In Girls Garage, girls learn blue-collar trades

Tucked away in the city of Berkeley is an after-school nonprofit that is 100% devoted to young girls.

It’s a 3,600-square-foot wood shop where 9 to 18-year-old girls are taught for free by women in the trades.  They learn everything from welding to construction and the art of design.  

It was all the brainchild of builder-turned-teach Emily Pilloton-Lam.  

"I think I am one of the lucky ones that gets to do both the thing that I love and what I was born to do," said Pilloton-Lam.

Now in its 10th year, Girls Garage is flourishing.  A building refuge for over 300 girls who have created more than 170 projects all of which help to enhance the community from a chicken pavilion for Urban Tilt in North Richmond or a public bus stop for the state of Vermont.  It’s hands-on work that builds teamwork and self-esteem both important social tools that these students will use well beyond the classroom.

"Every student leaves Girls Garage standing a little bit taller and feeling like there are no boundaries to what they can do.  There are no spaces to where they can’t belong.  And they have a deep belief in their capabilities as a young person," said Pilloton-Lam.

Only 11% of U.S. construction workers are women.  Girls Garage founder hopes to change that.  

Girls Garage in Berkeley, CA

She also discovered by creating an all-girls shop, something magical happened.  The girls appear to be more relaxed and productive away from the social dynamics that they all navigate outside the shop.  It has become a safe place where creativity abounds.

"All my friends at school are boys which is cool.  But, it’s really nice to be with other girls especially a lot of girls of color in the program.  It’s super nice to be in a space with people with similar passions as you that also share the same identity as you," said Quetsalli Feria-Galicia, a 17-year-old student at Girls Garage.

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Girls Garage is also building builders. 18-year-old Azusa James spent nine years as a student in the shop. James is now an intern, heading to Tulane University to learn how to become an architect.

"Any type of creative makers are really drawn to this space.  I’ve always wanted to make things.  So, learning how I could go into a field of architecture through Girls Garage was really an illuminating moment for me," said James.

Pilloton-Lam's dream is to equal the playing field because a majority of the decision-makers in the construction and design industries are men.

"Everyone shares our built environment, yet it’s authored by a very narrow population of mostly white males.  So for women to go into their spaces and say what do we want the world to look like? That makes the world look good for everyone," she said.