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Interview with Emily Pilloton

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Emily Pillo­ton is the Founder and Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the nonprofit Girls Garage. A designer, builder, educa­tor, and author, she has taught thou­sands of young girls how to use power tools, weld, and build projects for their communities.

Emily Pillo­ton knows the power of power tools. As a designer, builder, educa­tor, and founder of the nonprof­its Project H Design and Girls Garage, she uses archi­tec­ture and design to trans­form commu­ni­ties and conven­tional class­room educa­tion. Her work has been featured in national media outlets, The TED Stage and the filmIf You Build It.

Along with her nonprofit work, she is a Lecturer at the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia Berke­ley and writer. Her new book, Girls Garage, was released earlier this month. The FS spoke to Emily about how design and building inspire. 

You have an educa­tional back­ground in architecture/​design and worked as a designer; how did you get inter­ested in the field?

As a kid, I used to love taking things apart, drawing floor plans of my room, build­ing tree­houses, and getting dirty in the woods near my house. I’ve always been drawn to the visceral expe­ri­ence of working with my hands and the certainty of whether things work” or don’t work.” I remem­ber taking apart my grandmother’s rotary phone to figure out how it rang, and playing with this German construc­tion set, tubes and elbow joints, called Quadro. Then when I was in high school, I had the amazing oppor­tu­nity to travel to Belize with teenagers from around the country, and learn how to build. 

Along­side commu­nity members and teenagers, I learned how to mix concrete, level a field with a machete, frame a roof, and we built a huge gazebo and park filled with public furni­ture. I think I was 16 years old. It was this expe­ri­ence that cemented (pun intended) for me my love of archi­tec­ture, because it made me realize what I was capable of. This expe­ri­ence of creat­ing space with my own two hands for a greater purpose told me that I could have an impact in the world and that the world itself could always be made better.

You worked as a designer in a tradi­tional day-job and then quit to start your own furni­ture company. What led you to that, and can you talk about the experience?

After grad­u­ate school at the School of the Art Insti­tute, where I learned how to weld and hone my build­ing craft in multi­ple media, I actu­ally only took a tradi­tional day job so that I could pay my bills and be a real adult,” but contin­ued to make custom furni­ture in my attic in the evenings. It was a real hustle, working 9 – 5 in a job I didn’t love at a furni­ture company or design firm, but then coming home to work a second shift to make work that I did love. It was all worth it and those first tradi­tional” jobs taught me a lot about what moti­vates people, what I’m good at (problem-solving, spatial reason­ing, etc), and also what I’m very bad at (working in a cubicle, compro­mise, etc). 

The last tradi­tional job” I had was at a retail company for which I was a store archi­tect. I made it three weeks before I quit. There was a light­bulb moment” when I just looked up during this 2‑hour meeting and real­ized, Wow, this cannot be how I am spend­ing my time. This cannot be what archi­tec­ture has become for me.” I remem­bered that feeling on the jobsite in Belize where I was covered in dirt and felt the connec­tion between my own labor and real impact, and decided that I needed to reclaim that feeling. So I quit and never looked back. That was in 2007, and I’ve been commit­ted to doing the kind of design/​build work that I first discov­ered as a teenager ever since.

What then led you to start a non-profit related to design­ing, improving communities?

Shortly after leaving my last tradi­tional job,” I founded Project H Design. I was living with my parents and had $1000 in my bank account. I was 26 years old. I founded the orga­ni­za­tion as a nonprofit because I knew it would hold me account­able to always working towards impact, rather than profit or some exter­nally defined metric of success. I called it Project H Design because on a napkin I scrib­bled some brain­stormed words that repre­sented the soul of this nascent idea: heart,” human­ity,” health,” happi­ness,” hammer.” They all started with an H, and I figured I could always change the name later (which 11 years later, I finally have). 

Your non-profit now is Girls Garage. Why was it impor­tant to you to focus your design and build­ing program towards girls?

The more I was teach­ing and leading co-ed groups of teenagers, who were incred­i­ble and talented and deeply under­es­ti­mated, the more I couldn’t escape the very female expe­ri­ence of being on a construc­tion site, both for myself and my female students. At least 15% of our energy as girls and women, on a construc­tion site, or in predom­i­nantly male spaces, feels like it must be put towards proving we belong, that we’re qual­i­fied enough, or that we know how to do what­ever is neces­sary. It’s exhaust­ing. I had female students who were beyond creatively bril­liant, who I observed, when I asked someone to go cut pieces on the chop saw, doing the mental calcu­lus, weigh­ing their confi­dence in their own skills with the inevitable nego­ti­a­tion of judg­ment or disbe­lief if they volun­teered. Often in the 5 seconds to do this calcu­lus, a male student would already have picked up the wood and walked over to the saw. 

I ended up pulling groups of female students aside, working just us as girls and women, and the feeling was game chang­ing. There was no self-censor­ing or doubt, only the work in front of us that we all knew we knew how to do. Girls Garage grew not out of the frus­tra­tion of co-ed spaces but out of the magic that comes from being amongst sisters who believe in you. That cata­lyst is hard to describe, and for young women, it’s an invi­ta­tion to be their fullest selves, to never ques­tion whether they belong. In many ways the power tools become metaphoric for our power as women, and we work hard to culti­vate both the tech­ni­cal skills AND the life skills that will serve girls well. 

People will ask me, well what about boys garage?” And I tell them that Boys garage is every garage in America.” Girls Garage is not about man-hating or self-pity or even an overt girls rule” narra­tive. To carve out phys­i­cal space for girls and women and to say, This belongs to us,” is inher­ently polit­i­cal and inher­ently power­ful. It is unapolo­getic. And the fact that we’re using power tools in that space is the real power, because it says to girls, not only is this place for you, it’s a place you can do all the things people have told you you can’t or shouldn’t.

For students, do you see design as a way to reach into multi­ple disci­plines — math, science, even English etc.? 

I think design and build­ing (and espe­cially design and build­ing within a commu­nity) is at the center of a huge Venn diagram, where math, art, social science, and many other subjects inter­sect. For a lot of young women who partic­i­pate in Girls Garage projects, it’s through this work that abstract concepts become real, and there­fore stick. The way we teach geom­e­try, for example, is through equa­tions and work­sheets. But in build­ing, you actu­ally have to know how to calcu­late an angle or an area, because you need that infor­ma­tion to cut pieces, join them, or keep things from falling down. It’s a bit like being told the defi­n­i­tion of the word happi­ness,” versus feeling happi­ness for your­self. To build some­thing using geom­e­try is feeling” it, remem­ber­ing it, and under­stand­ing it in terms of your own work and creation. 

Have you seen it improve student learn­ing and if so, can you give an example? Last summer, our Advanced Design/​Build cohort of high school girls, many of whom have been with Girls Garage since they were 9 or 10 years old, built a 21-foot-long public parklet bench. The bench itself is made up of close to 500 lengths of 2x4, each cut a specific miter angle to create the overall appear­ance of an undu­lat­ing land­scape. The geom­e­try is complex, as the dimen­sions change along 3 differ­ent axes over 21 feet. One day we were trying to resolve one of the angles and I asked a team of 3 girls to go work it out on the white­board. A few minutes later, I came over to check on them and they were running inverse tangent calcu­la­tions for each of the miter angles. I watched in awe as they arrived at 21.5 degrees, with a 2‑degree shift for each bench rib.” So this is how learn­ing can look and feel, where you don’t even really recog­nize that you’re learn­ing geom­e­try because it’s just part of a neces­sary process of problem-solving. There’s no work­sheet, but there is defi­nitely now a gorgeous bench built by 14 high school girls.

You talk about Design with — not for,’ which is far more chal­leng­ing with a commu­nity that a single client. What are some of the most impor­tant ways you have found to make sure the students/​designers and commu­nity members are involved and the design meeting the needs? 

The projects our teen girls build at Girls Garage are always outward-facing. Every project has a commu­nity client and a real set of constraints and needs. This approach is partly about being of service, and putting skills to work on tangi­ble chal­lenges in our commu­nity, but it also just results in better projects. When there are constraints of time, money, many cooks in the kitchen, and a commu­nity of diverse voices, it requires you to listen, to respond, to ask ques­tions, and to find a solu­tion that genuinely works for every­one (aka the best solution). 

Our girls are currently build­ing a huge chicken coop struc­ture for an urban farm, and instead of us blindly design­ing and build­ing a struc­ture without context or conse­quence, we have listened to the organization’s needs, looked at the context of the other struc­tures, asked how employ­ees and farm volun­teers will use and main­tain the coop, and even what the chick­ens might want. All of these ques­tions help us make design deci­sions based on a set of crite­ria and values, which actu­ally makes the end result better, more long-lasting, more beloved. In a more philo­soph­i­cal sense, our entire built envi­ron­ment will always be better off if there is a diverse group of people at the table design­ing, shaping, and build­ing it. We all deserve to play a role in the author­ship of our own world.

Do you still build furniture? 

I pour all my creative builder” energy into the projects I build with Girls. I find so much more grat­i­fi­ca­tion now from helping bring their ideas into the world than my own. I spend a ton of time repair­ing and main­tain the tools at Girls Garage, which is one of my favorite tasks because it takes me back to the 7‑year-old girl taking apart my grandmother’s tele­phone and figur­ing out how the world works. 

Have a creative hobby aside from the creative work you do?

I’m always into some random activ­ity that often takes over my house or garage. There’s almost always some pile of stuff that repre­sents my latest hobby, from elec­tri­cal work to tree iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, kombucha-making, or water­color. I am phys­i­cally inca­pable of not being active and making things, so it matters less what it is, and more that my builder-muscles are always in use.

Right now your Girls Garage programs are only in the Berke­ley area — is that why you wrote the book Girls Garage? Who did you write it for?

I wrote the Girls Garage book because I wanted to invite girls every­where to join a move­ment of fear­less builder girls and women. The girls who attend our in-person program­ming at the Girls Garage work­shop in Berke­ley are trail blazers and leaders and will no doubt go on to do incred­i­ble things. I feel priv­i­leged to have witnessed their work first­hand and helped them prac­tice and hone their skills in an inti­mate setting. But I also recog­nize that there are girls around the country and world who may not have access to similar program­ming. Even though we don’t have plans to fran­chise” because of our commit­ment to the place­ness” of our current commu­nity, I think the Girls Garage book is a great place to start, with no barrier of entry. The book is essen­tially 7 years of Girls Garage knowl­edge, projects, and love poured into 320 pages. I wrote the book in the same way I talk to girls who attend classes, with uncon­di­tional support, acces­si­ble language, and also a respect for their innate intel­li­gence and creativ­ity. So I hope it’s an invi­ta­tion to begin, to use new tools, to build some­thing and say I built that.”

It’s hard to get around what’s happen­ing now. How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day activities?

This is a chal­leng­ing moment for every­one, in so many ways. As an orga­ni­za­tion, and a nonprofit that relies on a phys­i­cal space, it’s been very hard for us to not be able to run in-person classes. The face-to-face time we spend with girls is our great­est invest­ment and currency, and so many of the intan­gi­bles get lost when we aren’t able to gather as cohorts of girls and women. That said, when shelter-in-place went into effect, we imme­di­ately said, Well okay, let’s do this.” We didn’t miss a beat. Almost overnight, we tran­si­tioned all of our in-person after-school classes to virtual classes, sent enrolled students bank boxes full of mate­ri­als and tools for class projects, and contin­ued to meet weekly via Zoom. We also created video and virtual content acces­si­ble to all fami­lies every­where, from a series called Tool School to indi­vid­ual design chal­lenge videos on Instagram. 

We compiled and distrib­uted over 200 take-home builder kits” and starter tool sets to local girls fami­lies, which included all of the mate­ri­als, tools, and instruc­tions to build a toolbox or a bird­house. Our teen girls also teamed up with a local coali­tion called People’s Protec­tive Equip­ment, and at Girls Garage we assem­bled over 1500 face shields that were distrib­uted at no cost to health care workers around the country. 

So, even though our work looks very differ­ent, it has still been constant and commit­ted. In this moment, we know that our girls, in their own homes, need to feel supported and connected and inspired to keep going, and in that way Girls Garage is even more impor­tant. Many of the soft skills we don’t overtly adver­tise, and the deep conver­sa­tions we hold with girls around iden­tity, doubts, confi­dence, and agency, are both paying off and becom­ing even more urgent. We feel grate­ful to be trusted and looked to by girls for the sense of uncon­di­tional support, beyond just power tools, that we all need right now.

Girls Garage: How To Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build The World You Want To See, Emily Pillo­ton (author), Kate Binga­man-Burt (artist) www​.girls​garage​.org/book