Jun 08, 2018
This post covers my findings so far in the experiment of running the Berkeley Rationality and Effective Altruism Community Hub (REACH). Crossposted on EA Forum and LessWrong.
Around December 2017, I started thinking that it would be really nice to have a central place where community members could:
My initial thought was “we should buy a decommissioned church building!” However, I realized that funding such a large purchase would be pretty tricky, and that I could and probably should try out my ideas in a rental first and work toward buying a venue later.
People often talk about Berkeley as if it’s a magical community hub, but actually many community members feel lonely, depressed and/or anxious (including myself). This has been a theme that has been coming up in public spaces as far back as winter solstice 2014. I have seen several attempts to mitigate this issue, but none have seemed to stick.
Newcomers to the Berkeley community often find it difficult to become a part of the physical-space community—likely because much of the socializing happening in private spaces such as group houses, meaning that people only invite the folks they already know and trust.
There are LessWrong meetups in Berkeley and SF, and EA meetups in the South Bay, but travelling for at least an hour to get to a regular EA meetup felt too difficult to work into my schedule, and the Berkeley LW meetup hasn’t felt like the right space for me.
In 2017, Ray Arnold ran the Hufflepuff Unconference. At that event, I volunteered to join the bay area rationalist Welcoming Committee. That group accomplished a few things in the attempt to make the bay area community more inviting:
There were several other ideas which were discussed at the Project Hufflepuff meetings, but those saw less traction. In several cases, there were ideas for specific events or meetup series, but these failed in part due to lack of a convenient hosting venue.
These activities helped me see more of what was going on in the community, which led to me become the point person for new folks to contact (through the bayrationality site) when moving to the area or first getting involved. I found that many of them wanted to know how to get involved with the local EA and rationalist communities, but I didn’t have a great answer for them beyond pointing to the meetup links that were already on the site. The best I could come up with given the state of social activities was to say something to the effect of “Most of the interesting conversations happen at private events, but I can’t really invite you to other people’s events. Maybe we could meet up in person so I can get to know you so I can vouch for you?” They rarely took me up on it, and I generally never heard from them again.
I have been around and in the rationalist and EA communities since 2014, during which I attended a CFAR workshop and volunteered at workshops both in Berkeley and the UK. I attended the 2014 EA Summit and have attended or volunteered at EA global every subsequent year. I worked as a software developer at CEA from September 2017 - February 2018.
Since 2015, I have lived in rationalist and rationalist-adjacent group houses in Berkeley which I have helped find, fund, and coordinate.
Throughout January and February 2018, I thought more about the community center idea and brought it up with several community members. Most agreed that such a project should happen but that it would be a lot of work. I was working at CEA at the time, and several of the other staff members thought that creating a community center might be a good idea. However, it neither fit into my role there, nor into CEA’s role as the coordinators of the global community.
On my own time, I started a regular weekly EA meetup in February. CFAR let me use their office to host the first few meetings, but I found the process of getting willing people in the door to be challenging (there was a sometimes-locked gate, a locked door, and a locked elevator between participants and the space -- multiple literal barriers to entry). I looked around for an alternate space to use and discovered that the first floor of Event Horizon (a rationalist group house), which had previously been Cafe la Renaissance (home of regular rationalist meetups before it closed, and home to the CFAR and MIRI office before it was a cafe), was going to become available soon. Seven months before, it had been hastily converted into a living space with 4 bedrooms. I decided that it would be a good venue for a trial of the sort of space I’d been envisioning.
Using my own money, I rented the space for the month of March for $4500. I started cleaning the space and buying snacks, office supplies, and other items to make it usable as a community center, amounting to about another $1000. I moved my weekly EA meetups to the space, and soon I had a few other recurring events set up as well as regular coworking hours.
At this point, I applied for an EA community building grant. I heard back at the beginning of April that I had not gotten the grant, so I paid for April out of pocket as well. CEA’s stated reasoning was that my newly formed EA group in Berkeley lacked a track record, and that my metrics for success or failure were not defined clearly enough.
Shortly after receiving this news, I decided to attempt crowdfunding on Patreon. I got signal boosted by slatestarcodex (thanks!), Ben Hoffman and Ray Arnold and several folks on Facebook. In just over 2 weeks, we reached the first Patreon goal of $2,500/month, which in addition to money collected from people staying in the guest rooms or making one-time donations was barely enough to cover the rent on the space.
I started talking to BERI about the possibility of a grant in early April, and recently heard back that I did not get it, at least partially because of not yet being a 501(c)(3). They have mentioned that their newly announced project grants program is explicitly more open to folks without 501(c)(3) status, and separately I'll be achieving that status soon, so I will definitely be applying to the new program.
Since I currently don't have enough funding to pay for the space plus my time managing the space and I do need to pay my personal rent and other bills, I have taken on a part time (2 days per week) job, which means I have less time and mental capacity for running REACH operations than I would if I were able to do this as a full time job.
In May, a community member generously gifted the REACH with their old SUV.
Since then, I have worked to procure more/better furniture for the space (mostly cheap finds from Facebook Marketplace, picked up in the SUV). This has included a large bookshelf to house the many donated books for the shared library (currently using a paper-and-pen loan system which has to be entered into a spreadsheet -- a better system may be forthcoming).
I have tried a few ways of collecting usage data for the space. In late April, I tracked it manually for a week, with a total of 50 total tracked guests, possibly with some double counting of the same person on multiple days. I likely also missed some people who were here since I was not around on the weekend days or non-event evenings that week. The largest spike that week was at the EA meetup, which had 23 attendees. The largest event so far was the LessWrong 2.0 Launch Party in early April, which had at least 100 guests (for that party we co-hosted with Event Horizon upstairs and had multiple hangout spaces).
I have tried multiple data collection methods (shared spreadsheet, a Google form, pen and paper). The system that has seen the most success is the pen and paper system, though it depends on how prominently the sheet is displayed upon walking into the room. The more tidy and out of the way, the less people notice it -- more people notice it when it is essentially blocking people from coming all the way in. There is clearly a tradeoff between data collection and usability of the space, so I have chosen to make it somewhat less obtrusive at the expense of data integrity. I was going to put some statistics from the pen and paper sign in sheet but I haven’t done the data entry to analyze it yet and I want to get this post up sooner rather than later :)
Overall, EA meetups tend to get between 10 and 25 attendees depending on the topic. Game days get more attendees (closer to 40 over the course of the event) but attendance is difficult to guess from the Facebook events, even after the fact, due to many people opting for just hitting “interested” vs “going” even if they intend to go.
Recurring meetups (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly)
Some of these have been one off events:
There have typically been between 3 and 6 events each week, not counting coworking.
The two guest rooms were occupied about 25% of the time in March (I was not making a big push for this during the setup phase), increasing to around 60% for April, and around 75 or 80% for May.
I have gotten some critical feedback around the space not being very polished because of it still being a work in progress. My main thought here is that people who want a polished, nice place to stay should likely go for an AirBnB instead, but if people want a community-specific space, don’t yet know anyone in the local Berkeley community, and are excited about getting to know people here, REACH is a good option. REACH is not the best option available for a several-month stay; REACH is better for people who want a crash pad for a few days or up to a few weeks while they get to know people and look for longer term accomodations.
There has also been some awkwardness around community members not knowing how or whether to interact with overnight guests, and I hope to mitigate this by setting the expectation for visitors that they are likely to have folks try to talk to and get to know them :)
REACH has provided a much easier path to hosting new events, caused more accessible community events to happen, and resulted in a large number of connections and conversations that would likely not have happened in the counterfactual world-without-REACH.
Coworking has been nice, especially when the group decides to do exercise pomodoros (25 minutes of work, 5 min of exercise and chatting). There are some days when the only people around are me and volunteers. The space is good for working if you’re up for using a laptop on a couch or at a table in a large room, but not as good for things like Skype calls (there is a side room, but the internet there is often spotty) or tasks that require external monitors (there are currently 2 that are available to borrow but there isn’t a ready-to-use setup where you can just plug in a laptop).
I have been able to offer crash space to almost everyone who has requested it. I could likely be filling the rooms more fully with AirBnB (non ideal since I want to keep it community-oriented) or advertising the space more aggressively within the community (which I am arguably doing right now).
There has been a fair amount of low-key spontaneous hanging out, especially on weekends. I am not sure if it has become the default place to meet up with people in the community, but there is at least a subset of the community using it that way.
The goal that I’ve had the least success with so far is having a place that is especially kid-friendly. This is largely because the space does not have good sound-isolation and is not big enough to have kid-centered activities (often loud and boisterous) at the same time as adult-centered activities (often requiring relative quiet for discussions), and right now there are significantly more adults than children in the community.
Most of the feedback I’ve received from members of the Berkeley community has been quite positive, with several members choosing to increase their pledge amounts after spending significant time in the space and finding it valuable. Many people have expressed gratitude that the space exists.
If you have anything you’d like to share about your experiences with REACH, please add it in the comments! I would prefer to keep the comments on this post mostly focused mainly on people’s individual experiences with REACH and clarifying questions about the project. I am hosting a pre-EAG party tonight and will be volunteering at EAG this weekend so may be slow to respond to comments. If you have harsh critical feedback for me, I’d prefer to receive it privately and have a chance to consider and address it before it is posted publicly.
The landlord raised the rent fairly steeply this month from $4,500 to $6,000 (possibly illegally, looking into that -- I thought she wanted to raise it starting in August when she wants me to sign a year-long lease). I had a few days of panic while pulling together the funds to make the payment, but after reaching out to some community members, the shortfall was quickly made up with one-time donations. I am planning to contact the Berkeley rent board and will also be scouting potential alternative locations in case that doesn’t work out. If anyone has experience with the rent board, or knows of potential alternate locations, please let me know! The landlady wants me to decide whether or not I will sign a new lease by July 1 (I have in fact not signed anything with her yet, as I am currently subletting).
I have filed paperwork to turn REACH into a 501(c)(3). The papers have been submitted but I’m still waiting on a few things before I can set up tax-deductible donations and employer matching. I don’t know enough to have timelines on when that will become possible. If you have expertise in this domain and would be up for giving advice, I would be very grateful! Use firstname.lastname@example.org to REACH out about this.
Future Funding Plans
I am planning to re-apply for the next round of CEA’s EA Grants now that we are more established. The space requires at least one person to manage it, and it's nearly impossible to recruit good candidates to work for free long term. There are plenty of people willing to *help*, but without someone coordinating and making sure that offers are followed up with concrete action, projects like this tend to falter. I am not sure if that person should continue to be me or if I should hand it off to someone else and get another tech job so that I can contribute financially instead of via labor. That said, I plan to be the person running it until it gets fully funded so that I am not asking someone to take on an unpaid job. If you know of other applicable grants that I (as a community organizer) or REACH might apply for, let me know. If you have nominations for a better person to run the day to day operations, let me know about that as well, or REACH out to one or more of the people in the appreciation section at the end of this post.
Come join us for coworking or events! If it wouldn’t be a hardship for you, pay what you can based on how much you value the events either through Patreon or one-time donations, but if money is a bottleneck for you, please don’t worry about it. Just to prime people with some possible amounts, maybe $5 - $10 for individual events that you find valuable.
The REACH calendar still has room for holding evening events (either recurring or one off). These would need to be coordinated by community members, since I am already at capacity with the recurring events that I run. For folks who are new to the space, I would prefer to oversee any large events the first time or two they host to get a sense of their logistical capabilities. After I feel comfortable with them, I would be happy to have them run events without my direct involvement (beyond ensuring the event goes on the calendar and Facebook page). To run an event, first check in with me about the idea, and if I approve the event idea, check the calendar for available dates and fill out this form to officially request your event. I ask for a contribution to the space for private events that require exclusive use of the main space (usually around $100, but could be more or less depending on the type of event and level of imposition on guests, as well as taking your budget into consideration), but events that are free and open to the community are free to host. If you are planning to charge attendees, talk to me about it and we’ll work out rates.
If you have an event idea but don’t want to host it alone, I can try to put you in touch with someone who can co-host (possibly myself). I can also provide snacks and help with catering if you are willing to reimburse me for those things. I can also help you with furniture rearrangement, speaker and projector setup, and other logistics.
Tessa Alexanian, the main organizer behind the bio-risk meetups, has also offered help and advice for people wanting to start new recurring meetups (though please wait until after EA Global to contact her, since she is coordinating volunteers at the conference!).
As mentioned above, there is still a lot that can and should be done to improve the space. If you are interested in volunteering time and effort rather than donating and it would not be a hardship for you, please REACH out to me (no, that joke hasn’t gotten old yet). Currently, the best way to contact me about REACH-related matters is email@example.com
Check out the Facebook page or the REACH subsection on the bayrationality site if you want more info. There is also a Discord server, which I will not link here for privacy reasons, but if you want to join it send me a bit of information about yourself and why you would like to join the server at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is primary for people who at least occasionally use the space or have contributed to the space in some way.
Several folks have helped set up and improve the space.
All of this support has been incredibly valuable. A community center cannot function without a community. The community has shown up to make this this place a real community hub.
While REACH is still a work in progress, it is getting a fair bit of usage and many of the people who frequent it seem to be getting value out of it. Perhaps we should find a cheaper venue, but there are definite advantages to the current location (near BART, walkable from many community members’ homes). I think it is important to keep it mostly free to use the space.