Within the research project Lab Around The World Manuela Cunha Brito and Anja Adler talked to Gabriela Agustini from makerspace Olabi about her social organization as well as women & tech in Brazil.
Gabriela, what is your background and why did you ended up doing what you do nowadays?
In 2009 I quit my job as digital journalist and multimedia producer at that time largest magazine publisher in Latin America and decided to be part of a group of people who where starting one of the first collaborative spaces in Brazil, in São Paulo. We were following the common utopy, that the internet would create a more decentralized world. I worked with this group called Casa da Cultura Digital (Digital Culture House) in several projects involving public policies, activism, free software and openness in general, Brazilian culture and digital inclusion until 2011. I then ended moving to Rio to be the executive director and one of the curators of one of the biggest digital culture festival that happened in Brazil and when it finished I decided to stay in the city. A year later I had the chance to travel a bit around the world and visited hackerspaces and other innovation centers, that I before only knew from the Internet. In 2013, I started the idea of a makerspace in Rio, a space that could highlight the creative potential of the city but in a more welcoming environment to people of the most different backgrounds.
So, this is why you founded Olabi, a Brazilian makerspace, that successfully inspires new protagonists to produce technology?
I always felt uncomfortable in all tech-related spaces, that were dominated by boys with engineering backgrounds, even if I also felt I could learn a lot from them. For me, it was the feeling that I could not pass from the place of a visitor, an apprentice. Only at a San Francisco TechShop, I felt I could put my hand on things and become part of this movement. I had visited other hackerspaces before, that had strong feminine presence, but the girls I met there were so high level on their tech skills. At the TechShop I was delighted by the old ladies sewing clothes and random people doing simple things. That was the moment, I realized technology could be produced by everyone. You only have to find the right approach to stimulate it.
What makes Olabi different from other makerspaces?
Olabi is the only makerspace I know, created by people who were not makers in the sense of being experts on robotics, digital fabrication, and so on. So since the beginning, me and Isa (my partner on this, who is a production engineer) put our focus on the audience. We knew as much or little as them and that makes a big difference in how we designed the space and its content.
A lot of universities and informal learning spaces like fablabs and tech hubs reproduce the same exclusion mechanisms of our society. Having only big and heavy machines in a makerspace, for example, can make many women feel intimidated, because they have to ask for help to move it. I am short and a clumsy women, so I tried to facilitate things for people like me. We are not high tech at Olabi, we are simple and didactic. This is why we attract so many beginners and help them to find their way to improve their skills. People should not be ashamed in a makerspace for not knowing how a 3D printer or an arduino looks like. Like scissors or knives, these are only transitional tools. What matters are their uses and the possibilities that open from them.
Why do you think are there still so few women producing technology in Brazil?
I don’t think it is only a problem in Brazil. Women are nowadays minorities in technology worldwide, like in politics and business. We live in a patriarchal culture, that says to the girls how beautiful they could be and to boys how great it could be to go to the moon. Even if computing work had intense feminine presence in the beginning, the way the industry traded personal computers made it a man’s business.
Why does gender matter in producing technology and computing?
Technology plays a central role in our society and this will only be accentuated in the coming years. That means, if you don’t have access to its production you will have a smaller capacity to intervene in the world. If you also consider that technology is not neutral, that is, it carries political, cultural, economic visions of those who create them you can understand why is important to give it access to all groups (especially to the minorities). It is about the global distribution of powers. It is about existing in a world controlled by algorithms.
Then, how do you actually do it at Olabi? How do you create an inviting and open environment where women feel comfortable to interact with technology?
At Olabi we think about representativeness, because we experienced in the past 3 years of the space how women feel more comfortable when they learn from other women. And how black girls get stimulated by learning from black specialties and so on. This is why our team is driven by diversity. We also design the content from the feedback of the participants and our activities have quotas policies so we can have a balance between men, women and trans, rich and poor, technical and non-technical, old and young. Our main interest is this dialogue between different identities. The blinking LEDs and the machines are just an excuse.
What else do you do to reach out to women?
To talk to people who are different from you, you need to research and understand their vocabulary and references. So, we care a lot about language and framing. An example is our workshop on interactive costumes for carnival. Tonight, it is hosted by a girl that uses arduino to teach us about this new technology. We don’t communicate it as an arduino workshop though. If you present it like that it only speaks to people that already know about it, so to smaller mostly male elite. To not reproduce the same patterns, try to change your approach.
Olabi is a social organization, that was founded in March 2014. It has the mission of bringing diversity to the production of technology. Its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a makerspace, a space of experimentation where people share tools, machines, and knowledge connected to softwares, digital manufacturing, robotics, arts and science. The organization acts internationally as a platform for research and experimentation, with its own programs and also helping other institutions to catalyse social innovation and generate new protagonists for social change.
This interview is part of a larger research project on the gender gap to access ICT. If certain barriers hinder women to benefiting from its empowering and participating use as much as men do, it is crucial to identify the reasons for this gap and, even more, a way to mitigate them. Besides Brazil, our researchers traveled to Ethiopia, Germany, India, Indonesia, and South Africa within the Lab Around The World. The findings from all six countries will be published in a final report.