, but action on those requests was always delayed. At the board meeting on April 29, the requests were finally officially denied. The minutes from that board meeting can be found here. Most of the board members – including all of the founders of that initial group in Casey’s garage – resigned as a result of this meeting.

It is up to each of us to decide if GR Makers as it exists today meets our desires and needs. There are still good people at GR Makers, but that initial group of interesting people has left. Without them I find very little reason to continue contributing. The ownership structure of GR Makers was an educational and enlightening experiment, but it is not what I want to be a part of. I think the openness and transparency that formed the backbone of that group which became GR Makers is gone, and I don’t think it is coming back. So it is with a heavy heart that I am resigning my membership.

But do not despair. That initial group of friends – that sociable collection of connectors, hackers, inventors, and makers – and a few new faces we’ve picked up along the way, have been talking together. We want to start over with a focus on the community and ideals that existed in the gatherings at Casey’s garage. It may be a while before we have a stable space to meet and tools for people to use, but I hope you’ll join us when we’re ready to try again. If you’d like to be kept up to date on this group, please fill out this short form.

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  • Rob Vander Sloot

    Ben, I’m sorry to hear about you’re resignation. The newsletter has been great for me as I haven’t been able to attend socials as frequently as I had in the past.

    With growth and financial backing, change is inevitable. But it is unfortunate that things changed so much.

  • jelly meyer

    i’m with ya all the way on that, i ended my membership as well

  • Franklin Bacon

    I love seeing the efforts at creating co-ops. I’m sorry to see one collapse. I seem to sense a lack of communication in most of these collapses. I’m not certain, in this case, whether there are any issues with resources, other than a meeting space. I am thankful to GR Makers for offering their meeting space to community groups. It was a fun ride to be on, while it lasted. I wish I could do more, but not having been closely involved with GR Makers, them only being my benefactor, I do not have the knowledge to offer what may be needed, nor know if I would have anything available that would be of any use.

    Thank you for your hospitality.

    • brousch

      To be clear, GR Makers is not shutting down. I am just part of a large group of core members who are moving away from it.

      • Franklin Bacon

        No one can be certain. My contacts too, are unclear. The folks at makers who I have been associated with fear the handwriting is on the wall.