32 minutes | Jun 14th 2018

What you make of it: Shana Nissenbaum on power tools & building a life in Richmond

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Shana Nissenbaum is an educator, a builder, a community organizer, and a non-profit founder…and that’s just the start of a long list of the many ways she spends her time to make Richmond a better place. In this conversation we cover a lot of ground including Shana’s work empowering women through power tools via Women’s Workshop Richmond, how she measures success in her classroom, what it’s like to run a maker space, and the different ways she’s learned to build a life and community for herself here. Enjoy! Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: You and I know each other from a variety of things around town, we were neighbors at some point. I think I put a small dent in your vehicle when I got overconfident about backing up a trailer. Shana Nissenbaum: I thought about that today in fact. I was like, “Who was that?” Chris: Yeah, that was me. I probably owe you some money for a fix up paint job there. But moving on from that, we also recently connected over your work in the Women’s Workshop in Richmond. Let’s just start there. Tell me a little bit about the Women’s Workshop and how it got started, what it’s for and what kinds of things you’re taking on right now. Shana: That covers an awful lot. Women’s Workshop Richmond is in the process of becoming a nonprofit in Richmond. The focus is empowering women through power tools. The way that it works is, women sign up for an individual workshop which typically runs about three hours. They come, they learn to use the tools, they build the confidence and then they actually physically build something, whatever that something is, and then able to take it home and say, “I made that.” In addition to having some actual practical use, they also gain the confidence of, “Here’s how a drill works,” or, “Here’s how a miter saw works.” And then being able to take that back home and say, “Hey, is this picture broke, or if the doorknob needed to be tightened or whatever, I would feel comfortable using the tools to do that.” Chris: What gave you, I guess, who started it and what gave you the idea to start it in the first place? Shana: Three years ago we moved into my house and I wanted a porch. I got some estimates on a screened porch and it was anywhere between seven thousand and thirty thousand dollars. I just didn’t feel like that was reasonable for literally screens. So a buddy of mine helped me build a foundation, build the frame of it, and then I turned it into a porch by the end of two summers. And I realized like, “Hey, I can do this.” So I had a couple other woodworking projects from there. Then I was at a friend’s house in Minnesota last summer and she was talking about how once a month she gets together with these other women and they go to this one woman’s house and that woman teaches them how to do a craft. She had mentioned that recently they had done a pinata. And I thought, “Hey, I could teach women how to make something.” I had these plans for these giant dice, you play Yard Yahtzee with. You put them in a bucket and you cut up a four by four to make them. I thought, “I guess I could do that.” That was last fall and it very quickly snowballed from there. It was clearly something that was missing from Richmond and for women in general that are missing that skill. This filled that void really easily. And women were interested in it as a hobby, but also for the empowerment piece. Shana: I’ve actually had quite a few men say, “Well, what about me? No one taught me.” And there is a social stigma associated with the men not knowing how. So they don’t really have any opportunity to learn. So at some point, I would like to expand and have a couple of novice men’s classes, but, for now, it’s women and girls. Chris: There’s all sort of interesting cultural things going on there. Yeah, you don’t often see classes for men on how to use power tools. I assume that is tied to some very broad stereotype about men know how to use power tools, “They’re born with a drill in their hand.” Then the corresponding very problematic assumption and stereotype narrative that women don’t know how to use power tools and, in some cases, I’m sure you can find parts of our culture that would say, “Oh, women don’t need to use power tools because the men will do it.” I heard you use the word empower and, yeah, I wonder what you’ve experienced in the women that you’ve worked with and talked to, just beyond the basic knowledge of like, “Hey, here’s how to be comfortable with a power tool.” What kinds of empowerment are you seeing happening? Shana: Honestly, it’s even more than I had imagined and I’m blown away by that part. For example, I had someone come to one workshop and was like, “Ah, I’ve never really thought about owning a drill.” And she came to a second workshop and was like, “Nope, I need one. I need to have one at home just in case.” Her husband is, we’ll say, not particularly handy so we secretly told him around Christmastime that that would be the perfect gift. While I picked it out, he physically went to the store and bought it for her for Christmas. That’s something that she now feels comfortable with in her home. Or I had another woman that came to a couple of workshops and then called me up one day and said, “Hey, I found this thing on Pinterest. I think I can build it myself if I can use your miter saw.” I said, “Sure. Come on over.” Then she ended up going on a semester long workshop where she learned how to refinish furniture and build her own stuff. Chris: That’s amazing. Wow. Shana: Yeah, it was really cool. They’re not all quite that big, but … and just like the little pieces, of a woman staring at her finished project. We always take pictures at the end and line all the women up with whatever they made and them all standing there and just the pride in their faces of like, “Hey, I made this thing.” It’s awesome. Chris: It seems like it has implications too for something that sounds simple like home repair. You mentioned building a porch, but being able to fix something, repair something, bolt something together, drill something together. That could represent huge economic savings for someone over the course of their life, just being comfortable with that. Has that come up at all in the workshops and training that you’ve done? Shana: Not that specifically, but absolutely the idea of that is part of the point. One of the reasons that we’re transitioning from an LLC to a nonprofit is that, right now, my clientele typically have a little more expendable income. That’s great, I want all women to be empowered, but I’m not able to hit the demographic that I think most needs the power and that would be typically the single Moms that don’t necessarily have a support network or don’t have somebody that could do it for them and allowing them to do it. So part of the reason for going nonprofit is to get more funding so that those women can come either at a reduced price or for free, just making sure everyone has access to it. And another group of the population, or another population, that I’ve been trying to focus on is, I’ve met with Centerstone and I recently set up something with Meridian where they have a residential facility for people that are going through rehab, specifically their women are going to come in … I’m going to bring things to them and they’re going to build things for the facility, like some picnic benches, some yard games, just a couple different things. I think those are probably a subset of women that really have lost all of their personal power. And this is something very hands-on, but also going to give them that empowerment piece back and hopefully that control back into their lives. Not entirely, there’s lots of other things involved, but just another part of it really. Chris: It seems like every step, every piece helps. Where are you holding these workshops now? Do you have one facility or does it move around? Shana: That’s a great question. Right now, they’re in my “workshop” and we’re going to put that in quotes, it’s a two car garage. But I am in the process of working with a couple of different people. There’s a couple that owns a storefront downtown that is interested in helping out if we can get that going. I’ve also spoken with RCT, the Richmond Civic Theater, about maybe sharing their workspace and in return, the women could help build the sets. That would be a nice symbiotic relationship. I’m not really sure. I’m open to anything. I’m looking for, with a nonprofit looking for something very low cost, but I’m definitely expanding faster than my space will allow. Chris: That’s amazing. It’s also worth mentioning that we connected through the KIND.ARMY project that I started in. There’s a project that you and your group are taking on as a part of that. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s about? Shana: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done a ton of partnerships so we can come back to that piece, but one of the ones that I did through the Institute for Creative Leadership is, I paired up with Deirdré Schirmer who works at Morrisson-Reeves. I said, “What’s your take on Little Free Libraries?” I didn’t know if Morrison-Reeves saw that as competition or whatever. She said, “The more books, the better.” So she and I got together with Alis
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