In 2013, Emily Pilloton founded the Berkeley, Calif., nonprofit Girls Garage, which teaches construction fundamentals to girls ages nine to 18. In the book Girls Garage, which Chronicle released at the beginning of June, she brings the organization’s stated mission—to help girls build “the world they want to see”—to readers across the country.
What first got you interested in building?
When I was 16, I had the good fortune to participate in a trip to Central America, where I built a public park with other teens. That was the first time I felt like I had power, and I tried to stay connected to that feeling in my first job as an architect, but I was disenchanted with things like fighting with clients about doorknobs. So, I founded a nonprofit under the deep belief that I could practice architecture in way that felt useful in the world. The soul of that work was helping high school students design and build things for their community.
How did the Girls Garage organization develop from that?
It was deeply disturbing to see what my female students were experiencing [in a coed environment]. Women have to allocate energy to prove they belong [on a construction site], that they know what they’re doing, that they deserve respect. I started pulling groups of girls out and working just with them, then launched Girls Garage as an experiment; a two-week summer class sold out in days. The argument that girls aren’t interested in things like welding, carpentry, woodworking, and drafting was clearly a load of crap.
Can the book stand in for the in-person experience?
We’re accessible to a few hundred girls in the Bay Area—it works because of its scale. That said, there’s so much I’ve learned, that the girls have learned, that the staff has learned in seven years that’s worth sharing: which screws to buy, but also overcoming fear and [embracing] the mindset that when something breaks in the house you’re the person to fix it.
We do have videos to accompany some projects, and that’s part of the plan, although the details are to-be-determined. But there’s also an emotional connection we have to certain books; in the same way that in a woodshop you have hammer and drill and saw and nails all splayed out on the table, this book needs to be there on the tabletop. I hope in 10 years a girl still has it, covered in sawdust with paint all over the pages.
How does the book appeal to girls without being girly?
It’s such a fine line. In the same way things in the book are not blue, they’re also not pink. There’s custom typeface on the cover and in the letter I, you can see a fillet weld. There’s no photo on the cover—nothing to say, “This is for a girl.” There’s no barrier to entry.
There are grown women who don’t use tools; is the book for them, too?
It’s as useful to a 59-year-old as it is to a nine-year-old. The book is out of Chronicle’s kids’ division, but I purposefully wrote it as a crossover book. I have brilliant female engineer friends who know how to build a bridge but not how to jump-start a car. It’s incredibly powerful to think about millions of girls and women wielding tools and saying, “What can we build to make the world better?” The world would look very different.