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Local moms join hacking frenzy to foster creativity, business

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NOVEMBER 13, 2012

On the night of Mothership HackerMoms’ Halloween party, the entrance to the hackerspace on Adeline Street is blocked by a handmade wooden gate. A repurposed shipping pallet, complete with added hinges and metal pull-handles, serves as a barrier to stop the half-dozen young children there to participate in Halloween crafts from escaping into the streets of South Berkeley.

The handmade gate is the work of Mothership member Wendy Renz, whose particular type of hacking involves upcycling, the practice of taking discarded objects and developing them into something new, beautiful or useful.

“I take something someone threw away and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool, but it would look even cooler with casters and paint,’ ” Renz said.

Though Renz refers to herself as a craftsperson, upcycling fits comfortably within the broad definition of hacking Mothership uses, one that allows the moms who use it to go well beyond the common understanding of hacking as computer crime.

“We make things. We hack art, education, food, technology, ourselves … Hacking means modifying an object or idea to suit yourself. You can hack a recipe or a program, or in our case, we hacked a hackerspace to fit mothers,” members say in Mothership’s Kickstarter video — part of its online fundraising campaign that’s already hit the $10,000 target and is still going.

Hackerspace origins
This premise makes Mothership a kind of meta-hackerspace. Hackerspaces are a combination of lab, workshop, artist’s studio, machine shop and community center. Members are creative and technically minded, inventors, amateurs, enthusiasts and artists.

A seminal presentation at a 2007 conference hosted by Chaos Computer Club, a German hacker group, took an early hand in systematizing and disseminating techniques for launching a hackerspace. Hackerspaces traditionally skew single and male, which makes Mothership both an oddity and something revolutionary.

Samantha Cook, another Mothership co-founder, says she checked out San Francisco’s famed hackerspace Noisebridge but discovered it didn’t suit her needs.

“For women, moms with kids, walking in can be intimidating … There’s not a lot of understanding around family life,” Cook said.

As suggested in Chaos Computer Club’s guide to building a hackerspace, Mothership started in September 2011 with a group of about 10 members, meeting regularly at one another’s houses. The group pooled its resources to hire a babysitter. Eight months later, the founding members established their space in South Berkeley. Mothership now has nonprofit status and more than 20 regular members.

Infrastructure came first, as Chaos Computer Club’s design document recommends. Mothership’s founding members made sure to create a playspace for their children as their first project.

With that basic requirement complete, the rest of the hackerspace could take shape: a large open front room with couches and walls covered with members’ art, worktables and chairs, a kitchen — currently crowded with a bulky printmaking machine — a bathroom, a developing tech room with computers, printers and scanners and an almost-lavish playroom decorated with brightly colored pillows, swings and toys.

Family and creativity
The tension between family life and “creative life” was the need that Mothership’s initial founders sought to resolve.

“It’s about modeling,” Cook said. “If my kids see me working on my creative life, they’re going to see I value that.”

For Mothership co-founder Sho Sho Smith, a writer with an M.F.A from the University of Iowa and a self-described “corporate dropout,” a rich and independent creative life was almost a necessity for survival. Plans for Mothership developed as her husband struggled with cancer.

“I needed the support and the creative outlet,” Smith said. “I feel proud to have created something positive out of a really dire situation … Women who are attracted to HackerMoms have a make-or-die kind of mentality.”

Mothership subverts the idea of a hackerspace as something inaccessible to working mothers. The model is already spreading, with visitors from elsewhere in the Bay Area examining Mothership to try to start a hackerspace for women and mothers in their own cities.

Smith says she was inspired partially by her brother, a member of the Tokyo Hackerspace that participated in Safecast, a project that created custom geiger counters to easily upload crowdsourced radiation readings to the Internet in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“The goal is to help, not to make a profit,” Smith said. “Creating the first women’s hackerspace ­— that’s a mystery. Why that hasn’t happened up till now.”

A support system
Mothership members had to confront some basic challenges, like childcare.  “Before (the hackerspace), we rotated houses with a hired babysitter,” Cook said.

They found a simple, symbiotic solution. Cale Davis, a member of Mothership, along with his wife, Hayden Sims, proposed hiring special education students from Oakland Unified School District’s Community Immersion Program. Young adults around 18 to 22 years old are hired as “interns” to take care of basic tasks like babysitting and cleanup work.

“The Community Immersion Program pays them, and we provide job training,” Davis said. Their obstacles range from “cognitive delays, or the moderate end of the autistic spectrum,” and so far, the program has been a success.

As Mothership expands with the help of its successful Kickstarter campaign, the bonds between its members will be key to its growth. Improvements and expansions are executed by members, and member-led workshops help the moms share knowledge and skills and allow for creative cross-pollination.

For Holly Wach, an artist and painter, the support of her fellow members was vital to her attraction to Mothership.

“If you need something done or need some help, someone says, ‘Oh, I’ve done that. This is how you do it,’ ” Wach said. “It’s much easier than trying to read a book and figure it out and much more supportive.”

Contact Gautham Thomas at 


APRIL 11, 2013