Act: Inspiration

Repair Cafes build community across all social divides

April 29, 2022

Uplifting the work of Transition Berkeley organizers Bonnie Borucki, Linda Currie, Lori Hines, and Carole Bennett-Simmons. Written by Ayako Nagano, with the support of those mentioned.

Transition Berkeley has cultivated a community of practice that hits close to ground zero – a “culture of repair,” that demonstrates a way to live with more humility, making do with what we have by sharing knowledge and skills, one repair at a time.  Repair Cafes harness a library-system supported methodology that touches a diversity of people and interests. The bells that ring on the repair grounds throughout an event celebrates the completion of each repair – and total up to 100 in any four-hour event. Repair Cafes and fix-it clinics produce an excitement not unlike a dopamine-pumped day at the derby with your besties.

This elegantly simple community-based solution draws support from people across all cultural, gender, age and socioeconomic lines and provides a unique opportunity for them to gather, connect, and build relationships. This universal desire to waste-not attracts people of all ages, genders, race, ethnicity, languages, religions, economic status and abilities. Volunteers and paid staff come in to participate as:

  • The repair coaches,  who offer their skill sets and enjoy sharing  their know-how with  others,
  • The nearby University students, who chip in both technically and as volunteer event supporters,
  • The local non-profit groups with veteran organizers like Transition Berkeley, who sustain these efforts over time,
  • The general public, anyone with a broken object requiring repair, with time and willingness  to problem-solve and learn about repair.

Make no mistake, this isn’t the traditional “drop-it-off-and-we’ll-see-you-later” kind of outfit.

Clients sit with the repair coaches and together they diagnose and work to repair the item before them, building community and skills. To make your visits amply comfortable, Repair Cafes are always blessed with a local bounty of edibles, pizzas, coffee and tea, often donated by local restaurants and markets. But the Cafe also serves as a mingling space where community-members can chat and socialize. Every completed repair is an opportunity to celebrate with the ringing of a bell and a celebratory photo of the repair coach and participant. It’s part Party, with a bigger purpose.

Members of the public requesting that household items be repaired can sign up for an event beforehand online or show up in person on the day of the event. Useful repair tools and materials like duct tape, glues and lubricants, screws, wires and such are on site as a matter of course, in addition to the labyrinth of extension cords that provide each repair coach with lighting and power.

This location-based approach to community-building met its challenge when the pandemic first unfolded in March. Since then, some groups like Fixit Clinics have moved the events online, and its popularity has spread globally. Participants initially share their broken object with a bigger group, and then split off onto designated tables (or if it’s online break out rooms) for further discussion and support from individual repair coaches.

Transition Berkeley Repair Cafe. Image Credit: Christina Choate

Linda Currie, the co-director of Transition Berkeley, shared,

“Transition Berkeley is focused on helping younger people learn about repair. Our current project is to help Cal (U.C. Berkeley) students create an online Repair Training course that can be shared with high school students from Berkeley Technology Academy, a local high school. Repair coaches will be helping with demonstrations and hands-on repair and all of it will be done remotely. We’re hoping students will gain problem solving skills and the ability to fix their own things as well as think about jobs and career opportunities. We plan to repeat this course again when it can be done in person.”

The first Repair Cafe by Transition Berkeley was held on February 23, 2019. It was a featured event of a “Resiliency Fair,” which was a collaboration with the Berkeley Adult SchoolMartin Luther King Jr. Middle School and the Berkeley Times. A $5000 mini grant from helped with the initial cost of supplies and venue costs. Some local businesses generously provided donations of food, supplies and funds. Roughly 200 people attended the fair and about 80 people participated in the Repair Cafe along with 50 volunteers. Lots of items got repaired and harnessed great community spirit. The items repaired included radios, headphones, a stereo, coffee grinders and makers, mixers, a microwave, a juicer, several space heaters, many lamps, a slide projector, pairs of jeans, jackets, jewelry, several walkers, a tent, a scooter, a bike light, several toys and more.

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The Berkeley Adult School offered the venue, and helped with the logistics. Families and students from King Middle School ran the cafe to raise money for their class trip to Washington D.C. The Berkeley Times provided advertising at no cost and a partnering non-profit organization, the Culture of Repair was instrumental in providing organizational support and helping recruit volunteers. Transition Berkeley helped coordinate the event which included various people and groups providing information on emergency preparedness, personal health and well-being, growing and sharing food, earthquake insurance, community choice energy, adult school classes and the tool lending library. Collaborating with these various groups brought a variety of participants to the Repair Cafe and provided a rich and learning experience.

One participant who successfully repaired her crook-necked desk lamp exclaimed,

“Yes, and I learned how to do it myself!

Another senior participant who brought a ceramic space heater, was so elated after her successful repair that she said,

“Yes, yes, yes, Miracles of Miracles! Thank you so much. I felt today that I was part of a community.”

The owners of a broken coffeemaker shared,

“Yes, it was repaired. They explained what was wrong and told us how to fix it. It was a loose hose. We understand what needs to be done if it happens again. Thank you so much! & Kudos to the volunteers. Fun experience! “

2 minute video montage of images from Transition Berkeley’s Repair Cafe

You can see a video from the event, created by photographer, Christina Choate, here.

The second Repair Cafe, May 18, 2019, was held at the PLACE for Sustainable Living in Oakland, California. An experiential learning center featuring sustainable living practices. PLACE supports a number of ongoing D.I.Y., repair and craft activities on site. Their staff was very accomodating in helping us plan how we would host the event in their space. They provided many of the things we needed for successful repairs, such as large tables, adequate electrical outlets, etc. The PLACE also helped us with event outreach via their own website and networks.

By hosting the second event in a different location, we attracted some new repair volunteers and a different set of people showing up needing help. Despite the rainy weather, people showed up, resulting in lots of collaboration and successes that day.

Of particular note was a woman in her eighties who brought her heirloom doll (circa 1940s) in need of some support. She and Sean, the repair volunteer, created a stand for the doll, giving the doll renewed life, and lighting up the room with smiles.

Another highlight was a 1950s art deco style single-slice chrome toaster. The participant and Bryce the “fixer” solved two issues and they both learned something in the process. Another success involved an outdoor garden chair whose webbing had been ripped, making the chair unusable. Since no webbing material was available, our resident sewing expert, Cecelia Clark, used designer fabric she brought and worked with the participant to create a one-of-a kind functional work of art. The chair owner said, “It was a fantastic upgrade!”

Lots of other items were saved from the waste stream that day – including several radios, a food processor, several blenders, many pairs of pants, a pop-up tent, a reciprocity saw, a metal dolly, and more. The big question people kept asking was when the next Repair Cafe would be held.

The third Repair Cafe on November 2, 2019, was held at the Berkeley Technology Academy (“BTA”). The event was a collaboration with U.C. Berkeley’s Cal Zero Waste Department (“CZW”) and supported with a grant from the Chancellor’s Community Partnership. Transition Berkeley worked closely with the CZW manager and a student intern, to plan and host the event. CZW helped with outreach and event advertising to the campus community. They procured food donations from local businesses for the event cafe. Transition Berkeley met with BTA faculty and staff, recruiting some of them to volunteer in person at the event. CZW student interns helped set up and staff the actual event and cafe along with some BTA staff and students. About 25 volunteers helped set up and ran the event, 36 repair experts came, six more than signed up and roughly 100 people brought in broken items. The room was a buzz with repair excitement from the moment we opened its doors, to when we ended and started taking the room apart.

Transition Berkeley Repair Cafe. Image Credit: Christina Choate

This event featured the Alameda County Mobile Bike Repair, which was set up in the outdoor courtyard space. One of the employees, a BTA graduate, helped about a dozen people fix their bicycles. A participant stated:,

“My bicycle was successfully repaired. The bike mechanic was helpful in explaining the issues with my bike and made repairs as he could. I’ll be sure to tell my friends about the next repair cafe. Thanks!”

One participant, happy with her lamp repair, said,

“I learned something about repair today. I love how well organized it was! Thanks Linda, Lori and others. Mark (the repair expert) was patient, helpful, + kind! I love the repair cafe concept — reducing waste, keeping stuff out of landfills, being more sustainable, building community!

Nearly all the participants said they learned something about repair and would like to participate again, many offered to volunteer with future events. The Cal Zero Waste student interns were so excited by all the successful repairs, many stayed past their shifts to keep working and write the latest repair success tally on the dry-erase board. You can view the event video here.

All together, the three events attracted 204 participants , repairing 203 items. The number of broken Items successfully repaired was 142 (70%), the number of partially repaired items 41 (20%), and 20 items that were not repairable – bringing the tally of successfully and partially repaired items to 90%.

The Environmental impact was that 503 pounds or (.2515 tons) of waste was kept out of landfills, preventing the release of  1.03 metric tons of CO2.

In terms of volunteers, 47 (15 event support, 32 repair experts) attended the February event, 27 (12 event support, 15 repair experts) for the May event, and 54 (19 event support, 35 repair experts) for the November event, bringing the tally to 128 volunteers. The total volunteer hours contributed at all three events was estimated to be 512.

In doing our work, we’ve learned to apply the permaculture principles. For example, we need to stack functions wherever we can. We must get better at addressing the impacts of pollution, climate change and social justice AT THE SAME TIME. The Repair Cafes stacks functions in a holy trifecta – with our hands, hearts and heads.

  • Repair what’s physically broken (with our hands) – repairing our broken items.
  • Repair what’s socially broken (with our hearts) – repairing  community-relations across differences, race, age, ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic status.
  • Repair what’s ethically broken (with our heads) – a move from an extractive and throw-away mentality, with vast economic disparity, towards regenerative and zero waste ethic at its core.

Transition Berkeley Repair Cafe. Photo Credit: Christina Choate.

We have so much to repair and need to make up for lost time; only through the collective genius centered in our own communities will we be able to harness the solutions that will sustain us. Our Transition is no less than a concession as well as a celebration that we must join each other in co-creating the unknown, one healing repair at a time. Oprah once said that if we follow a greater purpose, then we could achieve anything. The path towards a just and sustainable transition is anointed with such greater purposes; from better relationships to nature, cooperative economic relationships, healthy soil, food, medicine, better collaborative governance – where the decision-makers are not above us nor the ill-affected below. Rather, we desire to co-create this world together, because we stand for a paradigm shift from Me to Us.

Bonnie Borucki, also co-director of Transition Berkeley, observed,

“I am most inspired by the sense of accomplishment and collaboration that comes from the repair coach and participant relationships. The trust and cooperation that goes into this relationship is a lesson we can apply towards repairing larger issues, such as changing a system that views resources and people as disposable, to a culture that cherishes the gifts the earth and our ancestors have given us.”

Teaser photo credit: Transition Berkeley Repair Cafe, Linda Currie

Tags: building resilient communities, reducing waste, Repair cafes, Reskilling