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Why Maker Faire Denver — a celebration of the city’s curiosity and ingenuity — got a makeover

With inclusion and diversity in mind, the new leadership expanded outreach to welcome makers in underserved communities

Maker Faire Denver 2017 (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Not long after last year’s Maker Faire Denver, Dan Griner got a call from Elise VanDyne, the seemingly indefatigable leader of the annual creative event for the past five years.

Griner, an industrial designer, had just moved back to Denver after living in India. He was happy to connect with his old friend.

“She cold-called me one day and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be the new executive director (of Maker Faire Denver)?’ I said, ‘What?’ I took a day or two to think about it,” recalled Griner, now the event’s executive director. “I realized it was a unique opportunity.”

And with that, Maker Faire Denver started its makeover.

Griner used VanDyne’s framework but rebuilt the board and team after some long-time supporters decided to step aside, feeling burned out. (VanDyne moved to California for a job but remains supportive and is on the board.) Griner, who was juggling two other day jobs, realized if the Maker Faire was going to be more than group of hobbyists who showed off their crafts once a year, it needed a strategy.

With his new team, Griner layered in more education and a focus on inclusion to welcome makers who may have never heard about the movement.

“We’ve had to learn a lot this year and figure out how to run a good event and not lose the strength of what Elise built,” Griner said. “This is a nonprofit, and it really has to be run like a nonprofit, which meant we needed to find a way to somehow get us elements to (attract) funding.”

Maker Faire Denver
When
: Oct. 13, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Oct. 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: National Western Complex, Hall of Education, 4655 Humboldt St., Denver, CO 80216
Price: $10 to $20 at door, plus $5 parking
Detailsdenver.makerfaire.com

This year’s Maker Faire Denver, which is managed by the non-profit Making Progress Colorado, may not have as many sponsors as past year. But some returned, including the City of Denver and New Mexico’s arts collective Meow Wolf, which is building a venue near the Sun Valley neighborhood. The show will held at the National Western Complex this weekend.

One new element was to become an Enterprise Zone Contribution Project. Those projects target Lincoln Park, Globeville, Elyria Swansea, Sun Valley and Cole communities in Denver and are rated on the number of people from the neighborhood who participate. The designation also offers a 25 percent tax credit on state income taxes for Colorado taxpayers who donate to eligible projects.

In July, the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade approved the project because the Faire’s Inventor Showcase aims to help inventors launch a business, according to the state.

But another effort went into reaching new makers who don’t live in communities where you can borrow a 3D printer, use a laser printer or access other expensive tools to manufacturer prototypes and make all sorts of stuff.

“If only makers are doing outreach, how are people who aren’t connected to Maker Faire getting (tickets) and hearing about it?” Griner said. “We needed to be doing that outreach in a more thoughtful way.”

At the 2017 Maker Faire Denver, attendees could sit in the cockpit of a B-25 bomber simulated front, built by the Young Aviators organization.

The Maker movement was a social movement that coalesced around artists, tinkerers and hackers. The launch of Make Magazine in 2005 helped galvanize the creative community and the first Maker Faire followed a year later in San Francisco. The event has spread worldwide with about 190 events produced last year by local communities, according to Maker Media.

At past Denver shows, diversity was mostly in the skills of makers. They weren’t just building robots or soldering metal parts together. The Faire also attracted seamstresses, lace makers and sheet metal workers helping kids make a tool box without using nails.

Reports from past Maker Faires show similar demographics: Majority male, average age of 39 and average household income of $125,000, according to last year’s New York event.

Denver organizers decided they needed to be proactive if they wanted to be more inclusive and find makers from all local communities.

“I do agree that it does seem like the maker community is not as diverse as it could be,” said Thad Mighell, who began helping Maker Faire Denver a few weeks ago as its event planner. “I live in La Alma right now and was putting up posters in my neighborhood. I met a gentleman who asked, ‘Can I register for that? I don’t know if I’m a maker.’ ”

The man was known in the community for making spinner rims, like what you might see on tricked out Cadillac Escalades and lowrider cars.

“He makes those for bicycles. He dresses in zoot suits,” Mighell said. “A lot of minority communities don’t consider themselves makers. Their craft is more about trade, like mechanics.”

Griner also tapped his friend Merhia Wiese, who handles community outreach and marketing for Meow Wolf Denver. She linked Maker Faire to area high school principals and students who could benefit from connecting with a creative community. About 500 free tickets to Maker Faire were shared plus discounts for parents.

“(Griner) was looking at the efforts Meow Wolf was doing for inclusion, diversity and equity and asked me to help,” Wiese said. “I told him we can get you started down the right path, but it’ll be a long haul.”

The hope, she said, is that the inclusion and diversity efforts will continue throughout the year, she said.

This year’s event includes much of the old, but a decent splash of something different. There are still robot battles (HeboCon, a “crappy robot fight contest”) plus a keynote from Misty Robotics, the personal home robot company in Boulder.

Also showing up is local muralist Victor Escobedo, who got tagged by Westword this year for “Best Street Art on a Business” for his mural on the side of Level 7 Games on West Alameda Avenue in the Valverde neighborhood. Native-American ÁyA Studios will help kids learn to tell stories through comic books.

And a tactile escape room, built in collaboration with the Colorado Center for the Blind, will let attendees experience what it’s like to be missing a core sense (sight).

While Maker Faire Denver wasn’t able to find a way to offer students free rides to the show, the organization worked with the National Western Complex venue to discount parking to $5, or half off the regular rate. Griner said he plans to spend the next 12 months building on the new strategy.

“Maker Faire is a one-time (a year) event, but to be successful, it needs to be year round,” Griner said. “That’s what those economic zone things are trying to help us get started and working in those communities outside of the Faire. It’s the other things we’re doing beyond the event.”

Upcoming: Maker Faire Colorado Springs, Oct. 20, 2018. Details: coloradosprings.makerfaire.com

Contact Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com.

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