The story (told and untold) of assembling, disassembling, and reassembling

Heard the phrase "building the plane as it flies" before? Sure you have. Well we have been building Assemble on the fly since 2011. It’s a homespun plane, a temperamental plane, a plane with a personality. Sometimes it's a risky plane, experimental, if you will. The crew is constantly changing and so are the passengers. Somehow, some way, we all keep making it a little bit better over time.

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But let's back up—all the way back to the late aughts. Before it had a name and an address, Assemble existed as an idea in Nina Barbuto's head. Living in Los Angeles at the time, Nina was inspired by her experiences researching community-based arts learning environments.

<aside> 📰 Inspiration Citation: Machine Project was a huge inspiration. Occupying a storefront next to a gas station off a busy intersection in LA's Echo Park neighborhood, Machine Project embodied the spirit of accessible and ubiquitous learning that Assemble has been working towards since we first opened our doors.


After moving back to her native Pittsburgh, Nina started planting the seeds for such a space in her hometown. Meeting new neighbors, calling up old friends, tapping into community assets, searching for (and eventually finding) a space to Assemble, flinging open the doors on one fateful Friday in April to host our first event, and setting up drop-in crafting each Saturday afternoon, just in case some kids wandered by.

It all happened in a rush, like jumping into a cold lake, but those first few months set the tone for the slow growth we've been practicing since day one: relying on emergence and authenticity to guide our development. At each step in our evolution, we've had to make a leap—let’s just do it and figure things out as we go along—to keep this plane flying.

So that's the official version. The truth is much messier. Explore the (til now) untold story of Assemble's evolution below. 👇

🧪 2011 - 2013: Experimenting

Figuring out what is needed, what works, and what doesn't (Is this real? Do people want this?)

At this stage, Assemble was run by an all-volunteer team of friends and neighbors. We couldn't pay teachers nearly enough to cover a lot of extra work they did. Super passionate folks powered us through these wild times!

We spent a lot of time saying "YES!" and trying as many new things as we could. This was the time to prove that we were not doing a pop up project, but committing to building something that could grow with the community. We built trust in our neighborhood and with local funders.


🌱 2014 - 2016: Growing

Honing our practice, designing dependable programming, staying nimble

With our sea legs beneath us (guess we're on a boat now, not a plane), things weren't exactly steady, but they were somewhat more stable.

We used this stability to get better at being Assemble. We doubled down on training, practice, and professional development for our staff. We created and stuck to a sustainable and consistent programming schedule.