“Your gut is your identity; trust it. Who you are, where you came from, what you believe, these are your superpowers at the core of what you design and build. These things are also the values that help you make hard decisions”.
— Emily Pilloton
Emily Pilloton has lived an extraordinary life knocking down metaphorical walls whilst building literal ones. She is a designer, builder, educator, and founder of the nonprofit organization, Girls Garage. Alongside being a university lecturer, author, and TED speaker, she has also presented her work to the White house. Girls Garage is the first-ever design and building workshop for female youth in the United States, offering low-cost or free programs in carpentry, welding, architecture, engineering, and activist art for girls aged 9-18. With the aim to build a more inclusive, equitable future, Girls Garage teaches girls, not just the skills they need to succeed, but perhaps just as importantly, builds their confidence so that they can make their dreams a reality. With an educational philosophy rooted in creativity, design thinking, and project-based learning, Emily also works with educators and schools to reinvent teaching and learning in more hands-on and community-focused ways.
As a young girl of colour growing up in an almost all-white community, Emily has always felt a desire to seek out experiences and opportunities to understand her identity and her place in the world. Her love of design and architecture was born during childhood where she would spend hours building forts and treehouses or redesigning the space in her family's home. Her love of construction comes from more than the act of building, but more so what the act of building symbolizes. She says that building for her symbolizes “power in the world. A way of expressing my identity, of contributing, and building the world I want to see.” After spending part of her sophomore year in Mexico as part of a Spanish language program, the desire to contribute to projects outside of her hometown led her to Belize to build a community park. Before her sixteenth birthday, Emily was passionately selling baked goods and fundraising enough money so that she could travel to Central America to expand her understanding of the world.
Emily’s time majoring in architecture at UC Berkeley deepened her love of architecture, providing a theoretical and philosophical understanding of architectural thinking. “I’ve always had a leaning towards spatial reasoning and have been drawn to how space is a signal for how we are seen (or unseen), honored, and celebrated. It gave me a visual language to see the world”. Whilst this period of learning would prove to be hugely beneficial in providing a fundamental understanding of the industry she loved, she missed the hands-on part of architecture that she had experienced in high-school. Emily then undertook her Master of Fine Arts degree where she spent two years in the shop, learning how to pour molten metal, cast and sculpt and construct things in multiple media. Her experience at The School of The Art Institute would hone in on her passion and sculpt her future path. “I learned from architects and planners but also textile artists and fashion designers, fine artists, and conceptual artists. Being at an art school was a great gift: it showed me that there is no one way to do the work you love and that at the core of all creative work is your own identity, which guides your values and how you express ideas to the world.”
Despite being female in a mostly male field, Emily was fortunate enough to be guided by strong, female mentors, never once feeling unsupported. Girls Garage is Emily’s way of paying-it-forward, transforming young girl’s skill sets as well as transforming the way they see themselves and their capabilities.
After graduate school, Emily took the well-trodden path of many; by getting “real” jobs in design and architecture firms and furniture companies. However, although she had the security of a retirement plan and salary, working in a cubicle clearly lacked vital elements of Emily’s truth- the need to build real things and to have a voice. So, at 26 years old, with admittedly no idea how to run a business, Emily founded Project H Design (now known as Girls Garage). During her first year of operation, her students designed and built a 2000-square-foot farmers market pavilion in rural North Carolina, which became the feature of the full-length documentary If You Build It.
This was proof of concept that there was power here in the combination of youth, building, and community. Since then, she opened a workshop in Berkeley, California where hundreds of girls have come to work on community projects in wood, metal, ink, and activism. Emily strongly believes that design and building needn't be separate disciplines. She rebels from the idea that construction is like a “recipe” and that building is the final step of a long process of dreaming, prototyping, expressing, and problem-solving. Instead, the process is intricately connected. She says the lightbulb moment came when “I made the connection between design and building, I’ve been unable and unwilling to separate them”.
As so many of us do, Emily spent her early twenties chasing careers that she felt she ‘should’ be doing instead of what she ‘wanted’ to be doing, instead of following her gut instinct. “Your gut is your identity; trust it. Who you are, where you came from, what you believe, these are your superpowers at the core of what you design and build. These things are also the values that help you make hard decisions”. Emily is a big believer in viewing pushback from people standing in the way of your dreams, not as a negative, but to your advantage. She has reached her level of success by simply using them as a source of motivation to prove wrong. In her 12 years of operation, over 400 young girls have completed 133 projects with Girls Garage. The impact that Emily has had on hundreds of young women and their futures is difficult to put into words. The lifelong tools, skills, and confidence they have gained throughout this process serve an immeasurable impact on the future female leaders of our generation. Emily’s goal is simple, yet extremely powerful- “we female builders will build the world we want to see for ourselves”.