Talking with The freethinker behind Freespace

Name: Ilana Lipsett
Age: 31
City: San Francisco
Position: Co-founder of Freespace, a temporary, free, pop-up community center in San Francisco

J.: How did the idea for Freespace come about?
Ilana Lipsett: Freespace was inspired by the National Day of Civic Hacking (on June 1), which was organized by government agencies around the country to bring people together — civic-minded entrepreneurs, artists, people with tech skills — to improve their communities. Being that we’re already at the center of the tech world in San Francisco, we wanted to do something a little bit different.

Talking with … The freethinker behind Freespace

J.: How did you get a 14,000-square-foot warehouse at 7th and Mission for $1?
IL: We got support from the mayor’s Office of Economic Workforce and Development [where Lipsett had previously worked] and, with a real estate agent, we found this warehouse. After hearing that we wanted to have a completely free community space, [the owner] Ron Stolowitz gifted it to us for $1 for the month of June. For July, we launched an Indiegogo campaign to pay the [regular] rent.

J.: Anyone was welcome to visit and take a class, lead one, or simply come and hang out. How many people made use of the space when it existed in June and July?
IL: Between 5,500 and 6,000. Over the course of those two months, we had 209 events and 95 percent of them were participant-led. People just kept coming and saying, “I want to teach yoga, I want to do a documentary screening, I want to run a cooking class, a creative writing workshop.” There was such an overwhelmingly positive response. The only rules were no alcohol — and no money. We didn’t charge a dime for anything.

J.: There were film nights, murals, a community garden … Do any events in particular stick out for you?
IL: We wanted to take advantage of our location and shine a light on what’s happening in that neighborhood, so we had a panel with local activists, housing providers, a rep from the mayor’s office, and it became a conversation about what changes they’d seen over the past five years. There’s been such an influx of wealth from the tech companies in the area, and people want to talk about [how to parlay that] into civic engagement, community improvement, social change.

J.: What inspired you the most?
IL: We had people in there that were millionaires at Apple and Google, and we had people living on the street who were figuring out what they could contribute, and it was really beautiful to see that mixing of people. It’s not like in a soup kitchen where you can identify the helpers and the people who are in need. Everyone was working together and being inspired by the space itself.

J.: What’s next for your organizing team?
IL: We would definitely like to keep it going in one form or another. This was the experimental phase. But we saw that people really want to help make their city better … and we want to work with anyone who can help us make it sustainable. People can go to to follow our progress.

J.: You were a community organizer before getting your MBA in sustainable management at the Presidio Graduate School. Where does your love for this work come from?
IL: Civic engagement has always come naturally to me. I grew up in the East Bay Jewish community, spent my summers as a camp counselor at Jewish summer camps. My parents still belong to Temple Sinai in Oakland … and I was raised with pretty strong social justice, tikkun olam values, so that’s definitely part of it — believing that repairing the world starts at home.

“Talking with …” is a J. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.