Issue 50, Spring 2005
Taking Action by Making Dildos
The Third Annual Boston Skillshare Offers Education for All
By Mary Finer
|Two skillshare workshopers talk about stenciling in Boston. Photo: Micah Lee|
Marc Poirier wrote a phrase in chalk on the blackboard at Simmons College on April 16th. “This is the thesis for the day,” said Emily Pastel as she stood in front of the classroom of about 25 people and pointed at the words. “If you have an idea, try it, because it will probably work.”
These were words of inspiration for an engrossed audience who were nodding their heads and taking notes. Poirier and Pastel were teaching a group of twenty-somethings to make their own sex toys at the Third Annual Boston Skillshare on April 16th and 17th.
The two-day event involved around 200 feminists and anarchists learning practical skills from each other. The Skillshare Organizing Collective wanted to create an environment where people could help each other live practically and sustainably. Volunteers held 42 workshops, each 90 minutes long. There were workshops on the basics of bike mechanics, homemade beer, herbal first aid, welding, and composting. There were even guerilla workshops, which were blank spots in the schedule available to anyone who wanted to be able to teach a workshop or organize a discussion. The Collective did one called “How to organize a skillshare.”
Poirier and Pastel decided to teach sex toy making since they have been experimenting with the craft for about a year. They both decided that sex toys were too expensive and that they were better off making them on their own. “When you make something yourself, like in the tradition of the Japanese sword masters, you’re connected to it,” said Pastel. She proudly displayed for the class a harness she made out of rubber bike tubing and an O ring.
“You can find them in the plumbing aisle,” said Poirier, “but they’re not called cock rings there. They call them O rings.”
The pair gave step-by-step instructions on how make a harness, restraints, and silicone dildos (silicone because you can boil it and it won’t melt). Then the class members made their own whips out of bike tire tubing and vibrating nipple clamps from a motor and metal clips. The finished projects were covered in electrical tape and some had wires sticking out of them. “We haven’t refined things enough yet,” said Poirier. She assured her disciples, “that will be a goal for next year.”
“It’s a welcoming environment of people open to ideas,” said Sarah Austin who came to the skillshare from Newport, RI. She helped Poirier figure out how to attach a battery to the vibrating motor for the nipple clamp by using hair elastics. “It’s fun to see what other people do. Where else are you going to find how to make your own sex toys in the greater Boston area?”
“The skillshare gives an immediate outlet for creativity,” said Liz Munsell, a member of the organizing collective. She says the purpose of the event is to help people live practically by their beliefs. Some people rebel by what they say or what they wear; this community wants to do it by how they live. “We don’t like having to buy stuff at CVS, but sometimes it’s a necessity. So, it’s great to know that we have options, especially with local businesses disappearing.”
One of the skillshare workshops this year was “Making Your Own Bath Products” so you don’t have to go to CVS or even Walgreen’s or Brooks for Dove soap. It’s not just about fighting against CVS. “People without health insurance can’t see doctors,” said Munsell. “Emergency room bills destroy people’s lives. If we could help ourselves, that wouldn’t happen. It’s not ideal. We’re not professionals, but it’s better than nothing.”
The skillshare is run by an informal consensus in accordance to their ideals. There are no leaders and everyone is on an equal level with the people attending. “No one is better than anyone else,” said a founder of the skillshare who goes by the pseudonym Ciara Xyerra. “The content and structure is anarchist.”
They try to make the event accessible to everyone. A volunteer wrote directions to the wheelchair entrance with colored chalk on the sidewalk outside the college. The collective asked that no one wear perfumes in order to have a scent-free environment for those with allergies and illnesses. All the food - couscous, hummus, pita bread - was vegan and provided by Food Not Bombs, Trader Joe’s, and Harvest. It was served in white plastic tubs; one tub, labeled “compost”, was for leftovers. The collective even made sure that people from out of town had a rides and a place to stay by creating a ride board and offering their places up.
The members of the six-person collective are all women or trans-gender. They wore pink fabric armbands at the skillshare. “Boston, in general, is not a friendly place for women - even in the activist community,” said Xyerra, a 25-year-old woman with pink hair. “We want to show that women can organize something not directly about women.”
The Boston Skillshare is based on other similar projects around the country. Xyerra got the idea for a Boston skillshare after she went to one in Berkeley, CA in 2000. “I thought it was a pretty exciting project,” said Xyerra. She told friends about it when she moved to Boston and suggested that it would be great if they did one here. “It was basically friends getting together and deciding this was doable.”
When she isn’t organizing skillshares, Xyerra runs a zine distributor, which she started in October of 2003. It’s a mail-order operation of over 100 zines from all over the country and Canada. She is very selective about which zines she sells. They are on feminism, women’s issues, anarchism, and personal stories. “I have a personal relationship with all the writers of the zines I carry,” she said as she sat at her distribution table at the skillshare. Xyerra is also in a reproductive health collective that does education and outreach. She taught workshops this year on Xerox art, Writing and Editing, and Reproductive Health.
Xyerra emphasizes that the event focuses on action and participation over theory and rhetoric. It’s also based on the anarchist principle of Do-It-Yourself (DIY). “I like the idea of a skillshare because it’s teaching people practical skills that they can go home and do that night,” said Xyerra. “There are no certified experts. It’s about not needing a bike expert to fix a bike, not needing a doctor to treat a yeast infection. ”
The first skillshare was organized by Xyerra and four others in April of 2003. “More and more people get involved. It’s pretty exciting the way it grows,” she said. They are getting used to the organizing process and it keeps getting easier. The first year, planning began in September or October. This year, they didn’t start until February. In order to find people to do workshops, they contact people who taught them before and also do a callout on their mailing list.
“The first year we just stole everything,” said Xyerra. They also held a fundraising party called “Sincerity”, where they played games and had multimedia entertainment. The event is inexpensive to put on since it uses the space at Simmons College for free and The Collective only has to pay for supplies. They used the back of used paper for signs. The Simmons College Feminist Union signed out the space for the skillshare.
After the first year, the collective paid for supplies with the registration fees from the year before. The cost of registration is three to 10 dollars. Attendees pay on a sliding scale or opt out to volunteer in lieu of payment. Last year about 200 people participated and the collective made $500. This year they made the same amount, except that some of this year’s money is going towards making a skillshare section in the Lucy Parson’s Center bookstore in the South End. The section will contain literature related to sustainable living. Several members of the skillshare collective work for the Lucy Parson’s Center during the rest of the year. It is a nonprofit radical bookstore run by volunteers that also serves at a meeting place for activist groups.
Liz Munsell, a senior at Tufts University, joined the skillshare collective not long after moving to Boston in Fall 2002. She was involved with activism on campus and became part of a covert action to disrupt a visit by George Bush Sr.; there she met kids who didn’t go to Tufts, but wanted to support the community. During the action surrounding Bush’s visit, Munsell ended up getting arrested. She was bailed out by the people who organized it through donations. “There was a real sense of community that I wasn’t familiar with. I was like, ‘Who do I pay back?’” Elizabeth Miller, one of the original organizers, told Munsell that she didn’t have to pay anyone back; she just had to help organize the first skillshare.
“In this community money isn’t your only capital,” said Munsell. “You invest time into the community and that’s worth more than money.”
Camilla Orr, a Boston University senior, was introduced to the skillshare through a ‘zine convention. In addition to writing ‘zines, she brews her own beer, which was the subject her workshop on April 17th. “I was really nervous, but everyone was really nice,” said Orr. “People interjected things to help me.” one attendee was holding his baby daughter and offered Orr some of his home brew. He opened a Grolsch bottle that he had used to bottle his beer and it exploded everywhere, including all over his young daughter. “He had forgotten that he had ridden his bike there,” said Orr. “The people are really inspirational. They’re doing things instead of just going to shows.”
Jenine Bressner from Providence, RI came to the skillshare because she says it’s a “nice instant community with new friends and new skills.” The young woman with about a hundred blown-glass beads around her neck sat with her new friends on the sunny patio. She has been to similar events in the Northeast; and some of her past experiences weren’t as pleasant. Bressner had attended an anarcho-feminist festival last month called La Rivolta. It was similar to the skillshare in that there were lots of workshops. one was a two hour discussion about how men can be good allies in feminism. “It took courage for people to be so honest in front of strangers,” said Bressner. “I felt very excited at the end.”
After the workshops, there was a punk show where people started to get rowdy. “People were dancing violently with no concern for anyone else,” said Bressner. “I had spent two hours talking to these dudes about how we can change the world. I was frustrated.” So the colorful woman got on the mic at the end of the show to express her anger. “I said that I knew people were coming from different places, but that we need to be responsible to be aware of what our powers are and not wield them without thinking,” she said. “It was well-received and sort of cathartic. I knew if I didn’t say anything, I would just go home and write it in a ‘zine or on the Internet. It was better to say it there.”
At this year’s skillshare, Bressner taught something that people could do to help the world right in a classroom at Simmons College. She taught how to recycle plastic bags. “Plastic bags are a new resource,” said Bressner. “They take forever to decompose.” She started transforming plastic shopping bags and Ziplocs two years ago when she needed rope in a pinch, then began experimenting.
“Any fiber technique, like knitting or crocheting, can be applied to plastic bags,” she said. She’s taught people informally how to make homemade vinyl tents and shower curtains out of plastic bags. Bressner first taught the craft at a DIY festival in Maine. “It was very well received. I was surprised because I had been showing people informally for a long time.” For the skillshare, she did research on the history of recycling plastic and created a lesson plan. She is passing on something simple to do and good for the environment.
Bressner also likes the skillshare because the conventions of traditional society are thrown out the window. She once went to a radical reproductive health workshop where they looked at each other’s cervixes in order to learn. “That should be something usual,” said Bressner. “Not necessarily looking at cervixes, but for people to unabashedly share themselves.”
The skillshare collective members handed out feedback forms at the end so they could see what participants thought and figure out how they could modify things to make the next one better. Problems reported in the past were that people couldn’t find the rooms for the workshops because there weren’t enough signs. This year, volunteers grabbed lots of paper, markers and tape so that they could post directions throughout the halls, stairwells, and ramps so that no one would get lost.
“The weekend went extremely well,” said Munsell. “We got very positive responses from our feedback forms. one thing we’re going to change next year is to have some kind of breakfast/introduction period in the beginning for people to introduce themselves and create more of a community atmosphere.”
Proof of registration at the skillshare was a red stamp on the hand that said “confidential,” but the happenings at the event were not meant to be kept a secret; the collective wants skillshare participants to pass on what they’ve learned. There was a sign-up sheet (made of recycled paper) hung up at the entrance for anyone who wanted to continue sharing skills throughout the year. For everyone else, they’ll have to wait until next April for the Fourth Annual Boston Skillshare or steal some stuff and start their own.
Other articles by Mary Finer.