Highlights of the Fab Foundation work around Black History Month
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As DEI initiatives fall under attack in both the public and private sectors, we at the Fab Foundation stand firm in our commitment to building equitable, inclusive, and sustainable futures for all members of our global society. We recognize that the strength of the global Fab Lab Network comes from its diversity—the sum of our varied backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences amounting to a force of boundless potential. To build upon that strength, we pledge to model and practice equity and inclusion in everything that we do.
Here at home, we’re forging pathways to greater self-reliance for communities that have been historically marginalized in the US, giving voice to the ongoing struggle toward equity for all. And, in honor of Black History Month, we want to celebrate the past, present, and future of our diverse network by highlighting Fabbers across the African-American community who break new ground every day to make a better world for all of us.
From the beginning, Fab Labs were designed as spaces that could open access to the tools and teaching of digital fabrication for those most in need of them, creating opportunities for success where few existed in the past. In fact, the very first Fab Lab ever established was co-designed by Professor Neil Gershenfeld and the late Mel King—a legend of civil rights activism and dear friend of the Fab Foundation, who passed on March 28, 2023—for the express purpose of involving the traditionally underserved population of Boston’s South End in the technological revolution underway just across the river at nearby MIT. The expansion of the Fab Lab Network has followed Mel’s admirable example of prioritizing inclusion ever since.
Sherry Lassiter, our President and CEO, reunites with her longtime friend Mel King at the dedication ceremony of Mel King Square in Boston’s South End in November, 2021.
For the past decade, the Fab Foundation has partnered with Chevron to advance corporate social responsibility efforts on multiple fronts. One of the most impactful outcomes of this partnership is the significant investment in Fab Labs across a network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), designed to serve as catalysts for innovation, STEM education, and community development, especially in under-resourced areas of the country. These inclusive spaces aim to bridge the digital divide, foster collaboration, and cultivate a robust community of practice throughout the US.
Last month, a small group from the Fab Foundation traveled to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) to put the finishing touches on one of the first Labs in our HBCU network—the Chevron STR2EAM Innovation Fab Lab. Our Program Manager for Education and Outreach, Dr. Rodney Williams, was in attendance and shared his thoughts on what this program means for our team, the FAMU community, and the Fab Lab Network at large:
Karen Rawls [Senior Social Investment Advisor at Chevron] is adamant about bringing these HBCU Labs into the fold and making sure they have access to the same type of resources that other universities have. This is very intentional, bringing the amazing students and faculty and staff within these HBCUs to the forefront. They need to be acknowledged and recognized. A project like this, it just makes sense. There is a lot of history at FAMU. As a kid, I remember knowing so many people in my community who were heading off to college, and it seemed like they were all going to FAMU. It’s one of the most welcoming places that I’ve ever been to. One of their main concepts is FAMU-ly. And you really feel that on campus. There’s a deep sense of pride in the community. While we were there, we saw students come into the Lab for the first time; they didn’t know it existed before. Now, they see that they can fabricate and prototype and be innovative—they want to be a part of this. Allowing the students to have access to these tools and helping them understand what the possibilities are, I believe this is going to change the trajectory of learning and innovation in that community.
Rodney is officially welcomed into the FAMU-ly.
Joining the group at FAMU was Heaven Whitby, Fab Lab Program Manager for Fort Valley State University in Georgia. While acknowledging the friendly rivalry that has existed for some time between the two HBCU Fab Labs, Heaven made it clear that she was there to establish a solid partnership with her colleagues at FAMU to support collaboration across state lines and broaden the social impact of their collective work. “We can’t serve the community in a vacuum,” she states plainly. “We have to work together. I need these people to be my partners.” And, as Rodney points out, “that’s exactly what the Chevron Fab Lab network should be like. HBCU Labs can reach out to any of the other Labs for insight and guidance or just to share what they’re doing.”
As her Lab gears up for its official launch next month, Heaven spoke with us about her personal journey and how it’s shaped her perspective on the importance of building inclusive spaces for innovation and the need for a paradigm shift in terms of representation in STEM.
All of my family is from middle Georgia. My mom was here during segregation in the ‘50s. And she became the first-ever black woman to graduate from Howard University with a degree in architecture and engineering. So, growing up here in middle Georgia, my life at home was a little different than my friends’ because my mom was an architect and engineer, and my dad was a computer engineer. But there are a lot of people at different levels of the local demographic that don’t interact with STEM on a personal basis. They feel detached from those experiences. And I really want to change that for my community. I’m grateful for the time and space and opportunity I’ve had to learn throughout my life. I want other people to understand that I was never the person that was supposed to be doing any of these things. I was just in the right place at the right time and willing to learn. And I want this Lab to be that right place for my community. I know there are a lot of people who would love to learn these things and be in this space, but they’re totally put off by the fact that the Lab is at a university in the first place, that it feels like a school. I really want people to see outside of the “schoolness” of learning STEM and being a part of STEM. Especially when it comes down to the Black experience in STEM, I want them to understand that they can do and be this, no matter who they are or where they’re coming from. We want to welcome people into this area 100%. That’s why I’m making sure that our grand opening is a festival-style event; I was inspired by the Fab Festival in Bhutan last summer. Our official ribbon-cutting launch is on March 27, 2024. I’ve reached into my network, people that I attended college with, and I’m bringing them in for demonstrations. We’ll have a DJ, food trucks—it’s gonna be a grand old time!
Heaven greets attendees at the recent “soft launch” of FVSU’s Fab Lab.
We couldn’t be more thrilled to see the Fab Labs at FAMU and FVSU coming to life. And we’re really looking forward to spreading this kind of impact across the entire HBCU network. To that end, we’ve recently expanded the Chevron Fab STEM Fellowship program—designed to implement equitable, impactful, and innovative STEM and digital fabrication teaching practices and programs across the globe—and hope it continues to grow and attract new HBCU Fellows in the coming years.
Also, the latest edition of Fab All-In kicks off this month. A new offering in the Academany portfolio, this course is specifically dedicated to increasing the participation of underrepresented populations in technical innovation across the world. As we seek to create community and collaboratively develop solutions along environmental, social, economic, and cultural lines, we want to see this program thrive well into the future. We welcome all topics and all people in this communal effort to build skills, knowledge, and capability around the social systems needed to co-evolve with digital fabrication technologies. And we sincerely hope you’ll join us in the next edition.
As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s also continue to build a brighter future for all, together!
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