A makerspace for Oak Park

Local author, professor wants village to be an innovation, arts hub

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Makerspaces, hackerspaces, tech incubators, business accelerators – the phenomenon has taken many forms and operates under different names, but the goal is generally the same: make space available to help cultivate learning and innovation.

The spaces have become ubiquitous throughout the Chicago area over the last decade – 1871, mHub and MAKE! Chicago, are among the more well-known spots – and the time has come for Oak Park to have its own, according to local author Mary Anne Mohanraj.

Mohanraj, a UIC professor and Oak Park Library Board member – she's also considering a run for village president –  has been working to establish makerspaces in Oak Park, and possibly Berwyn or the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, over the last year. She launched the effort in 2018 through a series of lectures and workshops on writing, 3D printing and various other topics.

Maram Makerspace is the working name (the word is Tamil for tree), but that could change as the project develops, she said.

Mohanraj's Maram Weekend of Making, the most recent in her series of events, takes place Saturday, Feb. 23 and Sunday Feb. 24, at Serendib House, Mohanraj's home at 332 Wisconsin Ave., and SugarBeet Schoolhouse, 349 Ashland Ave., River Forest.

Attendees can participate in workshops on a variety of topics, including writing, 3D printing, crocheting, soup making and publishing, among others.

Meanwhile, Mohanraj continues to search for a permanent home for her makerspace, and funding to help get the venture off the ground.

She believes a makerspace could position Oak Park as the cultural and artistic hub of the area and a suburban center for innovation. A combination of tuition revenue, membership fees and space rental would pay the bills, she said.

The project has been nominated as a finalist for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy "Big Idea" grant, which makes $50,000 available to groups working on projects that aim to benefit the community.

She's also looking for state and federal grants and partnerships with entities in and around Oak Park. One of this week's seminars, for instance, is held at SugarBeet Schoolhouse, a nonprofit that provides education about food literacy.

"We're trying to build a sort of vibrant welcoming space where all members of the community can feel comfortable," Mohanraj said.

The space aims not only to help cultivate new ideas, but homegrown ideas from some of the brightest young minds in the area, Mohanraj said.

"We're losing young adults who don't see Oak Park as a thriving place for innovative work," she said, adding that young makers now have to go to Chicago to find workspaces to nurture their ideas.

Mohanraj, an English professor and affiliate faculty in Global Asian Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago who has authored 14 books, said she envisions that the space would include classes and workspaces for writers and artists.

She said the makerspace would take organizational loads off artisans, who have little spare time to schedule classes and manage the financial side of an incubator business.

"They just want to do their work and share their knowledge," Mohanraj said.

While the Maram Makerspace is still in its early stages, Mohanraj said she would like to have multiple locations, which would cater to different interests.

A warehouse space in Austin, for example, could accommodate more industrial-type maker spaces for metalwork, glass blowing and other heavy machinery, she said.

Any plan would include contribution from leaders in the Austin neighborhood, she said.

"We're talking to Austin community groups to make sure whatever we do there is in line with their vision for Austin," she said.

More info about the Maram Weekend of Making is available online.

* This story was updated to note that the intended use of maram is the Tamil word for tree.

tim@oakpark.com

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