22. Tessa Vierk on cooperative reuse and repair

Co-Founder & Executive Director of The Chicago Tool Library

Welcome to The Multi-usiverse! Alongside your guide, Garr Punnett, explore worlds of opportunity within the use of physical resources across companies and organizations. In this episode we’re joined by Tessa Vierk, Co-Founder & Executive Director of The Chicago Tool Library, where they discuss the concepts of sharing and what that means for community resilience. Enjoy Episode Twenty Two of the Multi-usiverse!

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Audio Transcript:

[00:00:07.090] – Garr Punnett

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Multiusiverse podcast. My name Garr Punnett. Chief Impact Officer at Rheaply. Yes, we know you might have noticed a little bit of an absence in how many episodes we’ve gotten out recently, but it’s because we have a new season, we have a new look. It’s not completely ironed out yet, but we’re getting there. And today we had a new guest, Tessa Vierk of the Chicago Tool Library, executive director and cofounder of the Chicago Tool Library. And we got to dive into really the concept of sharing and borrowing and what that means for community resilience. It was a great conversation. I look forward to having her on again because there’s so much more to talk to. But again, into the basics I look forward to really talking more about. And what you’ll hear more about is how do we restart the vocabulary around what sharing and renting and what that all means for, again, a Chicago Tool Library and a tool library in your community. Here it comes. Tessa, thank you so much for joining us today. Tessa Vierk is joining us from the chicago tool library. Executive director and co founder.

[00:01:17.200] – Garr Punnett

And we’ve got a little bit of history in terms of the work that we’ve done here in the city of Chicago. Can you tell the people a little bit about who you are, what you’ve been up to and then we can start to get into the nitty gritty and the fun stuff with the Chicago Tool Library.

[00:01:31.050] – Tessa Vierk

Absolutely. I’m so happy to be here. So, yeah, I am the co founder and executive director of the Chicago Tool Library. We’re a non profit here in Chicago for those who haven’t heard of tool libraries. They work a lot like book libraries. But we have stuff. And yeah, it’s wonderful to be here with you because you’re one of the first folks that I met here in Chicago working in the circular economy space. And it’s been exciting to see how you’ve moved to Chicago and made your own way. So I’m really happy to be here.

[00:02:01.040] – Garr Punnett

It’s so funny that you say that too, because we were just talking earlier about how rare it is to be able to be sitting. We are sitting probably at a reused cafeteria table in which we are both doing some sort of work at the plant down in one of the neighborhoods here in Chicago, the Back of the Yards neighborhood here in Chicago. But I remember this idea. I remember you talking passionately about how you were just starting to really think about how you wanted to open a tool library and start to really open this up for access in Chicago communities. Give us a little glimpse into what that went into and actually going from that idea because ideas are cheap. And actually then turning that into the baby that is the Chicago Tool Library now. But then all the hard work that went into this because you happen to start it right before a major global event. And I’m sure that didn’t make that easy.

[00:02:57.570] – Tessa Vierk

It’s definitely true. So I always have to give a ton of credit to other folks around the world who have come before me and started hundreds of other tool libraries. So I felt while I was kind of trying something new and putting myself out there here in Chicago, starting a tool library, I felt really confident and secure in taking it on because I had so many other people to call in to help me. There are two libraries in Honolulu and in Ireland, in Australia, in Denver, they’re everywhere. So I really had this wonderful collaborative community to support me and give me ideas and inspiration. So just with that alone, I felt like I could do this. But yeah, we opened the Chicago Library opened in 2019, about six months before the Pandemic, after a Rheaply fast process actually, of getting it started just because the demand and the response is so positive. We found a space super fast. Everybody has stuff in their house they don’t want and so it would have no problem finding an inventory of stuff. I think anybody who’s listening can relate to that, but you probably have maybe even a whole room full of stuff you don’t need.

[00:04:12.990] – Tessa Vierk

So we found our tools very quickly. It was just about setting up a few systems and opening our doors. So that’s what we did in August of 2019. Pandemic shutdown started about six months later, but we were able to rally really quickly because we were such a new organization. We were small, we didn’t have a lot of undoing or redoing. We kind of were able to pivot and we were busier than ever. As you can imagine, having access to affordable equipment to take on projects when you’re stuck at home was kind of an incredible asset to a lot of families here in Chicago.

[00:04:47.980] – Garr Punnett

I think that’s one of the weirdest, coolest parts of the unfortunate events that happened during the Pandemic is everyone had so much time that then they took on ambitious home projects. And you got to see that also probably with the success of Home Depot and Lowe’s and then there were lots of sales. But I could totally see that translating to you all in terms of providing more equitable access to these types of resources to just take on these projects. Especially for people that maybe are intimidated of buying a brand new expensive tool and who could then sort of start saying. All right. I want to decrease that barrier a little bit of entry and just start working with this stuff and getting maybe some advice from you all who are actually at the tool library. Is that sort of how that went to people? Just kind of stop by and checking out some stuff?

[00:05:34.560] – Tessa Vierk

Well, I feel like I’m kind of getting it to look the deep end really fast. But you can imagine when stuff gets weird in the community when there’s supply chain issues, which we saw. People were waiting like six months for a piece of furniture. People are making their own furniture. People contractors weren’t working supply chain issues, supplies weren’t showing up. Also, people are out of jobs. There’s a huge argument to be made for tool libraries supporting communities in these really strange times of climate events or pandemics or all sorts of things, that when these resources are centralized and easily available and affordable that we’re really able to respond immediately to help people continue to live like safe and productive lives.

[00:06:18.280] – Garr Punnett

That kind of speaks to your point earlier and I love the resiliency aspect of that, of really being a deeply rooted community access point. That speaks to then the continued success that you found during the pandemic, but then also that probably had some evidence in other tool libraries that had shown success in other communities. What was that like? I mean, what does the research show in a lot of these tool communities about how much it benefits local communities?

[00:06:48.750] – Tessa Vierk

That’s a good question. Tool library is kind of as little units. We’re old, but we’ve always been small, so we haven’t always had the funding or the resources or the support to do a lot of really good data work that we like. But it’s happening now. There are folks who are kind of getting that support and that energy now to figure out really cool metrics of like how are we helping people reduce their carbon footprints, how much are we saving people in contractors or to rentals or to purchase? But you can just sort of imagine all the ways that this is really helpful to people. But the numbers are just sort of getting crunched now. And especially for us as a kind of coveted baby of an organization, we feel like our numbers in our first few years are just like bananas. Like who knows really, what is our impact? Like, can we even count on these numbers? Who knows?

[00:07:41.070] – Garr Punnett

Impressive numbers.

[00:07:42.050] – Tessa Vierk

Totally though.

[00:07:42.880] – Garr Punnett

Yeah, I mean, impressive numbers. Do you have any top of hand? How many here in the Chicago community rely on you all for memberships? Is this something that you all have calculated recently?

[00:07:53.630] – Tessa Vierk

Oh yeah, definitely. We have over 3000 households or members who have signed up to join the Chicago Tool Library in our first three years. Those folks are coming from every single zip code in Chicago, which if you’re from Chicago or if you live in Chicago, that’s a statistic I really like because people don’t like to go to other neighborhoods for their stuff.

[00:08:16.810] – Garr Punnett

Crosstown. No way.

[00:08:18.650] – Tessa Vierk

Yes, they don’t want to do it. But we have members from every corner of Chicago and to me that speaks worlds because if people are willing to come from Rogers Park to borrow something, the demand is there. And we really feel confident that we’re going to succeed here long term.

[00:08:35.570] – Garr Punnett

For someone who’s not maybe as well known of Chicago geography, going to Rogers Park, down to the southern neighborhoods of Chicago could mean a 1015 20 miles journey. That, again, is not insignificant by any means, but really shows the impact of the community and what the access means. This was something I loved reading when you all started looking at memberships, you wanted to offer this to any community member not to have a barrier entry. That might mean a membership cost that’s too high. What do you call the I mean, is there a name for allowing anybody to pay their way or pay their fair share in a system and not have a standard membership? Is there a standard name for that type of pricing mechanism?

[00:09:24.330] – Tessa Vierk

Yeah, a lot of people pay what you want or pay what you can.

[00:09:28.530] – Garr Punnett


[00:09:29.410] – Tessa Vierk

I really like pay what you want because the can sometimes carries these connotations. It’s just like a little bit, sometimes paternalistic, the can, and a lot of times a lot of spaces. You need to prove, like, what you can and can’t do. Like, you need to prove your income or something. But what you want, I feel like it gives people a lot of power and agency destigmatizes.

[00:09:51.730] – Garr Punnett

It probably to some degree.

[00:09:54.450] – Tessa Vierk

And if the reason you don’t want to pay as much is because you don’t have the funds, or if it’s because you just know this isn’t something you’re going to use or you know, you’re going to move in a month or whatever it is, it’s what you want. I don’t need to have a conversation with every single person to try and extract the most value I can out of them when what they’re accessing is a room full of stuff that nobody wanted. I just don’t think that’s the basis for a strong community center. So people pay what they want to be a member of the Chicago Library?

[00:10:25.790] – Garr Punnett

No, I love that. And what was even more fun to read is that didn’t mean that people were paying nothing, that there was actually people were paying what they wanted, and they wanted to support this type of access. Do you have, on average, maybe how much someone pays in a membership across your user base today?

[00:10:46.050] – Tessa Vierk

Yeah. So in our first year or so, our average was higher than it is now. It was maybe like, close to $50 on average. Now it’s maybe closer to 30. We do find that, honestly, we find, though, that number going down is a good thing, it means for reaching more people, because our early adopters were maybe people who were very digitally literate. They found us on social media and a pandemic. Now we feel like our ground game is better. Word is getting out of neighborhoods, and so the price going down kind of means a lot to us. And we’re also seeing that when people renew the next year, they’re paying more often double. So it all really evens out. And people really do sometimes pay zero or one dollars. That’s the thing that happens. We’ve done the math. And if we were to charge all those people, if we were to up our minimum to $20, we’d only make another $1,000. It’s not worth it to have people it’s just an arbitrary enforcement of something. Who am I to say that $20 is the value of this thing? So, yeah, we really love that people get to pay what they want, and we have people pay $400.

[00:11:55.760] – Tessa Vierk

We have people pay $4, and they all get the same access to the same resource, and everybody contributes, and it keeps us running.

[00:12:04.270] – Garr Punnett

Have you all seen this model and you all advocacy for sharing and for establishing more equitable systems? How have you seen sort of the education of this take hold where people might be surprised at, oh, my gosh, this system works, or I get to use this and this is available in my community. What have you seen in terms of that response?

[00:12:27.610] – Tessa Vierk

There’s so much joy. Honestly, it creates so much joy when people come in and they’re stunned that they’re able to get what they need without having to jump through a million hoops or give us their credit card. And people are just delighted. They feel empowered. They feel ownership in what we do, and people want to tell their friends about us. So we really feel that like the back and forth, we really feel that when we give people power and we give them choice, that they reinvest in us in other ways. If it’s not the money, it’s through spreading the word or donating tools when they have them. We just do really feel like there is a very strong connection that goes both ways with our members and our users at the library.

[00:13:15.150] – Garr Punnett

I love that. And can we get to the real nitty gritty of how a tool library operates? What does this mean? How did you all start collecting tools? How do you start to then distribute those tools out? What does this mean on a per daily basis? Do you get it for an hour? Do you get it for a day? How does this actually work when something is rooted in the community and provides that type of operation to the community?

[00:13:42.130] – Tessa Vierk

Yeah, so we started a lot of our operations, and our policies were very basic when we started because we knew that we would need to adapt and we have adapted. And so that’s been really wonderful to see. So we’ve started out where we only provide memberships for individuals versus a nonprofit or a school or something. So you have to be an individual in a Chicago, and that’s basically it. You’re able to join. Our inventory includes power tools, hand tools. It includes gardening equipment, but it also includes lots of other things that Chicagoans don’t necessarily, necessarily have on hand or have access to things like camping equipment, for example, or specialty kitchen equipment, like stand mixers or food dehydrators. So we really run the gamut of all sorts of things that Chicago renters or homeowners might want to borrow. And then, yeah, it’s on a day to day basis, people are able to borrow things for a week and then they can renew them. But as we’re growing, we’re going to be adding to that. We are actually going to start lending to nonprofits, block clubs, schools and things next year. We’re going to have different kind of rules and policies for that.

[00:14:59.020] – Tessa Vierk

But we’re really excited to expand bit by bit and meet the needs of Chicagoans as we learn about them.

[00:15:04.620] – Garr Punnett

Can you speak to that programming? I think that’s super because you also mentioned that people give back in more ways than just monetarily. You probably have some volunteer efforts that I’m sure are successful with some of your members, but what does that mean in terms of programming that you’re also then providing back to the community? I saw one that I hope to attend, which was sort of a repair event. Yes. Can you speak more to that?

[00:15:29.590] – Tessa Vierk

Yeah. So in the tool library movement. There’s sort of like a sister or like a sibling movement out there called Repair Movement or Right to Repair or Repair Cafes. Where people are kind of coming together in communities all over the world to encourage repair for all the same reasons that you might expect to help empower people. Help them take care of their things. Help them have a smaller footprint on this planet. We partner with Chicago Public Libraries and this year we’re hosting a repair for a different library branch on the south and west side of Chicago every month. And they’re the cutest events. You should definitely come to Augar. They’re free for anybody in the community to come. They bring their broken things and we have the most amazing, talented volunteers who can sew or fix electronics or do woodworking and help people fix their stuff. And we’re actually really good at it. Our repair rate is really high.

[00:16:25.690] – Garr Punnett

I love that. I’m so excited. So then that sort of sister movement, then the Right to Repair movement. We’ve seen more traction as of late, actually, from a Right to Repair movement. Why do you think that is? Do you think that also is sort of that same covetesque effect where people want to do more with what they have and they want to be less reliant on the typical consumption pattern? How have you seen these sort of both of these movements grow in the last sort of two years?

[00:16:57.430] – Tessa Vierk

I think they’re definitely for the same reasons and we’ve done a little bit of polling with our member base and asked people, why did you join the tool library? Was it to save money? And saving money was a really big answer. I think it was our top answer. But our second most popular answer was people who wanted to participate in a different kind of system than just the straightforward extractive capitalist system. And that really surprised me because I think we used anti capitalist in the question, which felt kind of like strong language for certain people. And I was surprised that resonated with so many people that people wanted, they wanted a different way. And I feel like a lot of people are feeling the pinch of the status quo either with their budget or just with their frustration of not really getting the quality of things that they want the time. People are sick of their things being broken or expensive or having fewer options. So I feel like for all those reasons, people are wanting to have a little more choice and ownership and control over how they live their lives and how they take care of their things.

[00:18:02.650] – Garr Punnett

I like that choice aspect. This resonates with all of us, especially in this room on this podcast, where when you buy something that’s so expensive to have it then fail you so early to then have no options to recapture that value and then be forced to either buy another brand or spend money on another product or do whatever it is to get that original utility back. That’s a frustrating cycle. And so it is. I think. To your point. It’s definitely a part of that movement of saying. No. We want to take the agency back as consumers in order to really secure our lives and secure the spaces that we protect and we actually almost are proud of in that way. Where I think there’s so much pride built into what I see from your membership base and the expansion here in Chicago that that’s so important to keep giving people that agency and that pride and that resiliency for that type of program 100%.

[00:19:04.100] – Tessa Vierk

And we’re really working with people in all these ways in their daily lives. I’m sure the circular economy concept is industrial, it’s global, it’s all these things. But where the tool library and where repair fairs and repair cafes live is just helping promote and normalize and make accessible these concepts in people’s daily lives and just showing a better way. Like a way that communities of our future can look better. Can feel better and just be stronger. Give people more skills. More tools. Literally and figuratively. So that people can have that pride. The dignity of taking care of your home or learning a new skill without spending a ton of money for expensive trade school or a ton of materials that you might not use long term. So it’s common sense and people know it is. And so people respond very positively.

[00:20:03.630] – Garr Punnett

What would you say is the language that people most respond to? We have challenges using circular economy in average language or at least in our marketing because it can kind of wash over people. People are like, I don’t know what that is it seems intimidating, but I get the sharing thing. The sharing I understand. Do you guys ever use that type of language? Or how do you introduce sharing and then broader concepts to sort of your neighborhood or consumer base?

[00:20:32.940] – Tessa Vierk

That’s a funny question because we are constantly butting heads with capitalist language in our space where people say that they’re renting tools all the time and they’re not, they’re borrowing. So you’re renting a book from the library, people are constantly saying that they’re renting from us or that it’s rentals and there’s just this money, money like dollar signs everywhere in the language that we use to talk about objects that so far have value. Yes. So it’s really funny. So we’re constantly just having to reassert that this is the language of the people. These are better words, these are better actions. It’s borrowing. We’re sharing. People just are used to it. They’ve been so trained.

[00:21:17.430] – Garr Punnett

Yeah, it’s not in their vocabulary. Yes.

[00:21:20.140] – Tessa Vierk

Yeah. The vocabulary of sharing just is not available to us yet, which is really wild. But beyond that, just the concept of circular economy kind of the sustainability piece of what we do. I think people know it. It’s so easy to see it when you know it. They know that this is a better choice for not buying. But we’re still working on teaching people, like, the basic vocabulary about what borrowing is. So honestly, we don’t use the sustainability language as much as just the verbs of being in a community like this.

[00:22:03.670] – Garr Punnett

I love that idea because again, it’s starting with the basics of really re educating all of us. I mean, we’re doing that ourselves almost. You and I had to deconstruct these notions that we were indoctrinated with of value of things or how to connect more with your community. And so I just so resonate with that. So it makes sense that we almost have to start just with the basics of saying, hey, it’s not an exchange of money for a thing. This is a community resource that you get to have, you get to use this. I love that. What would you want to leave our audience with in terms of more ideas? I’d love to ask a couple more questions. We can get into how maybe people can get involved. But before we get to that concepts, what do you want to leave people with in terms of what sharing means, what borrowing means? How do we scale these systems across different communities and what this means to communities?

[00:23:09.130] – Tessa Vierk

Totally, I would just reassert and like, folks are listening to this. They’re probably familiar to some degree with circular economy and what Rheaply does. But we just need to move quickly and we need to keep talking about these things because in order for these fragile systems like those of two libraries, which are very small and underfunded, people are really putting themselves out there to make our world a better place. Right. Now. And we need to catch up. Like, funding needs to catch up. Our vocabulary needs to catch up because we’re still talking about the climate problem in terms of decades old in the spaces of funding for the most part, which is how we’re going to get things done. So traditional sustainability and environmental efforts, in my traditional, they’re usually like conservation. A lot of the money out there is for conservation, which is important. But we need to think about urban environments, to how our urban environments going to adapt and how our communities going to adapt. And so little projects like tool libraries do struggle kind of in the face of slightly outdated definitions of what our sustainability priorities are. So it’s very long winded, but I just encourage people to keep the buzz up, get more funding out there, get more people excited about newer, innovative ways to help people lead more sustainable lives.

[00:24:41.690] – Tessa Vierk

Because people are looking for answers. And tool like Race are really great answer, one of a million. But we’re one.

[00:24:47.650] – Garr Punnett

It’s the urgency and we need to keep it. And to that end, we’ve never done a direct call out like this, and I hope you all that are listening understand why. You all have a big event coming up. You’re starting to raise money. You’re starting to again look for a new space to expand your offering. How do people get involved? Where do people find out how they can donate? And what’s the next call to action for you all?

[00:25:16.930] – Tessa Vierk

No. I really appreciate that because we are this wonderful team of mostly volunteers and we just feel so strongly about the work we’re doing. So please donate to the Chicago Tool Library if that’s exciting to you. Every little bit of that will help us expand in Chicago, because expanding is what we need. The demand is so big, people want us in every neighborhood. We don’t have money for that yet. But also, maybe there’s a tool everywhere you live, and maybe you should go find them and donate to them or donate your time. Nonprofits always need help from generous professionals, legal, real estate, whatever. So in either of those ways, please support the Chicago Tool Library or other tool libraries because they’re really special spaces.

[00:26:01.330] – Garr Punnett

I love that. That’s a great place to end. Thank you, Tesla, so much for your time today. I look forward to having you on the next one. We get to dive even more in.

[00:26:09.340] – Tessa Vierk

Thank you.

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