Why I Make

The legacy of my ancestors and all of the diverse makers before me informs my present identity as a maker.

The most precious things I remember most from my childhood were made and refurbished, not bought. A mixed race African-American and Caucasian child with Native American ancestry from a poor background, making and remaking were all around me. As my ancestors before me, it was all that I knew as the solution to life’s problems.

We were not privileged to have a steady stream of new toys, new TVs, or new household appliances; therefore, a tinkering mentality was second nature. My father, a musician and odd jobs specialist, had amongst my favorite jobs, a stint at the Goodwill. As my dad pulled in old bikes, old toys, old TVs, a partially working washing machine, broken furniture, and tattered clothes, we became painters, woodworkers, seamstresses and electricians — painting, priming, sanding, sewing, hemming, and soldering as necessary. We used copious amounts of electrical and duct tape.

My dad and I (1981)

We also became innovators, game designers, and toy makers — creating games from cardboard, building igloos and play forts from the depths of my imagination. I learned to draw, first in black and white, then in color. We found an old blind teddy bear, whose sight I restored by sewing buttons on his eyes; my sister loved and affectionately called him “Teddy”.

We made and remade, and as I made, I learned, about the world around me. Although we didn’t have much, I learned about science and engineering, circuits and electricity through the making and remaking of my little world. And I learned that I wasn’t alone. At a young age my dad imparted that this was not unique, that this is what we did. This is how we made it through, by making a way. That as countless generations of our people, black and brown, made — everything from quilts, to buildings, to inventions that changed our world — so we continued this honorable tradition.

And so, at home I made, and at school I made. As a child with Native American ancestry, I was privileged to be able to participate in what my friends and I affectionately called Indian Camp. Once a week for several years of my childhood, I spent my section of art class with Janis Us, a Native American educator of Mohawk-Shinnecock descent. Mrs. Us spent hours teaching me how to make native American jewelry, crafts, and art. I spent summers traveling to the Institute for American Indian Studies, in Washington, CT, to learn more about my ancestors and all that they made, learning myself how to create habitats, toys, clothes, baskets, even candy and gum from the plants, trees, and fibers all around me. I beaded necklaces, made cornhusk dolls, wove blankets and sewed clothes for a pow-wow. I learned that the world around me was full of materials from which to create, to make, and that many of the solutions to life’s problems could be resolved by the creative usage of those same materials.

And so, as I grew, my first science fair projects were inventions — a better way to recycle materials using a modified garbage disposal; an alarm clock for the deaf that used vibration from the electrical impulses within an electric alarm clock to gently jolt the person awake. I loved wood shop, taking an additional period each day to finish off a handcrafted clock. And as I went off to College, my making grew into a love for science and engineering and craft. I ran science experiments, and made cards for family occasions. I became known affectionately by my family as the “Black Martha Stewart” as I designed ornate paper designs and decorations for parties. I even made a life, as I birthed a child. And as I explore art and craft and science and engineering through her eyes, we continue to make.

My daughter and I (2016)

It is true that our family no longer has to make to survive; and we now have the luxury of buying a new item rather than remaking the old. But even in the face of that, I know, without reservation, that I want my daughter to grow up making, appreciating the world around her, understanding how to tear things apart and build them back up. How to create and recreate and create again. My child has a lot of toys and man made items, but it gives me such joy to see how her simplest pleasures, like mine, are the things that she makes with her hands.

And for these reasons, as an adult, it has been my personal mission to make sure that people of all backgrounds, young and old, rich and poor, with differing abilities, black and brown and white alike, have an exposure to building and creating and making — whatever they are passionate about. It has been my goal to let them see themselves in the countless individuals before them that have been wood makers, textile makers, engineers, artists, tinkerers, hobbyists, craftsmen and women. To have them make the connections between the cycles of building, refining, re-building, re-refining, and their final product, and the engineering design process. To envision themselves as scientists, and engineers, artists and more, all through the act of making. To have a child make a light blink through a simple circuit, and realize that physics mastery is attainable. To make a dress out of recycled materials and envision themselves dressing the red carpet. Making is the portal to a world so much larger.

A few months back, my daughter and I wove a bracelet together, and she made a mistake. Immediately, tears welled in her eyes, and I thought back to one of my earliest memories of making with Mrs. Us, which to me, summarizes why it’s so important to me that she, and all children, from all backgrounds are able to make.

I furrowed my brow as I made the first of several beading mistakes, catching the incorrect bead on the loom. She looked over at me, smiling, her long black hair glimmering. “Wonderful! You’ve made your mistake!”

I looked back, questioningly — “It’s all messed up.”

“Quite the contrary, we always make a mistake in our work. It reminds us that there is a greater being than us, that we are not perfect.”

I smiled, slightly eager to make more mistakes — to acknowledge my human imperfection.

I realize the act of Making is so important because it celebrates our humanity, imperfections and all. As humans, all ultimately from the same tribe — the human race — it is in our DNA to make, and to use our skills to evolve. Yet the very act of making challenges us to move past our individual imperfections, towards a community where we acknowledge that we are not alone, and where we can use our collective abilities to create solutions that weave a more perfect world. It reminds us of our past, rich with makers from all backgrounds who brought us to where we are today. It celebrates our present reality and calls us to work together within our communities to find the answers to our most persistent and pressing problems. And it draws us towards a future that is greater than we could ever imagine.

This piece is part of a series highlighting the work and stories of Makers across the U.S. in the run up to (and during) the National Week of Making, June 17–23, 2016.

Please note: A shortened version of this piece was originally published in Maker Education Initiative’s Growing Up Making blog series. Check out Maker Ed’s blog at MakerEd.org/blog.