Thursday, November 04, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Space12

Some coworking spaces in Austin (Conjunctured, Cowork Austin, Cospace, Link, and Brainstorm) are dedicated coworking spaces: they might hold community events and mixers, but day in and day out, their mission is to provide office and collaborative space for coworkers. Those coworkers form their community. Other spaces, however, serve a different community: a preexisting, often spatially defined community. For instance, at Soma Vida, coworking happens alongside yoga and wellness services, and the proprietors see the entire space as a sort of community center serving the area, particularly small entrepreneurs with families who seek a work-life balance.
Space12 takes the community center approach, as I discovered when I talked with its codirectors, Sam Lee and Paul Wang. But its clientele is quite different, and that different approach netted Space12 the Austin Chronicle's 2010 nod for Best New Collaborative Art and Volunteer Space. More on that in a minute.

From Coworking in Austin: Space12
Space12 is located deep in East Austin, at East 12th and Airport, and aims first and foremost to serve the local, spatial community in which it is located. “It's kind of the opposite of a typical community center,” Codirector Sam Lee explained to me. “We host and we kind of create a space so that people could use it to do their own community initiatives.” After all, he added, “There's a lot of great community efforts already in Austin. Why create another thing, another program that offer services? So, instead of offering services, we're offering space. It's almost like an open canvas where people can come in and kind of realize their own community efforts.”
As Sam and Paul Wang, Space12’s codirectors, explained, Space12 is not a for-profit business. Rather, it’s an outreach of Vox Veniae, an Austin church. Paul explained: “I know most churches expect to sort of, ‘Listen to us, and then you'll get the service.’ We're really trying to bring it back to the original roots I think of Christianity where we share and live together. … . So there's no presentation, there's no process, there's no ‘you have to listen to a ten minute gospel presentation before you come cowork.’” Rather, Vox Veniae sought a multipurpose space that wouldn’t remain empty six days a week, one that would help them meet their mission of serving local communities. They leased this space, which was once a notorious nightclub, and put it to work: as a space for nonprofits, as a community space, as a rec room, as a sanctuary, as a concert venue.


So what community is being served here? Space12 serves three coworking groups.
First, people from the neighborhood, including students. Some of these people are in great need. “Of the schools in this area,” Paul pointed out, “eighty percent of the parents are unemployed in three schools.” So Space12 finds ways to serve them. “We get guys walking in off the street, and they're like, ‘Hey, I don't know how to put a resume together’ … ‘Hey, can you show me what this thing called Craigslist is? How do I find landscaping work through that?’” At the same time, the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, filling with professionals “who do work out of homes, accountants, graphic designers, web designers.” How to get them to connect? “In the same way,” Paul continued, ”I think that we want them to cowork out of here, but still kind of give back.” Whereas at other coworking spaces, coworkers might take breaks and socialize with each other, at Space12 coworkers can volunteer to help neighbors and nonprofits – whether it’s helping someone understand Craigslist, helping neighborhood students use the computer lab, or shelving books for the Inside Books Project.

From Coworking in Austin: Space12

Second, Space12 does short-term space rentals for events. For instance, two months ago they rented space to a film crew. Film crews tend to come together for a short time, perform casting calls, meet funders or donors, and have planning sessions – and it’s hard to do that in someone’s apartment. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to enter a lease for short-term events like these. So Space12 is well positioned to serve these sorts of short-term coworking groups. (Notice that Cowork Austin also serves the film industry in a similar capacity.)
Third, the church staff themselves work here at Space12. Coworking here allows them to work in proximity, but also to work alongside and serve community members.
Beyond these groups, Space12 provides space to other nonprofit initiatives. For instance, about a quarter of the space is now dedicated to the Inside Books project, which gathers books and ships them to prison inmates. They also house Cipher, a group that performs spoken word and hip-hop. An artists’ collective also uses the space. (See their list of partners for more.)

From Coworking in Austin: Space12


This interview with Space12 came at an exciting time for me. The fact is, lots of organizations have space that is paid for, but that remains empty through much of the work week. Those organizations include clubs such as the Kiwanis and Shriners, but especially churches, whose buildings are practically empty except for a few hours on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. When, I had wondered, will these organizations see the potential for supporting their members’ activities during those unoccupied hours?
Space12 turns that paradigm on its head. Rather than using a traditional church building for other purposes, it took a building and used it for as many things as possible: church, concerts, coworking, outreach, nonprofits, etc. “There is just a lot of wasted real estate that churches sit on,” Paul emphasized. His message to churches is: “Your building campaign is done. God doesn't just live in the building.”
To that end, Paul and Sam see Vox Veniae opening more Austin spaces for community development, working through their nonprofit Austin City Spaces.
When I thought about existing institutions using their excess capacity, I imagined them serving their own constituents: Shriners officing out of the Shriner Hall, Baptists working with other Baptists. But Space12 turns that capacity into outreach, more truly fulfilling the church’s mission. It’s an exciting development in coworking, and I expect we’ll see other organizations exploring similar forms of outreach as they work to connect to their communities.

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