Kidsburgh Q&A: Nina Barbuto of Assemble and that $50,000 grant

It was a jaw-dropping moment for Nina Barbuto, founder and director of Assemble: A Community Space for Arts and Technology, when the nonprofit received a $50,000 grant from the GE Foundation.

Assemble, based in Garfield, is dedicated to building confidence through making. The organization uses interactive gallery shows, learning parties and STEAM workshops to connect artists, technologists and makers with curious kids and adults.

Barbuto, 33, grew up in Aliquippa, went to college at Carnegie Mellon University, and has two degrees in architecture. She lives in Garfield with her partner and a pitbull named Ruby.

We sat down with Barbuto to learn more about the grant, plans for its use and a bit of history.

What was so remarkable about the GE grant?

It is a lot of money for us. Though our budget is more than $50,000, at this point, we’re still slowly moving up. We started with absolutely nothing. It was jaw-dropping the way we actually received it.

You mean a big cardboard check?

They came in for a tour, and they were going to have some sort of event in our space. They got back to me and said, “Hey, we have good news and bad news. We’re not going to have the event in your space, but we’d like to give you this $50,000 grant.” They told this to me over the phone and I just started crying. We were kind of needing to get more money – sooner than later – to continue to pay for things.

What will you do with the money?

It will support our STEAM educational programs that are free (for Garfield kids) throughout the school. Our afterschool, which runs four days a week, is free to kids and families. We also offer Saturday programs that are free. We run programs on Fridays for tweens and teens, also free. While we ask for a fee from kids who don’t live in our neighborhood, we have scholarships for kids who need it.

How did Assemble start?

It kind of happened serendipitously. I had this idea on a Google document, and I was going around to everybody saying, “Hey, I have this gallery/learning space that I want to start. How do we get it started?” Then, in 2010, I had a friend who was buying a building, and they were going to put a gallery in the space. He said he wanted to have a show every week. I told him he didn’t know what he was doing and he should just let me do it.  And we just kind of did. For the first year, we just did it on donations that would pay for as many things and as much rent as we could. We were in the red for the first year and just kept doing stuff.

Do have any special attachment to the Garfield neighborhood?

I have weird old family ties to Garfield. My grandparents used to have a pizza shop here way back in the day. People remember that. I had always loved the neighborhood, and I was able to buy a house from a friend of mine in 2014 with my partner, and we love Garfield.

How have you built Assemble?

A lot of hard work. Nonstop, nonstop working. If you’re going to put a mass in motion, you have to exert extra force to get it rolling. And if you want it to go faster, you have to push it even harder. That is exactly what this has been.

Have there been some growing pains over the last seven years?

There are growing pains every day. If you think of us as a frog, we’re not a tadpole anymore, and we’re not a frog. We’re somewhere in between. It’s a real awkward stage.

We were able to have a fundraiser in 2012 that helped us to get into the black, and we’ve been there ever since, thankfully. We were a not-for-profit in Pennsylvania working under a fiscal sponsor for the first year. We were able to get our non-profit status on 2012 as well.

Is that when it started to come together?

In 2014 we were able to be part of a national program called Maker VISTA. We were able to have two AmeriCorps VISTAs work with us for a whole year. We also had teachers who were contractors who would come in and build programs. One of the VISTAs was able to get a grant from The Grable Foundation for $20,000 to kick-start a manager position. We had received some grants along the way from the Sprout Fund, but it wasn’t something that allowed us to hire someone. The board decided we needed a full-time manager.

How was the organization run without a manager?

I was acting as a director and manager in a volunteer capacity as the board president while working other jobs.

So, you got the job, right?

At the time I was the board president. I recused myself from the conversations and applied for the job. By April 2015, I had proved my worth and Assemble hired me. I started working as director in a full-time capacity and was able to quit my other job.

When did you move into the new space?

In 2016, our lease was up in our old space, and we needed to move. We moved the organization into a brand new space down the street at 4824 Penn Avenue. That’s where we are today, and I hope we never ever move again.

What’s next?

We’re working on our operations manual. We’re part of the SVP Full Circle cohort working with for-profit mentors. They’re helping us get an impact report together. We’re also working on our platform playbook, figuring out what it means to be an Assemble teacher, what an Assemble program is. And, our big fundraiser, MakerDate, is coming up Sept. 14.

How will you know when Assemble is a success?

When I can quit my job. Assemble will be a success when it fulfills its mission and we no longer have to build confidence through making.