Story and photos by Bethany Kaylor
During a hot week in July, a group of teenage girls and gender-expansive youth gathered early each morning at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Their goal was to build a 200-square-foot greenhouse for Growing Leaders, a youth gardening entrepreneurship program based at Willard and Berkeley Technology Academy. After a quick check-in, the teens wasted no time in hauling and cutting lumber, laying out roof rafters, framing doors, applying siding, and installing a vibrant 42-foot-long graphic mural. They worked with the slick efficiency of a seasoned construction crew, which—technically—they are.
These teens are members of the Advanced Design/Build cohort of Girls Garage, a radical design and construction school located in West Berkeley. Aiko Dougherty, a teen builder who’s been with Girls Garage for eight years, says, “It’s exciting to build for the community. I love building on site because we actually get to see the space and meet the people who will be supported by the greenhouse.”
Founded by designer, builder, and educator Emily Pilloton-Lam in 2013, the organization offers architecture, welding, carpentry, and activist art classes to girls and gender-expansive youth in the Bay Area. The Advanced Design/Build class brings together teens from diverse backgrounds to create complex, community-based projects, including furniture for women’s shelters, parklets for local restaurants, and a 500-square-foot chicken pavilion for an urban farm.
“Our greatest service is to use our skills to make tangible change in our community,” says Pilloton-Lam. To that end, mutual aid grounds every aspect of Girls Garage: All participants attend for free, and every project is designed and built pro bono for community clients. Removing financial barriers has allowed Girls Garage to reach and support a diverse community of young people: 82% of participants identify as of color, and 63% are from lower-income backgrounds.
“When girls begin to build the world they want to see, the bridges, buildings, and sidewalks will look fundamentally different. And on a deeper level, our world will shift toward equality,” Pilloton-Lam adds.
Matt Tsang, founder and executive director of Growing Leaders, shares the same sentiment, noting that “the impact of this greenhouse is bigger than the garden.” Like Pilloton-Lam, he believes in the power of young people to fundamentally alter the world. Although Girls Garage and Growing Leaders feature different technical skills—design and construction on the one hand, gardening and food production on the other—both organizations equip young people with opportunities to create tangible impact in their communities. “It’s powerful to connect with young people and adults who share the same vision,” Tsang says.
Inside the new greenhouse, Growing Leaders will start over 2,000 plants, many of which will eventually be harvested for their student-led food pantry in South Berkeley. Since the pandemic began, Growing Leaders has experienced a precipitous increase in the number of people they serve at the food pantry, which is currently at 600 a month. A report by Feeding America estimates that one in seven Americans (45 million people) may have experienced food insecurity in 2020, due to increased rates of unemployment and poverty.
Food justice has a long history in the East Bay, most notably with the Black Panther Party. In 1969, the Panthers organized the Free Breakfast for Children program in response to the experience of local children—most often low-income and Black—who were struggling at school due to hunger. The program’s immediate success eventually inspired the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program in American schools. In the East Bay, nonprofits like Spiral Gardens in South Berkeley, People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, and Growing Leaders continue the longest tradition of all: building community through food.
As for the intrepid teen builders of Girls Garage, they’re dreaming up their next construction project while reveling in the satisfaction of each job well done. When the greenhouse was finished, the teens took a moment in silence to admire their team’s handiwork. As one teen quipped, “It feels good to look back at the end of the day and say, ‘We built that.’” ♦
Bay Area–based writer and illustrator Bethany Kaylor is the communications manager at Girls Garage. Her essays can be found at Salon, Sonora Review, LitHub, and elsewhere.