The finished farmer's market at dusk
As every designer and design educator knows, the hands-on experience of bringing an idea from paper to product goes far beyond a letter grade. Yet primary and secondary school curriculums rarely inspire the depth of dedication required to these kinds of potentially transformative workshops. Designer/activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are among the exceptions: following their "design revolution roadshow," they've since brought design thinking to underprivileged areas like Bertie County, North Carolina—the poorest in the state—through Studio H, the education arm of their larger Project H initiative. Even more, they did it with a mid-project salary cut, forcing them to depend on grant money and credit.
Studio H students Kerron Hayes (left) and Cameron Perry (right)
Directed by Patrick Creadon (the man behind Wordplay, a documentary about New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz), If You Build It is a documentary about their experience teaching ten students the power of design and what a community-focused effort can do to the moral of the area. Over the course of the year-long curriculum, Pilloton, Miller and a few volunteers worked with the students created a farmer's market pavilion from the ground up. The class turned out to be much more than a mere —check out the trailer:
We had the chance to chat with Miller and Pilloton, whom we last spoke to back in 2009, about the task at hand and what it really took to engage a group of students who openly didn't buy into the idea—at first. Here's what they had to say:
Core77: What were some of the lightbulb moments in the class when it comes to getting students excited about the project at hand? From the trailer, it seems like creating the actual structure wasn't the only (or biggest) challenge.
Emily Pilloton: There really were no lightbulb moments, just slow victories that unfold through relationships with students. Most designers or architects aren't used to bringing others' ideas to life—it's all about their own vision. With our students, our primary job was to help them fall in love with something and then make that passion a reality. For some of our students, it was typography. For others, it was welding. We got them excited by listening to them then pushing on them and giving them all the resources at our disposal to make something real.
Matthew Miller: Though challenging, the design and construction of everything we did that year was far easier than the day-to-day lesson planning and management of ten high school students. Being a high school teacher for the first time was a crazy humbling experience and I have so much admiration for core curriculum teachers that do this work everyday with so much less autonomy than I have as an elective teacher. It can be a very rewarding job when those "aha" moments happen, but most days it feels like a thankless job for way too little pay.
That said, the best moments were always upon completion of the object we were focused on. That could be a scale model or the actual finished piece. When kids see the results of their efforts they understand the power of the design process and come to see it not as a waste of time but as a valuable method of production.
Your team made a huge impact in Bertie County by creating a town commonplace. How do you see your experience playing into the town's livelihood?
Pilloton: There is an amazing spectacle to architecture: seeing it come out of the ground, built by teenagers—male, female, black, white—was a sort of theatrical engagement for the town. Everyone was engaged in it in some way. Design as a process is powerful, but sometimes invisible. I love the idea that brick-and-mortar building, plus some youthful audacity, can bring a community together simply because it creates a conversation; or sometimes a "what the heck is going on?" stream of questions.
Miller: At its best, design (especially that which is most intentional) reflects and redefines the vernacular. It should inspire and vanish—almost simultaneously—as it becomes the backdrop of our lives.
Student Erick Bowen (left) works alongside instructor Matthew Miller
Studio H student Jamesha Thompson with a bike she built herself with help from Miller
Where did you find the motivation to keep going after your pay was cut mid-project?
Pilloton: It wasn't even an option to quit. It was never even a possibility that the farmers market wouldn't get built, or that we would bail on our students. By the time our pay was cut, we knew our students by name. We knew their families. We were invested, and more than that, we were excited. Having someone to prove wrong is always a motivation for us. But what kept us there was our students who showed up even before school started, anxious to get started.
Miller: Motivated? More like stubborn and too proud to give the Kellogg Foundation back its grant money. We had moved there, 3,000 miles from California—leaving or giving up was never an option. Finding a way to navigate all of this terrain was frustrating, but critical for our own "buy-in" to the place and people.
What are you most proud of with this project?
Pilloton: I'm proud of our students and the grit they demonstrated in getting a 2,000 sq. ft. structure built in 100 degree heat with so many odds against them. I'm proud that they have grown into young adults who believe that anything is possible. And I'm proud that we pulled something off that a few people were betting against. Design is about making things better, no matter what. I'm proud that this spirit is a legacy we left in Bertie County.
Miller: I'm most proud of the kids who stuck it out that summer. It was a long year. We had 15 hours of face-time with them every week for two straight semesters. By June we were all tired of looking at one another. And when it came time to get out there and get it done there were a few no shows. But the tenacity and hard work of those that did come out every week continues to inspire me as I go into each new semester of this program.
Vendors sell produce at the grand opening of the finished farmer's market
Studio H voluneteer (left) and student Kerron Hayes (middle) and Alexia Williams (right) construct a piece of the pavilion base
A year-long commitment with an outside organization seems like it could be a big jump for a school. Was it hard getting the school to approve a class like this?
Pilloton: In Bertie County, yes. At our new school, REALM Charter in Berkeley, it wasn't hard at all. In Bertie, we often apologized rather than asking permission. The work and the students were our best proof of concept. Now in our new location, we can't keep up with the excitement and demand for our program. I love convincing people that our work matters, but I also love working with people who are kindred spirits and help students thrive.
Miller: Despite the firing of the superintendent who brought us to Bertie County, the administrative staff at the high school was intent on following through with his vision. The principal at the time did try to throw us under the bus at one point, but we had enough community and parent support to override his lack of vision. So, I guess it worked because folks outside the "system" rallied to make it work.
What advice do you have for other education systems looking to recreate this experience?
Pilloton: I don't so much believe in recreation or replication but the spirit of transformation and doing things that some people think are crazy. A lot of institutions, not just school districts, are stuck doing the same things and making the same mistakes. There is a growing generation of creative professionals, young educators and others who want to shake things up. The best advice I can give to other educational systems is to let those "crazy" folks in the door and give them the space to build meaningful experiences for students through their vision. And above all, to listen to students and families. They are far wiser than we are and should be given much more of a voice in shaping their own education.
Miller: Hire young, energetic, design teachers and give them a wide berth. Our kids and teachers are being tested to death and, unfortunately, standards based curricula are only becoming more prevalent in America. But we can offer alternatives and electives that support a school's core initiatives.
Studio H students Colin White (left), Jamesha Thompson (middle) and Alexia Williams (right) experiment with structural integrity
From left to right: Studio H students Erick Bowen, Kerron Hayes and Colin White burn cow patties for their first project, which focused on water filters
What kind of reaction are you hoping to see with "If You Build It"?
Pilloton: All we can hope for is that people leave feeling like "everything is possible." There are no excuses. We are all filled with ideas we never bring to fruition. It's time we quit the talking and make these amazing ideas happen. If we can inspire one school or one organization to take a leap of faith and swing for the fences on an idea that just might change everything, then we will view the film as a huge success.
Miller: I hope it inspires more superintendents and principles to take chances. We effed up an entire generation of kids with No Child Left Behind. I think its time to be a little more creative with our funding and act locally to offset the national standards that are whitewashing public education.
Pilloton: Project H is now based in the Bay Area, with 216 Studio H students at REALM Charter School. We have expanded to 8th-11th grade and added new teachers at the middle school and high school level. The most exciting thing for me is our new Camp H program, which is an afterschool and summer building program for young girls, 5th-8th grade. Standing next to a fearless 10-year-old girl with a welder is a very rewarding and personal experience for me and I see these girls becoming young leaders in ways they never thought possible. We have also recently made all our lesson plans, lectures, readings and project briefs available to all through our Toolbox on our website, so that anyone can download and adapt our program in their own community or school.
Miller: This year I started a new program in Colorado called (co)studio. I'm teaching 120 kids a week. I want to continue to do this work and eventually find a way to teach young designers to successfully run similar programs across the country. I'm finding in Colorado (this being the third state in four years I've started this program) that this work is relevant, replicable and desirable. Who knows, maybe the Johnny Appleseed approach is worth continuing, but I really want to inspire more designers to take on this work.