In 2002, Alex Gilliam got a fellowship with Rural Studio and found himself in a K–12 school in rural Alabama. The school, Gilliam explains, was in very poor shape.
“Students wouldn’t mention its name in public,” says Gilliam. “In fact, one student attempted to burn it down twice.”
With just 60 students enrolled—and one janitor for the 11-acre property—Gilliam knew something needed to change. So, he created a simple process that allowed students to identify things they wanted to change about the physical space of their school.
“The students [wanted us to] knock down derelict buildings, fix bleachers, repaint doors and an entire gym, repair windows, and replace ceiling tiles,” says Gilliam. “It was beginning to have a social and academic impact on the school.”
From that point forward, Gilliam continued to find opportunities in cities where young people could positively impact the design of their schools and neighborhoods. He committed himself to finding partners who believed in this idea and communities with strong needs to push this initiative forward. In 2009, Public Workshop was born. One of its first projects was in collaboration with an organization that works to empower young women on the South Side of Chicago. The organization, Demoiselle 2 Femme, wanted to get more young women of color interested in STEM professions.
“We were making worktables on the sidewalk by the vacant lot, and by the end of the day community members had actually cleaned up this massive vacant lot that was opposite where we were building,” Gilliam says. “The lot had been riddled with needles and broken bottles, and hadn’t been cleaned up for years, but I think we were all stunned that this simple act of these young women building with power tools could actually stimulate action. It was just overwhelming and incredibly powerful.”
One tactic that Public Workshop program leaders use is to make their work highly visible—not just the end product, but that the actual work is done outside, on a sidewalk, during a time of day when the largest amount of people are around. The thinking behind this is that if members of the community actually see others making positive change, they’ll contribute as well. The effect is contagious.
“In the end, two illegal liquor stores were shut down, the size of the church’s congregation doubled, and trash no longer riddled the vacant lot,” says Gilliam. “That demonstrated that these tactics worked, and that we needed to do a lot more of this.”
Public Workshop now operates in cities all over the United States. Projects have included the creation of a green design leadership program, the development of design/build placemaking events to engage youth, the design and construction of playgrounds and exercise courses, and many other programs that encourage community engagement in the design of their communities.
“Even though our work looks like it’s about youth, it’s also tacitly acknowledging that it’s not about kids,” says Gilliam. “Youth have the capacity to inspire others to get involved. They act as a mechanism to get people of all ages to think optimistically and not resort to previous means or dialogues.”
Gilliam’s group has done more than rethink a city’s most underutilized spaces, like vacant lots or abandoned parking lots; it has gathered together members of the community who otherwise wouldn’t collaborate on anything. As Gilliam puts it, “Community engagement is actually a teenage woman with a circular saw.”