Vincent Purcell’s father ran his own painting business in Lexington, KY, where Purcell grew up. Watching his father, Purcell became interested in how businesses worked, and in art. But he also had a tinkering bone that he just couldn’t deny.
“I always tell people I like to break things and sometimes I put them back together,” Purcell says, with a laugh. “I am always interested in making things.”
Today, Purcell, an engineer-turned-social designer, is helping to fix what’s broken in the East Baltimore community of McElderry Park and surrounding neighborhoods.
His project, Boomspace, combines technology and workforce development to give entrepreneurship opportunities to young adults ages 18-25 who have faced barriers to employment or have been underserved.
“I’m working with young adults in the neighborhood to expose people to digital fabrication—things like 3D printers and laser cutters—as well as circuit programming, and a little bit of graphic design,” says Purcell. “The idea is to do two things: provide exposure to the technology, and then provide access to play with the technology. The hope is that ultimately they will learn enough to create small enterprises or businesses, or make additional money on the side, using technology.”
Purcell already has been working in McElderry Park, doing just that, ever since coming to Baltimore two years ago to pursue a Master’s degree in social design at Maryland Institute College of Art. Knowing that it is important for people to play around with technology in order to become familiar with it, he helped teach young people to create 3D scans of themselves using an Xbox game console. He has helped neighbors write and print a community newspaper and resource guide—which he says the community sorely needed. With the help of a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant—much of it focusing on workforce development—Purcell has partnered with other organizations to launch a digital fabrication lab.
“I’ve worked with people in the community to create 3D models and we have a storefront where people can sell things online,” Purcell says. “We’re running this as a social enterprise—for people to develop products to sell and market. We help people build what they want to build, then we help them with marketing and they really only have to pay us back for the cost of the materials.
“This is bringing together my interests in technology, entrepreneurship and social justice,” Purcell says. “If we create career opportunities for them to be self-employed we can get them into careers and give them financial stability.”
With his fellowship, Purcell wants to turn Boomspace into a true “makerspace,” where community members can use technology to make products to sell, but also where they will come together, be engaged with one another and solve problems, such as a lack of affordable housing and fresh foods, as well as racial segregation.
“In Baltimore white people don’t go to black neighborhoods, black people don’t go to white neighborhoods,” he says. “Technology is a way to enable access across the lines. So that people who live in these east side neighborhoods can start to bridge constructive relationships with people in other neighborhoods and we all can start sharing resources.”
Purcell will receive additional support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a strategy to address the exclusion of black men and boys from economic, social, educational and political life in the United States. The BMA Fellowship is dedicated to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys and is the first fellowship program of its kind.