Last year, Sophia Santillan, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, saw an NBC News clip about Repair Café. Now, she’s working with the North Carolina chapter to bring Repair Café to Duke.
Repair Cafés are places where people can bring their broken items and work with repair specialists to fix them. Martine Postma organized the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009, and there are now nearly 1500 Repair Café chapters in over 30 countries.
Repair Café @ Duke will take place April 7 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone in the area can sign up online to bring items for a free repair. Some of the items organizer and founder Don Fick has seen in his time with Repair Café NC include lamps, jewelry, toys and furniture.
Repair Cafés in the United States typically operate like pop-ups, with repair events on a regular basis. Each of these events is staffed by volunteer repair specialists. There aren’t any specific requirements to become a repair specialist, and most of them are not repair professionals. In fact, most are self-taught, tinkering with items in their homes.
Caitlyn Hill, a Duke OIT systems administrator, has volunteered as a repair specialist at all eight of Repair Café NC’s events at the Cary Arts Center so far. She plans to continue to volunteer at these monthly events, as well as at the Duke Repair Café. The only professional repairs she has ever done were on computers, before servers became virtual. But Hill wrote in an email that she has always “been inclined to take apart something broken, to see how it worked.”
While Hill isn’t sure exactly where she first heard about Repair Café, she wrote that it was likely related to the Scrap Exchange, Don’t Waste Durham or a Makerspace. She supports one of its main goals: reduce waste by encouraging repair over replacement. Santillan is also particularly interested in this waste reduction aspect.
“I just have this image in my head of all the stuff I’ve thrown away just sitting there for years and years and years, way past my lifetime,” Santillan said.
Part of the motivation for hosting a Repair Café at Duke was the desire to expand the reach of Repair Café and expose more people to its goals. Senior Schuyler Debree first heard about Repair Café directly as a result of this outreach. A student in the Sustainability Engagement Certificate program, Debree is passionate about eliminating waste streams and changing our current system of consumption, and she wants to spread that passion to others.
“I’m excited that people will hopefully be learning a bit more about embracing the mindset of fixing things as opposed to just throwing them out,” Debree said.
Fick takes a more philosophical view of Repair Café. He worked in print publishing for a while, and the printed magazine felt enduring, like it would stand the test of time. However, he then shifted to online, which he felt was much less permanent.
“Very little, if any, of the work I did 15 years ago still exists. It’s all been disassembled or rearranged or broken down in some way,” Fick said. “So over the years I’ve really chased at the idea that nothing that I do lasts.”
Fick turned to fixing items to find a way to make his work last. He had always done repairs around his home and enjoyed the satisfaction he felt when he restored an item’s functionality.
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Repair Café aims to bring that sense of satisfaction to other people. Unlike a repair service, Repair Café NC encourages owners who bring their items for repair to stay and work on fixing it with the repair specialist.
“This is a collaborative effort,” Santillan said. “You don’t drop your stuff off and walk away.”
The repair specialists collaborate both with the item owners and the other repair specialist. Each volunteer has different areas of interest and areas of expertise, so they regularly consult each other. Another tool they make good use of is YouTube, since many of the repairs they see are ones that other people have tackled and posted videos about already.
Repair Café NC succeeds in fixing about 70 percent of the items people bring. To attain that success rate, Fick said people need three things: motivation, tools and knowledge. The people who bring in broken items supply the motivation while the repair specialists supply the tools, and they work together to find any knowledge they may not already have.
Fick sees Repair Cafés as something that could make a big difference for communities that have fewer means to purchase new items. He and his co-founder, Tom Karches, have discussed the idea of a “cascade of events,” where one small broken piece can lead to a significant shift in a person’s life. For instance, if a car refuses to start and the owner doesn’t know how to jump-start it, they may be unable to go to work. This could potentially lead to job loss and further financial difficulties because they couldn’t do a small repair.
“If we can break down the mystery of repair, if we can empower people to pick up a tool and engage with the world around them and improve upon it, then hopefully we can help them avoid that disastrous chain of events,” Fick said. “And as we look toward growing Repair Café in the Triangle area, trying to reach communities of people where that makes a significant difference in their lives is a big motivation for us.”