Alex Gilliam is the director of Public Workshop in Philadelphia, through which he runs Tiny WPA (Tiny Works Progress Administration). This program places youth at the forefront of stimulating community engagement and civic engagement in their neighborhoods by empowering them to design and build improvements to the public spaces, schools, and parks in their communities. A 2010–11 National Building Museum Field Fellow, Gilliam has worked with the Rural Studio at Auburn University, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania to develop outreach strategies for architects to engage their communities. He was also instrumental in launching Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture + Design (CHAD) in 1999.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was “Go where the feedback is good.” In other words, choose your battles wisely but, more importantly, seek out the people who want to work with you, make the most of that desire, and invest time in growing a community around your work. Although it is easy to get excited about the beautiful youth-led design/build improvements that are the product of each Tiny WPA project, the most important end result is the community that develops throughout the process.

A lot of the language around design thinking and public service at the moment has to do with parachuting into a situation for two or three days and then leaving. That’s not how we work. We begin by partnering with a community organization, a school, or a government agency, to leverage their networks to bring the necessary local youth and assets to the table. From day one, we’re building, working, meeting, and problem solving, and we do everything on site, which creates an efficient feedback loop that is much more effective than the way we typically work as architects. Design becomes a conversation where community members are empowered by the immediate impacts of their on-the-ground expertise. This process makes it much easier to openly and freely collaborate, to know when it’s most appropriate to speak, listen, or do.

No matter the end objective of a project, we start with making and doing. Everyone likes to work with their hands, and by working this way they not only feel more engaged, but are more able to give their very best to a project, designers included. Sometimes this means building a temporary structure on site, sketching, or mocking up ideas with wood at full scale. Maybe it’s not precisely what we came to do, but the first 30 minutes of a project are critical to creating a sense of ownership for the challenge at hand within the kids, their communities, and the design team. “Doing” is contagious.

Working in this way, design is not a simulation, but a course of action. With over 10 Tiny WPA projects lined up this year—only a year after starting the program—clearly we’ve tapped into a much deeper desire for action. —As told to William Richards