A room of one’s own for young designers
By Sarah Wesseler
January 20, 2017
While teaching design and building in public schools over the past eight years, Emily Pilloton observed a disheartening pattern. “In a [coed] classroom where we were using a lot of tools that are predominantly associated with male work, when I would ask the entire class to do something, a lot of the girls who were proficient wouldn’t volunteer,” she said. “And in a work space or construction site where we were working in a group, 80% of the time the girls would assume a secondary role.” This dynamic worried Pilloton, but didn’t surprise her; she remembers gender dynamics holding her back as a child as well.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine her feeling unconfident in any setting. In 2008, frustrated with the commercial design world, she used $1,000 in savings to found a nonprofit she called Project H. When a school superintendent offered an opportunity to bring the program to rural North Carolina she jumped at it, spending three years helping students plan and build projects that became recognized as exemplars of the growing field of social impact design.
She’s now back in her native Bay Area, where Project H has been based out of Berkeley’s REALM Charter School for the past five years. Soon after her arrival there, Pilloton started a girls-only after-school program to help female students grow their skills and confidence.
Until recently, the program was located in the same high school classroom where she taught during the day. But this left much to be desired from both a practical and a symbolic perspective. “I’ve always wanted to have a space for this program that was a ‘This is a room of my own,’ Virginia Woolf–type thing,” she said.
Last September, she opened a dedicated home for the program now called Girls Garage. A sun-filled commercial space in West Berkeley that was once a martial arts gym, it houses a large workshop on the ground floor and classroom space upstairs.
One recent afternoon, students from local elementary and junior high schools built plywood chairs and discussed an upcoming skateboard project. Their class, which Pilloton calls “a little more experimental” than most, meets each Monday for eight weeks. On other nights, girls from a variety of backgrounds gather for lessons in metalsmithing, physical computing, woodworking, and more. About half of the students have scholarships covering all or part of the $300 course fee.
While pulling zip ties through holes in the plywood, a diminutive fourth grader named Olivia thought back on her previous Girls Garage class. “We made catapults,” she said, “and we did some laser etch thing.” Asked about her favorite part of the program she said matter-of-factly, “I like everything. Mainly the people, I guess, if I had to choose.”
At the next table, ponytailed sixth-grader Gabby, also a repeat student, surveyed her zip-tie handiwork. “Are these tight enough?” she asked instructor Ale Utrera. A trained furniture designer, Utrera is one of eight teachers on the all-female staff. Three work full-time; all have backgrounds in the building trades, design, or education.
I asked Pilloton how she envisioned the organization’s future. “I’m not one of those people that has grand dreams of scale or a Girls Garage in every city. I care about this place and what girls walk in with and walk out with,” she said. “I definitely care about having girls leave with experiences and messages that change the way they move through the world. And those things happen through personal relationships and the type of challenging physical work we do here together.”