Urban Innovator of the Week: Alex Gilliam

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

Public WorkshopAlex-Gilliam started in Philadelphia in 2009, but is really an outgrowth of the work Alex Gilliam has been doing teaching design and architecture over the past 17 years. With Public Workshop and the recently launched sister nonprofit, Tiny WPA, he is able to take that work a few steps further.

“Project-based learning is great but until we actually got away from the notion of simulation and legitimately gave youth an opportunity to have an impact and change the world around them, we weren’t really maximizing the learning opportunities and sense of empowerment that equals great achievement in school,” he says.

He remembers teaching in a school that was in such bad shape that the students had tried to burn it down. At the time, he felt like he hadn’t achieved as much as he wanted in terms of “Big D ‘design'” and hadn’t maximized the impact he felt he was able to have. At a low point, he recalls walking into the gymnasium and 50 kids running up to him asking if they can help him with his projects. Two girls were particularly insistent so he told them to go scrape the paint off of some doors and much to his surprise, they didn’t get snarky or blow him off – they scraped the paint. And that’s when it clicked for him.

“That helped me realize that even though we hadn’t got to this Big D ‘design,’ we repainted 37 doors, we fixed the bleachers in the gym, and all this stuff was really starting to have a profound social impact in the school,” says Gilliam. “Incidents of fights were decreasing and teachers were saying, ‘Wow, I never thought of some of these students this way before.'”

He created this project thinking about how architects and designers could very simply get involved in their communities and have an impact. “Here was something you didn’t really have to be a teacher to do,” he explains. “A designer or builder can be designer or builder and still make things happen.”

Gilliam then decided he wanted to roll out a national model of design-build public school reform. “Fifty percent of schools have dire physical needs that are legitimate opportunities for much more,” he says. “They’re having a really negative impact on the sense of pride and achievement in schools. Instead of really trying to spend all of our time controlling kids, give them control and amazing things will happen, even in the most challenging of circumstances.”

Public Workshop is now in three different public schools throughout the country, doing this type of design-build work in very different settings – from urban Philadelphia to rural Virginia.

“A lot of the schools that are being held up as beacons for interesting models are in wealthy districts or private schools,” Gilliam points out. “We’re in urban or rural settings with schools that are having real problems trying to educate young people. If we can build rolling two-story tree houses in a school cafeteria and have it be this incredible boost in the school’s maker culture and sense of identity, rewriting the social fabric in the school, we can do this anywhere.”

It’s important to also note that this isn’t just about youth – Gilliam’s design-build approach impacts the whole community.

“What I’ve found over the past six to seven years of really aggressively doing this work with clients all over the country, is that when you put young people as the underdogs of designing change in the community and do it in a very public way – all of our work is done outside on the sidewalk – we’re wired as humans to copy one another. Action begets action. That trait is heightened when it’s an underdog doing something no one thinks is possible.”

For Gilliam and Public Workshop, design – good design, the quality of which doesn’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of being done by the community – is an important element of community engagement.

“Good design is an important part that gets people to stop and say, ‘Holy crap.’ I really deeply believe that just because something is made by or with the community or youth doesn’t mean that those can’t be well-designed, well-fabricated things that empower, teach build ownership, and engage the community. Those things are not mutually exclusive; they are actually deeply interconnected.”

Much of the work of Public Workshop can be considered community engagement, from their temporary and semi-permanent build projects to community engagement consulting with entities like the Philadelphia Water Department.

“We’re helping them rethink their engagement process around their water structure project and understand how to strategically connect that in the programs they already have,” says Gilliam. It really simply goes back to this notion of, ‘Well, have you asked the community what they need?”

Gilliam is certainly no stranger to asking the community what they want and need. In fact, that is the impetus for much of Public Workshop’s work.

“It doesn’t make a difference how challenged the area is, if it’s Flint [Michigan] or rural Virginia. Ask any community where they want to see services, and the first thing is almost always something for the kids – something to keep them off the streets, give them exercise, somewhere they can play. We’re using play as this entry point into much deeper and more painful conversations. There are few more powerful tools to bring together tremendously diverse groups of people than getting people designing and building play.”

This year Public Workshop has done a lot of work with parks and playgrounds, with one on a portion of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia having particular significance.

This vacant lot was known as an area plagued by drug use and other social issues, and the business owners there wanted to put up a fence and block it off. A father who lived in a building behind the lot thought it would be great to have a place to play there, but community stakeholders shot down the idea, claiming it would never work. So Public Workshop put the fence up but moved it ten feet back from the sidewalk, creating a mini park with seating. Once the community stakeholders saw how positively people responded to this pocket park, Public Workshop was able to get a grant to design and build some play and exercise equipment.

“Now we have drug dealers protecting the bench. We have homeless men who have been deeply committed to the project because they see this as providing need in their lives, not just internally but also externally – they want people to see them as humans and as valuable citizens. We have young kids playing, partially handicapped people jumping in – just this tremendous coalition of people who are becoming advocates for this space. Play is spilling out into street and now traffic is calming. What’s so exciting about this work is that there’s nothing like this anywhere that’s happening on a business corridor, working with the business owners and really directly dealing with the people who are considered a problem.”

Public Workshop, which is a for-profit company, launched a nonprofit organization this summer called Tiny WPA (“Works Progress Administration,” so named for the New Deal which paid for millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression). This nonprofit will allow them to leverage their visibility and resources to do even more of this socially-minded work within schools and neighborhoods and have an even greater impact in the community.

Tiny WPA works with youth and adults alike on creative place-based change projects, and is also shepherding the next wave of what they call “Building Heroes.”

The Building Hero Project is a social venture, a community design leadership program that teaches youth and adults to become skilled leaders and agents of change. This program brings people together who want to do great things, teaching them professional build skills while also connecting them to others who are like-minded about having a positive impact in the community through design. Gilliam says that finding people who can lead and execute the kind of work Public Workshop does is difficult, so the Building Hero Project is also a method of growing their capacity to do more of this work and extend the impact of what they’re doing in Philadelphia and the greater region.

“The Building Hero Project is a project-based community design leadership curriculum where the training tools are projects,” he says. “It’s kind of shop class on steroids and human growth hormones!”

Currently the program is funded through a mix of grants and the sale of hand-crafted pieces made by program participants through the Building Hero Project Etsy store. Gilliam’s goal is not just to fund this project, but to fund it in such a way that participants can also get paid.

“Nobody has really been able to make it work effectively, where the job training component is paid to keep those people who are teetering on the edge from going over,” he says. “Tiny WPA gives us increased access to different kinds of funding for programs like Building Hero.”

Tiny WPA will create a new workshop and storefront on Lancaster Avenue, across the street from the pocket park playground they built, in order to integrate themselves into the business life in the neighborhood and not just the social life.

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