Part of our ongoing interview series with leaders and members of feminist-oriented labs and lab-like spaces, the following is our interview with LeeLee James (she/her) aka Twirling Tech Goddess, Student Assistant at the Blow Things Up (BTU) Lab. The lab was founded at University of Colorado, Boulder in 2015.
With which research area, or cluster of research areas, does the lab engage with? (be as specific or broad as you wish)
This lab functions as a maker space, as a hub of interdisciplinary research and experimentation. If you can think of it, it’s being made here. We have a woodshop, electrical, 3-D printing, laser cutting, and also robotics techniques being used here at any given time.
What is a project, publication, community collaboration, or other output from the lab that you feel proud of?
This lab is actually where I started my YouTube channel, Twirling Tech Goddess, which has picked up quite a following in the space of technology. My boss even has her own nonprofit in the open hardware space. This is a place where people are living and breathing tech, so when I think of what I’m most proud of in this lab, it’s less about the past projects and more about what remains to be created and shared in the world by the people here.
What is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab centers equity, inclusion, or justice in its methods, protocols, or approaches?
—Alternatively, what is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab decenters dominant methods, protocols, or approaches through its work?
I’ve only been here for the last year, which was also during the pandemic, so there wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the space. However, my presence here was part of the initiative to have greater diversity and visibility in the team, to be a face that underrepresented folks might see themselves in when approaching the space and understand immediately that the spaces for them as well. The research we’re doing this summer is creating a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice action plan for not only our lab, but also 12 other labs on campus with varying focuses, which will include workshops over the next year instructed by people from varying marginalized groups. My personal vision for this work is to ensure that the space is that we all pay into produce an ecosystem that we can all benefit from.
In order to do this work, we have to be mindful to exercise the bottom up approach, at least here locally, as we can’t control the entirety of academia. I believe the local ecosystems are so important. You can have full-on subversive movements within any institution, and it’s those movements that impact lasting cultural shifts. #bottomsup
What is one internal (within the lab) challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind in which an internal challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?
Internally, we’re dismantling patriarchy, exercising clear communication, and curating energetically collaborative teams; which can all be challenging with a room full of creative visionaries with their own ideas of what’s important for them to get out of this space. However, I think the biggest problem we have is getting students, makers, and creators who are making amazing things to leave their cool projects behind for us to share with, or display to, others. I can’t really blame them, but that’s the benefit of doing my digital content, as it’s meant to be shared with others.
What is one external challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? (e.g. in terms of the lab interfacing with its broader institution or community). Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind when an external challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?
The reality is we are a part of a much larger institution and infrastructure, which I call the educational industrial complex. At times it can get frustrating and bureaucratic. The inequities here often mirror those in the outside world. Our entire lab nickel and dimes it on $5,000/yr, while the football coaches take home $500,000/yr each. In fact, the president of the university was just fired and given $1.6 million just to leave. How I get through it is simply by witnessing that these structures are broken, and as a problem solver, that gives me plenty of purpose in the grander scheme of things to keep working toward more equitable practices in the spaces I inhabit. It also helps to have perspective, as our budget and lab are still huge and amazing compared to the spaces and programs that I grew up having access to.
Where have you found lab inspiration and resources? Which labs, authors, and makers would you love to signal boost?
Honestly, I take inspiration from all around me. As part of my YouTube series, I collaborated with every local makerspace in the Boulder area, including Solid State Depot and BLDG 61 at the Boulder Public Library. I also stalk many of the amazing labs/spaces doing REALLY cool work here CU Boulder, such as the Correll Robotics Lab, the Idea Forge, the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory, and the Unstable Design Lab. I really enjoyed the glimpses I got into their ecosystems. I like to think that I’m pooling the best traits to build the dopest, most thoughtful spaces of the future. As part of my research at the end of summer, I’ll be visiting labs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces all over the US to observe and absorb those who are exercising DEI & J initiatives the right way. I theorize it will be palpable the instant that I enter the space, and I look forward to basking in that palp.