Communities

No matter what my passion is driving me to pursue, I’ve always found that I need to be surrounded by a supportive community in order to be most productive and healthy. My passions haven’t always had community outlets, however, and when I haven’t found a community to join, I’ve created one with the help of like-minded individuals and groups. These range from helping to start a robotics lab in college, to building a Blues dance community from scratch, to starting and running Artisan’s Asylum, a haven for makers, entrepreneurs, and artists alike.

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Artisan’s Asylum

In early 2010, I was working 9-to-5 at Boston Dynamics and coming home to read books and surf the web. I began to realize that I was getting extremely restless, as I was spending my days working in CAD, I wasn’t really working on my own projects, and I didn’t feel like I was a part of a community of people who were making stuff. I decided that I wanted the ability to work on my own projects, and I wanted to be a part of a creative, productive community like the one I had at Olin College. I looked around town, couldn’t find any space that was close enough to what I wanted, and decided to start Artisan’s Asylum.

The Asylum started as an after-work hobby; I had the funds available to buy a basic set of metalworking and woodworking tools, and rent a 1,000 square foot space in a multi-use complex. I put out a call to the community to let everyone know what was happening, and over 100 people showed up to the kickoff party.

The Growth of Artisan’s Asylum

It was immediately apparent that demand for this kind space far exceeded the equipment and space I had on-hand and my ability to manage it. I put out a call to the community for help designing, organizing, and running the space, and soon thereafter formed a group called the Wardens of the Asylum. We quickly moved to a 9,000 square foot space at 13 Joy Street, Somerville, taking over from a hackerspace called Willoughby & Baltic that had just closed its doors. The Wardens met every week to plan and discuss the way the Asylum was forming, and the rule was that your say in the organization was proportional to the work you put in. This group was largely responsible for the solidification of the company while it was at 13 Joy Street, putting in a huge amount of time each week to keep the place running. We slowly worked our way up to 40-50 members and 10-15 classes a month across a variety of disciplines, and made enough money to stay open with an all-volunteer staff.

After around a year of operation, I started to realize that we weren’t going to last too much longer on an all-volunteer basis. Everyone was getting tired of managerial tasks, and everyone wanted to work on their own projects in the space. I decided that we needed to change our business plan and aim to employ enough staff to handle the lion’s share of the managerial work, so that we could provide a reliable and sustainable service to our community. Over the summer of 2011, we moved to 10 Tyler Street, Somerville, expanded to 25,000 square feet, and hired our first full time staff members; this included myself, Molly Rubenstein, and Dmitri Litin. We paid for the expansion and staff in large part by offering a huge number of private studios for community members to rent – we found that our community really wanted private workspace of their own, given the state of the real estate market in Somerville. The next year and a half of operation at that scale would see us grow to 40,000 square feet, while working our way up to 300 members, 142 private studios, and 40-50 classes a month.

The Current Space

Artisan’s Asylum is now a major cultural landmark in the City of Somerville. We’ve enabled hundreds of individuals and businesses by giving them inexpensive, membership-based access to $300,000 worth of high-end manufacturing equipment that they don’t have to buy themselves, and have single-handedly increased the number of manufacturing businesses in Somerville by 50%. Over 5,000 people have been through our classes over 2.5 years, and we’ve trained hundreds of new welders, machinists, woodworkers, and the like. Our members have attracted more than $4M in Kickstarter funding and over $3M in venture capital in the year and a half we’ve operated in 10 Tyler Street. In short, we’ve become a haven for art and technology in Boston, and have formed a unique village of like-minded people who are pursuing their passions, starting their own businesses, and making creative expression a fundamental part of their lives.

Work out of Artisan’s Asylum

I am slowly but surely withdrawing from the day-to-day administration of the Asylum as it solidifies into a sustainable company. Molly Rubenstein has taken the helm of the organization and is rapidly expanding its staff, offerings, and resources. I am now in the role of Director of Development at half-time, creating relationships with local organizations and raising funds to allow the space to shine. At the same time, I’m finally starting to work on my own projects (like Stompy) in the space – my goal all along! I’m extremely grateful to have gotten to work with so many talented and wonderful people in the establishment of the Asylum, and I can safely say I’m leaving the company in great hands.

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Blues Union

I learned how to dance fairly early in my life, but it was only in college that I learned the social dances of Lindy Hop and Blues. Over the course of my dancing, I met a woman named Jenn Martinez, and we found a shared appreciation for both learning and teaching social dance. Between 2007 and 2009, we learned a style of dancing called Blues Dancing while flying around the country to attend dance events, and we realized that there was no Blues dancing to be had in Boston on a regular basis; there was a single pair of instructors in town (Ogden Sawyer and Amanda Gruhl), but they were too overworked to host a regular dance.

We decided to commit ourselves to starting a Blues dancing scene from scratch in Boston, and started by teaching a large number of classes at both a beginner and intermediate level. We started teaching at a free weekly MIT dance venue, moved on to teaching at the Dance Complex in Central Square, started a weekly dance at a live music club in Davis Square, and once we had taught enough students to have a fledgling community, we started our own dance called Blues Union in Union Square in mid-2009.

Blues Union quickly grew to include both a beginner lesson and intermediate lesson in addition to a weekly dance, and soon had a rotation of 3 to 5 teaching couples at most times. We regularly introduced new pedagogies of dance instruction, such as implementing a Clinic style of instruction (where students get individual attention from instructors over the course of a free form lesson), including history and musicality as a routine part of lessons, and teaching dance with a live band accompanying instructions.

My role in the dance included organizing, teaching, and DJing the dances. At its peak, Blues Union attracted an average of 50-60 people per night, included one live band a month, and brought instructors in from as far away as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to teach lessons. I have since moved on from organizing dances, and Jenn Martinez now runs Blues Union with a group of dedicated volunteers.

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Biomimetic Robotics Lab

Olin College was 2 years old when I arrived my freshman year. The professors had just started to get into a groove, and were starting to branch out into research and extracurricular activities. Early on, I connected with Professor Gill Pratt, who was looking to collect a few students into an undergraduate research laboratory; since Olin has no graduate students, all research is done by undergraduates. I worked with him to found and run the Biomimetic Robotics Lab, a space specifically focused on creating robots inspired by biological models, from 2005 to 2009.

The first project to come out of the Biomimetic Robotics Lab was the Olin Snake Robot, which investigated the use of flexible elements in the mechanical structure of a robot. This technology would later be incorporated into the Olin Robot Tuna, in addition to a number of other lab projects.

At its peak, the lab had 6-7 teams of students working on a variety of biologically-inspired robots. These included a jumping frog, force-controlled fingers and hands, flexible skeletons, a small biped, several robot simulations, and a number of other projects. Most robots were designed with rapid prototyping tools in mind, as they allowed the projects to be completed in individual semesters. I served as a lab manager and worked with Professor Pratt to implement weekly design reviews, keep the lab stocked with consumables, handle ordering for projects, and help students through the paperwork for independent research projects.