This past weekend marked the opening of Ethọ́s Lab’s first physical home in Mount Pleasant, a 1,000 square foot space on the ground floor of a new artist-focused housing complex operated by non-profit 221A.
Thanks to COVID-19, the non-profit after-school program, which is focused on integrating different elements of science, technology, arts, engineering and math, existed primarily in the virtual world for their first two years of operation.
While it worked out pretty well for them, says founder Anthonia Ogundele, the new space offers young people a place to come after school to participate in their programming, as well as a place for Ethọ́s Lab to design future program offerings.
“Being able to connect in person, and really be able to foster and make relationships real, is what it's going to unlock for us,” she said.
“Now, a young person doesn't have to think too much about a login, a link or how to connect online, they can literally just come by the space as a part of any of our programs or offerings and access the tools that they need in order to create what they want.”
Ogundele created Ethọ́s Lab in 2020 after struggling to find after-school science, technology, engineering, arts and math — otherwise known as STEAM programming — for her then-11-year-old daughter in Vancouver.
The program has now run workshops for 12- to 18-year-olds on topics like creating your own avatar, bias in artificial intelligence and learning to code. They’ve happened online in Atlanthọ́s, the first ever Black-led virtual reality environment in the country, co-created by Ethọ́s Lab participants, and in limited, in-person gatherings in temporary spaces.
While all young people are welcome at Ethọ́s Lab, the non-profit centres the Black experience and features Black instructors and mentors from various STEAM fields. Almost half of Ethọ́s Lab’s young participants so far have been girls and nearly 70 per cent have been Black — higher levels of participation for both groups than most STEAM programs in the Lower Mainland, Ogundele said.
In addition to their space, Ethọ́s Lab also has access to a 2,700-square-foot production facility in the building that they will share with the building’s artist residents — like Ethọ́s Lab’s cultural curator, Ndidi Cascade. The plan, Ogundele says, is to collaborate with artists who call the 221A-run building home.
“We're really looking forward to building relationships with the other artists that range from audio production to dance,” she said.
“Some really interesting projects can come out of that type of collaborative community.”
Ethọ́s Lab’s new neighbourhood is an innovation hub, Ogundele said, with Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the Centre for Digital Media and Electronic Arts gaming studios all within a 20-minute walk of Ethọ́s Lab. It’s also close to other after-school program providers like the Sarah McLachlan School of Music and arts club.
Anytrah, who lives in Surrey, has been taking part in once-a-week virtual Ethọ́s Lab workshops since January, designing shoes, learning about cryptocurrency and blockchain and making video games. (The Tyee is using Anytrah’s first name only to protect her privacy.)
“I think it's really nice and fun, and I get to see people like me,” said Anytrah.
Anytrah is the only Black student in her school. Her mom, Shalyma Cambridge, who grew up in Vancouver, says she knows what it’s like not to see any Black people in teaching or leadership roles at school. Which is why Cambridge values the Black representation at Ethọ́s Lab.
“That’s the model for inclusion, is making sure that all children have access to a diversity of leadership, a diversity of teachers and mentors and people that they can look up to. So in the future, they can see that as a norm,” Cambridge said.
This summer, Ethọ́s Lab will run a Solar Punk-themed summer camp focused on designing environmentally sustainable footwear, as well as running a gaming studio in partnership with Electronic Arts game developers.
Funding for Ethọ́s Lab’s new home comes from their ongoing fundraising drive, which received a $50,000 donation from Microsoft and $25,000 from consulting firm Deloitte.
Going from a virtual organization to having a physical home in just two years is not a common experience for the Black community in Vancouver, Ogundele added, where access to space can be a years-long struggle.
With participants as far away as Vancouver Island, Alberta and Ontario, Ethọ́s Lab will continue to offer online programming, too, for young people interested in STEAM.
“What this space offers is an opportunity to unlock new connections that you're not really able to see in the digital world,” she said.
“We want to be able to continue to connect with young people beyond the Lower Mainland,” Ogundele added, noting they have plans to expand the physical Ethọ́s Lab to a location in Alberta by 2024.
Now that they have a physical home in Vancouver, Peetra Cartwright is comfortable letting her son Kai Brown, who has been taking Ethọ́s Lab workshops for two years, go to the lab in person.
“As a single mom, I wanted him to have a program where he could meet people, but also learn something,” Cartwright said.
“It's a safe creative space for them to express themselves,” she added.
Brown had a passion for art when he started at Ethọ́s Lab, where he participated in workshops on urban planning and the environment, as well as a contest to design sustainable housing in Surrey that met the diverse needs of the community.
“There's a lot of room for progression and to express yourself and try something different, especially with the art and science. I feel like there's a lot of different paths you can take,” he said, adding he also values the leadership training he’s received at Ethọ́s Lab.
“I think it builds a lot of friendship, because everybody there knows each other, and even the new people, they fit in very quickly.”