The Power in Our Own Hands
Building self-reliance with
Pollinate Farm & Garden and Frailty Myths
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Cynthia Matzger
Hammers are pounding, saws are buzzing, and sawdust is flying. Suddenly someone yells out, “I f***ed up!”
The reaction all around is something of a surprise. Instead of being met with quiet fear or dismay, the cry is greeted with exuberant cheers and high fives. It’s a ritual created and encouraged by the nonprofit Frailty Myths.
“We practice celebrating failures rather than being ashamed of them,” says Georgia Hirsty, one cofounder of Frailty Myths. “We practice letting go of judgment and perfectionism.”
The scene described above occured many times this summer during a woodworking workshop held at Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. All 14 participants were people who identify as women, trans, or gender-nonconforming, the population for whom Frailty Myths workshops are designed.
It was around a year ago when Pollinate Farm & Garden owner Yolanda Burrell saw a social media post about Frailty Myths and invited the group to hold a workshop in Pollinate’s backyard garden and orchard. The collaboration was so successful that they repeated it this summer, again offering the three-part workshop Woodworking Toward Self-Reliance. During the first session, participants worked as a group to build a composting bin. The second meeting was also devoted to a group project: a potting bench that Burrell would donate to a local school or nonprofit. The third and final day happens in October, when students either bring in their own project or build an Aldo Leopold bench, a simple but elegant structure named for the environmentalist and author of A Sand County Almanac.
Avoiding That Intimidation Factor
Throughout the workshop sessions, calls of “Swing away!” and “It’s hammer time!” sounded as participants encouraged one another toward completing various tasks. The group learned a variety of skills:
- how to use a hammer, chop saw, circular saw, and impact driver
- how to work with wood and wire mesh
- how to measure and cut angles
- how to finish wood by sanding or staining
- how to follow design plans
- how to share tasks and troubleshoot when problems come up
Workshop trainers were consistently friendly, nonjudgmental, and unfazed by mistakes made by their novice students. There was plenty of laughter, and whenever something went awry, another “I f***ed up” was greeted with applause.
Oakland-based Frailty Myths has been leading workshops since 2016, teaching woodworking, sailing, and climbing to a total of 450 women and others who do not identify as male. Cofounder Erinn Carter explains that the group is working to empower those who are often silenced: people of color, the LGBTQ community, and those who earn under $30,000 annually. Workshops combine hands-on tasks, a constant exchange of teaching and learning, and facilitated conversation about what makes those in the group feel stronger or weaker, and the ways in which people do or don’t feel supported in their community.
Burrell was thrilled to host the workshop. “I’ve always loved doing hands-on things like woodworking and building,” she says. “I often felt like I didn’t fit in because I wanted to learn auto mechanics or woodworking or welding, skills that don’t have a lot of women in the field.” In a class for women and non-male-identified persons, she adds, “you don’t have that intimidation factor. You can mess up and not feel repercussions.”
Striving for Self-Sufficiency
Saturdays are always busy at Pollinate Farm & Garden. While the workshop participants worked on their projects out back, Burrell was helping the steady stream of customers who arrived looking for plants, seeds, fermentation and canning supplies, garden tools, chicks, honeybees, soil, straw, feed, and plenty of advice. Every now and then a customer wandered over to ask what the woodworkers were doing, and even a couple of chickens happened by, giving quizzical looks.
“A lot of what we do at Pollinate is around self-sufficiency, learning to do things for yourself or working together with other people in the community,” says Burrell, who founded the shop with Birgitt Evans in 2013 and is now sole owner. To help people achieve self-sufficiency, she leads workshops in seed starting, composting, backyard chickens, and backyard beekeeping (recently adding beekeeping for kids), and also brings in a variety of experts to teach skills in gardening, cooking, food preserving, and with Frailty Myths, woodworking.
A mom of two, Burrell enjoys hosting field trips from nearby Peralta Hacienda. The kids enrolled in park programs there can walk over to taste some of the shop’s plants and visit the chickens and ducks. While putting together her business plan, Burrell envisioned just what Pollinate Farm & Garden has become: a community space where folks could share their knowledge and skills. “We wanted it to be a place that had all of the necessary tools, supplies, and resources available under one roof,” she says.
Burrell herself is a model of self-sufficiency. She grows almost all of her own family’s food at their home, which they call Kosodate Farm. In the shop and by phone, she regularly fields questions on everything from choosing seeds and composting to caring for chickens or handling a swarm of bees. Someone might come in to say they just moved into a new place and are clueless about the apple tree in their yard, or they might ask to be reminded which fertilizer Burrell recommended for their tomatoes last year. Sometimes it’s to announce they’ve finally decided to purchase a farm.
“I strive to learn and remember everyone’s name,” Burrell says. “One of the things I love about Pollinate is meeting people from a diversity of cultures and their willingness and enthusiasm to share what they know.”
The shop setting is a perfect one for sharing, especially Pollinate’s cozy “living room,” which offers tables and comfy chairs often enjoyed by patrons perusing the gardening and other DIY books. On Sunday afternoons in summer and fall, people bring produce they’ve grown too much of and swap their crops along with recipes and stories about growing food. Burrell’s only rule is that you don’t need to bring anything to be part of the living room crop swap.
This year Burrell has also set a new goal at Pollinate—to grow all the produce her four employees will need at home. The team decides what they want to grow and experiments with different methods in Pollinate’s backyard garden. This year, for example, instead of using standard cages for tomatoes, they’re trying the “Italian Grandfather” trellising method where each tomato is planted with a cracked raw egg! The summer harvest also includes cucumbers, melons, lettuce, kale, potatoes, beans, peppers, eggplant, hops, tree collards, corn, and honey. In addition, Pollinate’s street garden next to the shop offers tomatoes, quince, and rhubarb for anyone who wants it. “We want people to harvest that food and take it home. We’re showing people that you don’t need a farm or huge garden to grow food,” says Burrell, adding that here in the Fruitvale, many people already have fruit trees in their yard.
It’s Okay to Be Vulnerable
Back at the workshop, the woodworkers are finishing up the three-section compost bin. Burrell adds her own expertise, discussing different types of composting and how she will use the bin for composting at Kosodate Farm. (The bin constructed by last summer’s workshop group is already in use at Pollinate.)
After these Saturdays of learning, building, and sometimes f***ing up, each participant can take home not just new skills and confidence, but also the nifty Aldo Leopold bench they put together with their own hands. All students also become part of the Frailty Myths alumni network, an ongoing source of support, information, and perhaps a buddy to help with a home repair project. Some people return for additional workshops, and some even step up to become facilitators.
Chandini Gaur was a first-time facilitator who had taken part in four other Frailty Myths workshops. “It’s important to have a safe space for women and trans women and nonbinary folks to explore skills they might not have access to otherwise,” she says.
Asked about the workshop experience, one participant, Dez, describes it as “an inclusive space and a place where it’s okay to feel vulnerable.” Dez adds that it’s good to be able to confront fear in front of other people, rather than trying to push through and not ask for help. Another student, Sam, observes that “using tools has been scarier from afar than it turns out to be in person.”
A participant who prefers not to be identified expresses gratitude at being in the workshop, adding, “I always wanted to have agency with tools.”
Frailty Myths cofounder Erinn Carter observes that many workshop participants arrive having never built anything in their lives. “The power of these workshops,” she says, “is not necessarily what happens in them, but what happens for folks afterward. It’s that ‘aha’ moment when you’re back home thinking about something else you thought you couldn’t do and then you think, ‘maybe I can.’” ♦
Associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.
San Francisco–based freelance photographer Cynthia Matzger has worked as a television and film director and is a member of the Directors Guild of America. Her feature-length documentary about a Yurok Tribe elder is housed at the Smithsonian Museum. She is passionate about photographing awe-inspiring people whose work makes a positive impact in the Bay Area. cynthiamatzger.com