This is turning out to be a very strange year for me.
Two years and 11 months prior to May, I helped start a hackerspace in Akron, Ohio. It was called SYNHAK.
In December of 2013, SYNHAK was looking for a new home. We had grown by leaps and bounds in the first year of running out of a warehouse space at 21 West North St. Just outside of downtown, we grew a space for the hackers, makers, doers, and overall Excellent people in the City of Invention. Physically, we had about 1,700 square feet to ourselves. Socially, around 20 members and 200 friends of the space.
On April 22nd of 2014 a board vote was called to remove me as Treasurer of SYNHAK, I was voted out five days later, and had my last day at Collabora later that same week on Friday.
“Leo Lightning Talk” —CC-BY-NC-SA Alex Spehr
The seed for SYNHAK was planted on April 5th, 2011 at Noisebridge during Camp KDE. At the time, I was a KDE developer who was starting to get involved by contributing to Phonon-GStreamer. This was my first FOSS event and first big adventure by myself. Moreso, I was traveling across the country to a city that hadn’t even crossed my mind as all that important to me. Hey, I was young, yeah?
The last day of Camp KDE was a brief after-party at the Noisebridge Hacker Space in San Francisco. I had heard about hackerspaces before, but only vaguely. I knew that strange things came out of them and interesting projects happened there. I was too absorbed in schooling and KDE to pay attention outside my bubble.
After just a few minutes, I was sold on the idea. The tools, the art, the community, the vibe. This was something I wanted in Akron, but I wasn’t sure if it was possible.
Months later, I had been discussing the subject with my friend Ryan. At some point he said:
<rrix> Go for it.
And that I did.
Around that time, I had been ejected from the Computer Science department at the University of Akron, the details of which can be another story entirely. Looking for socialization, I wandered into the shack on top of Zook Hall where W8UPD — The University of Akron HAM Radio Club — lived. There I met Chris Egeland. He later became one of our first Champions at SYNHAK, alongside myself and Omar Rassi.
It is now Tuesday, July 1st, 2014.
I have been banned from my own hackerspace for just over two months now. Last week I was harassed by the board of SYNHAK who insists that I am capble of single-handedly ruining their image, asking me to stop the “unjustified and unwarranted” attacks I’m apparently making on twitter. In the two months since being banned, the only thing I’ve done is share a handful of e-mails from the publically available email@example.com mailing list. Here’s an excerpt:
From: Andrew Buczko <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: SH Members <email@example.com>
I'd like to resolve this issue by having Torie (Trevor Fisher) put on suspension from SynHak (this will include SynHak's mailing lists and any other service) for a giving amount of time.
I feel that she needs time to cool off for 3 months, 6 months a year? I'll leave the time period up to the champions. Or at least until her sex change is done (since it has been brought up to me that this "behavior" of her's is due to her taking hormones. ) <-- not mentioned before since it's none of my business.
Hormones or not, the other members and the community should not have to suffer because of her antics.
I am a proud transgender woman. Been that way for as long as I can remember. This Andy Buczko is on the board of SYNHAK, the former Akron hackerspace. Since early January 2014, he has harassed me, picked fights with me, and generally bummed all the other synhakkers out.
I really wish I could include more examples of his incredibly abusive behavior, but that wouldn’t even scratch the surface. Nor is he alone.
Many former synhakkers attempted to resolve our differences by working to create a Community Working Group within the space, modeled after KDE’s own. No less than five members stepped up to get folks involved in fixing these issues. At every turn, they were rebuffed by the board of SYNHAK under the guise of it being a “trap” to remove the board.
They were mostly right. The purpose of the Community Working Group was to make sure toxic members of the community were kept out and the culture of SYNHAK was preserved.
Anna-Janine Herman, Justin Herman, Steve Radonich, Devin Wolfe, and Becca Salchak fought admirably to take the idea of SYNHAK and twist it into the next bullet point on their resume. For three years, we ran under the triumvirate of Consensus, Excellence, and Do-Ocracy. In three years, SYNHAK went from a small group of four hackers in a North Hill garage into a huge community in northeast ohio with 25 members, a $15,000 grant, and 4,030sqft of space in Downtown Akron.
“SYNHAK, The Template” — CC-BY-NC-SA Torrie Fischer
Lots of us have been trying to figure out what went wrong. The large contingent of hakkers who ejected repeatedly ask ourselves, “How could we have prevented this?”
Certainly not an easy answer. Regardless, here’s what we’ve learned:
Some people will irrationally disregard the rule of law
In January 2014, SYNHAK was moving to its current location in downtown Akron. Previously it had been in an empty warehouse just outside of downtown, at 21 W. North St. At the time, Justin and Devin were concerned about SYNHAK’s finances. I had recently taken over as Treasurer while our previous one was MIA for personal reasons. Repeatedly and thoroughly, I elaborated how synhak had a lot of money and we could actually afford to spend some of it on building out the new location.
Devin “do-ocratically” decided he was going to lease out a quarter of our new building to Justin to fill with his business’ own storage racks without any discussion. No board vote, no consensus, not even a mention of it on the mailing list. As explained earlier, we ran on consensus, do-ocracy, and excellence. It wasn’t just do-ocracy and consensus when convienent, it was all three all the time.
I had raised concerns regarding this idea to sublease a quarter of our space, specifically our tax liabilities. As the treasurer of a 501(c)3, I had a duty to keep us legal in the eyes of the IRS. As a volunteer, I was not willing to deal with the extra overhead of unrelated business income. So I spoke up, though quietly. Multiple attempts to get a copy of the sublease for review were unanswered, but the storage racks moved in anyways.
It wasn’t until after our spring open house in March that I actually raised my voice.
From: Torrie Fischer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: SH Discuss <email@example.com>
I am not comfortable with those racks that a board member is (in theory) leasing space for.
At today's open house, I saw numerous guests grabbing and poking things. I then put up signs and kept an eye on it. Didn't help. I've also noticed that a few synhak things are on the racks now.
If synhak is somehow liable for those racks, I have some questions that will be brought up on Tuesday:
When did the board approve such a situation or lease?
Where was the membership discussion about the use of space that does not contribute to hacking?
Is synhak liable for any damages or stolen equipment? What if some of our stuff ends up there?
If synhak is liable, does that mean the champions are required to police the racks? You'll never get members to do that.
Interestingly, none of the new board of SYNHAK responded. Attempts to contact Justin and Devin concerning the issue were left unanswered.
Later that month at a meeting, Justin and I got into a screaming match. Not my proudest moment, but Justin’s reaction was somewhat worse. I had been proposing that Justin’s storage racks can stay there through the full six month sublease, provided that I bust my ass to find him a new location before then. At which point the racks would be moved out and all would be well.
Repeated attempts to calmly discuss this during the meeting was met with shouting, yelling, and a demand to “put it to a vote” whether the already illegal sublease should persist. Tim Seely, another member at the time, stepped up to mediate the two of us.
Thank you, Tim. With his help, Justin and I came to a final agreement that his racks could stay, while I helped him find a new storage unit.
Four days later, Justin was unloading the things we had stored on the racks and dispersed them throughout the space in messy piles. The racks were being disassembled while he loudly proclaimed that I was forcing him to leave. I got a pretty neat trophy out of it in the end.
To this day, nobody has seen a copy of the sublease we were party to.
Its a hackerspace, not a debate club
At some point in time, SYNHAK’s consensus process was turned upside down. We had no good moderators. There was a large, intimidating “talking stick” that you were required to hold if you wanted to speak during a meeting. Everything was put to a vote.
At one point I had tried to convince the membership that we had been using consensus for the last three years. Our wiki had long been the canonical reference for our rules and protocols of getting along. To summarize how this ended up, here’s a quote from my compadre Ryan Rix, who was living 3,000 miles away in San Francisco at the time:
From: Ryan Rix
To: SH Discuss <firstname.lastname@example.org>b
Are you really that paranoid that someone is acting dishonestly? They could also write postfix filters that rewrite your mailing list mails too!!!!
> what was also said is that the history file can be edited by three
> people, and there is no tracking of that.
> So there are members, and more than one, that could edit the wiki and
> erase the history of that event, or erase the history of another
> members edit.
I was being accused of editing the SYNHAK wiki’s history to adopt consensus instead of Robert’s Rules of Order. This was March 20th, 2014. The community was already dead at that point.
In the end…
A lot of this can be traced to our collective inability to remember our core pillars of consensus, excellence, and do-ocracy. There is no one person or event that can be blamed. As a community, we failed to hold close the values we had. We were hacked by policy hackers.
Since then, we’ve begun to pick up the pieces of the Akron hacker diaspora and move on to build Hackron, the Akron Hackerspace. We’ve got folks who genuinely just want to make and do without much arguing about the rules. We are building a safe space for hackers.
“SYNHAK Buildout” — CC-BY-NC-SA Torrie Fischer
RIP SYNHAK, The Akron Hackerspace.
It died, but nobody cared.
Update: For those interested, the mailing list archives are available here: https://email@example.com/
Additionally, this post has started an overwhelmingly positive discussion about safe spaces, protecting a space’s culture, and more on hackerspaces.org. You can read it here: http://lists.hackerspaces.org/pipermail/discuss/2014-July/009552.html