“The reason we open our doors—our mission—is to empower these new generations to be bold in their thinking, and to understand that they have the literal tools in their hand to change the world in really beautiful ways.”
In the summer of 2022, 35 teenaged girls and gender-expansive youth spent just two weeks constructing a massive, toolbox-shaped float for the San Francisco Pride Parade. The toolbox, bright red and brimming with giant tools in a rainbow of colors, required that its builders, students in the Girls Garage Young Women’s Design + Building Institute, learn to use jig saws, impact drivers, and chop saws—challenging machinery by any measure—on the job. Girls Garage, based in California’s Bay Area, is a design and construction school offering programs and workshops for girls and gender-expansive youth aged 9-18. For Kristy Higares, the organization’s director of development, moments like the creation of the toolbox float—and the newly-learned skills it necessitated— drive their mission. “On a cellular level, something changes inside young folks who get to see something they built living out in the community. It creates such a sense of empowerment and purpose."
Girls Garage was founded in 2013 by executive director Emily Pilloton-Lam, spurred by many what-ifs and possibilities, such as: What would happen if you created space and meaningful projects? What if female instructors led them? How would the world be different if it were built by women? Pilloton-Lam studied architecture in school but realized it wasn’t going to be a fulfilling career for her. “She was interested in how we build the world we live in,” says Higares. She shifted her focus to architecture built for and by local communities, working with North Carolina high school students to design and construct community projects and eventually relocating to Berkeley. “Emily noticed that the girls and gender-expansive youth in her class were reluctant to answer questions or volunteer, even though she knew they were totally capable of it,” Higares shares. The first Girls Garage summer camp, launched ten years ago, was advertised via flyer.
To date, Girls Garage students—most of them complete beginners before enrolling—have built or helped construct 184 community service projects for the organization’s nonprofit partners. The organization comprises various programs—weekend and summer-length workshops, semester-long classes for after-school—and each program’s goals vary: sometimes it’s teaching students how to weld; sometimes it culminates in an art project, designed by students. But Girls Garage typically works in service of the community. In 2022, the 36 middle-school students who were part of the Builder Bootcamp built 15 garden boxes for Feed Black Futures, which provides fresh food to Los Angeles- and Bay Area-based Black mothers and caregivers whose lives have been affected by the carceral system. The year prior, 23 students built colorful benches for the Youth Spirit Artworks’ Tiny House Village, Homebase, and People’s Park—three organizations serving unhoused communities in the Bay. “But this radical act of design and construction is not only transformative to the greater communities they’re helping,” Higares notes. “It inspires young folks to understand that they are change agents. We’ve matriculated, I believe, four generations of graduates through Girls Garage, and about 50% of them are going into male-dominated fields—engineering, science, construction.”
This summer, Girls Garage’s Young Women’s Design + Building Institute and Advanced Design/Build cohorts will both build a sauna for the Shelterwood Collective, an Indigenous-, Black-, and queer-led land stewardship collective; most recently, the students built a 20-foot geodesic dome for the Eames Institute. “What’s really inspiring,” says Higares, “is seeing the response to architecture designed and constructed by these young folks in service of nonprofits who provide greater services. It’s astounding–they are literally shaping the built environment in profound ways.”