An interview with Alex Gilliam, founder of Public Workshop, a Philadelphia-based community design organization. +Written by Gilad Meron Photography by Public Workshop
Photography by Public Workshop
“I’ve always been interested in the idea of making things from nothing. When I was a kid I’d always grab my Lego box and try to make something totally imaginary, like a whole city or something else awesome. So when I found out about this I was like, wait... I’m actually building a whole park? And not just a park, but a whole mini-world filled with beaches and cities and forests! I’m getting to do something real; it’s such an awesome feeling.” This is how 16 year old Alexa Eddy described her experience with Tiny WPA, the flagship program of Public Workshop, a Philadelphia-based organization that works with local community partners to create programs that engage youth in civic design projects.
Launched in early 2012, Tiny WPA is a program that aims to redesign and rebuild Philadelphia’s public spaces and micro-infrastructure through improvements initiated by local youth. These design/build projects not only help transform neighborhoods, they also help train the next generation of civic leaders. Each Tiny WPA project functions as a mini boot-camp of sorts for young adults like Alexa who are passionate and hungry to have a positive impact on their neighborhoods and cities. By teaching them how to design and build “micro-infrastructure” like the playground Alexa described above (pictured on the right) Tiny WPA projects are putting young adults at the forefront of stimulating civic engagement in their communities.
Through programs like Tiny WPA, Public Workshop is redefining the way that youth participate as citizens and leaders in their communities. In the process, they’re pioneering a new model of education that challenges how and where learning occurs. All of this happens under the careful guidance of Alex Gilliam, the founder and director of Public Workshop, a nationally recognized leader in K-12 design education and self-proclaimed “cheerleader of possibility.”
Gilliam is a bold and blunt 39 year-old who knows exactly what he’s doing. He thinks three steps ahead of you and is always trying to do more and do it better. “I’m constantly trying to get more out of everything… it’s both a blessing and a curse,” Gilliam reflects. Like nearly everyone doing great work, he is constantly self-critical, but it was clear from speaking with him that his drive to constantly do more and do better is exactly what motivates him. After several long phone conversations that stretched into the night, I came to realize that Public Workshop is in many ways a perfect reflection of Gilliam’s personality. The two are inextricably intertwined; to understand Public Workshop, you have to understand Alex Gilliamand how he got there.
Public Workshop is redefining the way that youth participate as citizens and leaders in their communities, and in the process, pioneering a new model of education that challenges how and where learning occurs.
LEARNING TO SPEAK DESIGN
After graduating from college with a bachelors of science in architecture, Gilliam spent a year in England teaching architectural history before moving to Philadelphia to pursue a career in design. After a brief stint at an architecture firm, he quickly realized he didn’t want to spend his time sitting behind a desk.
“I remember it was probably my third day on the job and I accidentally fell asleep at my desk. I don’t remember how long I was asleep but I remember getting woken up by one of the principals. Honestly, they weren’t even that mad at me, but it made me realize that I just didn’t find much meaning or value in the work I was doing there.”
Around that same time Gilliam heard about an opening at a school called The Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), and got a part-time position teaching there. At the time, the school was going through a number of changes, which meant that things were a bit hectic and not as structured as he had expected. But this ended up providing opportunities for Alex to step into new roles and do things he would not have been able to do anywhere else at his age and experience level. “Before I knew it I was 24 years old and was not only a full-time teacher, I was the Director of Design, responsible for writing the design curriculum for the whole school. It was like a boot-camp for me, I gained a ton of valuable experience about how you teach design and how you talk about design.”
The four years he spent at CHAD shaped his perceptions of how design is taught. He quickly realized that he could never take for granted how he talked about design. “Teaching students about design really gives you an appreciation for how important it is to speak about design in normal language that anyone can understand and relate to. Most designers are never in a situation where they have to do that so they sometimes discount it.” It was during those four years teaching at CHAD that Gilliam realized everyone has the innate capacity to understand design; they just don’t necessarily use the language of design.
“Developmental psychology tells us that we develop our language systems and our sense of self around space; our neighborhoods, our homes and the places we are raised. From the moment you pop out of the womb you are thinking like a designer, you are processing space in a way that is very much like an architect, except you’re processing it for environmental threats. Your brain is mapping the scale of space, the color, the light, and it’s doing all of that all the time and causing you to have gut reactions to the spaces you’re in. Everyone has emotional reactions to the spaces they live and work in from the moment they’re born. So what I try to do is get people to slow down for a moment and acknowledge that, and when they do, they can actually provide some pretty sophisticated analysis of space and the design of it.”
That realization has stuck with Gilliam and guided much of his work. It has driven him to continually ask the question, “who is the highest means to solve a problem?” Too often we assume that marginalized populations such as children can’t make valuable contributions to the design process, but that’s simply not true. Through teaching design to middle and high school students, he realized there is tremendous untapped potential for youth to become valuable contributors to the design of cities.
“For example, most major cities have no idea how their parks are being used or what condition they’re in. As a result they don’t know the best way to spend their incredibly stressed park budgets, and at the same time they get lots of complaints from citizens that parks aren’t being properly maintained. The traditional way of dealing with that would be to spend half a million dollars to hire a couple of new staff members. But having a few people keep track of hundreds of acres of parks is simply inefficient. So the question is, who is the highest means to accomplish that work? What if instead the city spent that half-million dollars to implement public space evaluation courses in a dozen local high schools and gardening clubs? Suddenly you’ve got a mini-army of park evaluators who will provide even better data because they are from the community and know the parks. At the same time, you’re providing relevance and meaning in those students’ education because they are doing something that actually impacts their neighborhood, and in the process you’re turning those students into future advocates for parks and valuable public-space experts within their community.”
Gilliam is full of ideas like these that engage youth in addressing real urban challenges and have a positive impact on their schools and communities at the same time. But after four years as the Design Director of CHAD, he realized that working inside a school simply didn’t afford him the opportunity to make those types of ideas happen. He felt as though he had reached the limits of what he could do from within a school, so he left.
“I realized that even though we didn’t design and build some massive thing - it was the process of doing all the small things that really was having an impact on the students.”
Gilliam left Philadelphia and moved to rural Alabama to become a fellow with the Rural Studio, a famous design/ build program at Auburn University that engages students in the design and construction of houses and community-oriented buildings for under-served communities in the region. At the Rural Studio Gilliam worked closely with a local school that was struggling in a number of ways. Gilliam’s goal was to engage the students to help rebuild their own school, but the first step was for him to understand what it was like for the students who went there.
“The students were pretty vocal about the fact that they knew no one at either the local or state level really cared about their school, and the physical condition of the school reflected that. The students felt embarrassed that this was so evident. So I created a really simple process that enabled them to first identify what exactly it was about their school that they wanted to change, and then empowered them to re-design and re-build those parts of it.”
After three months though, Gilliam foundhimself feeling pretty frustrated. “We hadn’t gotten to what I would call design, you know design with a big D. Sure, we had painted 37 doors, fixed the bleachers and a bunch of windows, cleaned, repainted one of the gyms, knocked down an old building and painted some murals but it didn’t seem like enough. I had wanted to do a design/build project with the students, and I was really down on myself because I thought that if the students didn’t actually design and build anything then that meant I didn’t have an impact on their lives.”
“Then one day there was a moment when it all clicked. I walked into the gym and fifty students sprinted across the room asking if they could help. I had to tell them, ‘listen I’m really sorry but there are already a lot of other students working and there just aren’t enough tools to go around.” But two girls in particular persisted, begging me to let them help. So I said to them, ‘well, the only tool I have left is a paint scrapper and there’s some paint over there on the wall that needs to be scrapped.’ And before I could finish my sentence they said, ‘Yea, we’d love to scrape paint!’
“Right then I realized that even though we didn’t design and build some massive thing—some designed product—it was the process of doing all the small things that really was having an impact on the students’ perceptions of their school, which led to changes in their behaviors and their actions and ultimately impacted their lives. I had always known that designing and building things could change someone’s life, but I hadn’t ever really seen those small things as equally important opportunities.” That experience and the resulting realization led +rural studio Gilliam to rethink his entire approach to design education and community building. He realized that people can derive meaning and purpose from the simplest of tasks; it was about process, not product. That realization has since become the core of what Gilliam does.
Gilliam says that using design to have an impact on people’s lives is largely about creating those experiences. “In a lot of ways I see the work I do as experience design. A big part of it is being and to identify and relate to other people and understand human emotions and motivations. Through working with those students I began to understand that they really just wanted to find meaning and value in their day, in their time at school, all I did was create an opportunity for them to do that."
“The other important factor related to this work is how it can be contagious. If I had not already been working in that school for months, doing all kinds of small projects, then those students would not have been able to see scrapping paint off the wall as valuable. If you can get a few people in a group to start something, often times it will spread. So in this case the more students in that school who I got to see the value in improving their school, the more students wanted to take part in that process. Just think about what that means if you extrapolate it to the urban scale. You start opening up all sort of possibilities for civic engagement and community building.”
KINESTHETIC LEARNING THROUGH DESIGN
Gilliam wrote an article last year, which has since been re-published multiple times, called “What a Bunch of Legos Can Teach Us about Civic Participation.” In it he talks about how as humans, we innately tend to copy one another, and that if we are thoughtful and intentional about how and where we take action as members of a community, then we can use that power to affect whole systems and even start a movement. This is part of the reason why Gilliam does nearly all his work in public. He feels strongly that starting a project in a public space can be very important for community building and more critically, for showing people what is possible. This is part of Gilliam’s underlying strategy for nearly all his work, something he calls “tactical doing,” not to be confused with tactical urbanism.
“I think that some of the conversation around tactical urbanism is fairly limited because it’s really a larger problem. Tactical urbanism is tapping into something much larger, which at its root is really about how we do things. It’s about saying that we want to get something done in a city and instead of trying to go through the typical bureaucratic processes, which would take years, we’re just going to go out and do it ourselves in a week. That guerrilla mentality and approach can be applied to anything from creating new bike lanes to changing the way we teach physics. It’s all really part of the same thing, it’s about how we do things and how we get things done—it’s tactical doing.”
Quick to back up his ideas with theories and literature, Gilliam asked if I had read Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” He explained to me that in it, Kahneman talks about how we spend most of our lives thinking in a very slow fashion; which is very deliberative, logical and largely unemotional. But we also have this whole other way of thinking, fast thinking, which is intuitive and passionate and emotional. In the book he argues that we need to spend more time working and thinking fast because it’s extremely powerful and undervalued in our society. Gilliam said that Kahneman’s ideas are helpful because they provide an intellectual framework for what he is already doing in design and education.
“We spend all our time designing slowly, methodically, with careful planning and logic, and we largely disregard our abilities to design fast. I’m not saying an architect should design the structural support system for a building in an hour, but there are certain situations in which designing fast can be very powerful. That’s why we always start with building and ‘doing’ (thinking fast) because it rapidly accelerates learning, facilitates a deeper understanding of the problem, builds trust and instills a sense of ownership. All we are really doing is examining how people are feeling and what they need in in a particular process; are they bored, do they need context, are they distrustful? The more you understand human emotions and behaviors and responses during the process, the more it becomes clear when you need to be doing the slow stuff, like community meetings and research studies, or the fast stuff, like tactical urbanism and pop-up dinners.”
But as with nearly everything that he thinks about, Gilliam always finds a way to weave the concept into education. “You can take the same framework for strengthening a ‘slow’ community design process with tactical doing and apply it to improving learning and schools. It’s exactly the same thing.” Ultimately Alex is showing that there is more than one way to accomplish things and that sometimes seemingly simple changes in how we do things can make a big difference.
Although this may be true, it’s clear from looking at the work Gilliam has led over the past decade that he’s partial to building as a tactical approach to education. In fact, nearly every project Public Workshop has been behind is rooted in a hands-on, physical building project. Gilliam has even joked in the past that he’s a proud advocate of child labor. Don’t be confused—that’s not to say he wants to see more children in sweatshops. He means that engaging youth in physical building is a uniquely powerful mechanism for learning and leadership training.
“Building is kinesthetic. If you get into developmental psychology, you understand that because building is kinesthetic, it establishes memories and emotions in your brain much more deeply than sitting and listening to a lecture ever could. This is not just my idea; there is a real physiological process going on in your body and brain that makes kinesthetic learning extremely effective.” Though his work might seem from the outside like simple novel ways to engage students and youth, it actually goes much deeper—there’s neuroscience behind his methods.
“Kinesthetic learning is really important; it taps into something that students need and we can see academic and behavioral improvements when we provide students more opportunities to learn this way. For example, in one of the schools I was working in, I ran a design thinking exercise where students walked around their entire school and identified and analyzed what they do on a daily basis and what they thought needed to be improved. Ultimately, what we came to was nearly all the boys realizing they just wanted more gym class. And then to our surprise, as I kept working with those students to build solutions to the problems they identified in their school at full scale, we began to see improvement in the students’ behavior and academic achievement, not necessarily because they were getting to be more creative in class but because they were given the opportunity to move around and learn through their physical actions. They were getting to actually design and build things, move around and expel some of their limitless energy and get sweaty and get dirty and work hard. It’s not just about giving them space to release their energy though— that type of work is also tapping into a lot of larger life lessons, like the value of hard work and the value of understanding the people in your community, and the value of working with others on your team to build something. It’s really a much more holistic model of education, and that’s exactly why I think the future of learning is moving students from the classroom to the sidewalk. What if this was happening everywhere?”
“I think the future of learning is moving students from the classroom to the sidewalk.”
This is part of a long term vision to grow a generation of civically engaged citizens who become leaders in their communities to help re-imagine cities.
Learning by Doing
Gilliam knows the impact of kinesthetic learning first hand. After finishing his fellowship with the Rural Studio, he spent over a year working with master carpenters and metal fabricators in Virginia and New York, honing his building and making skills. It was not a very prestigious or well-paid year of his life, but he says he knew it was critical for him to develop those skills, so he could do the work he knew he eventually wanted to do. This was still years before he launched Public Workshop.
After those years of apprenticeship, Gilliam had the opportunity to lead new programming for some very forward thinking organizations like Hester Street Collaborative and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. But ultimately, Gilliam realized that he wanted to push the participatory community design paradigm even further. He wanted to engage youth more systematically and develop on-going programs for young adults to play a role in shaping the design of their cities—something that had really never been done before at the scale he was imagining. He talks about how it was important to him to continue to raise the bar on how this happens and what this looks like. “I believe that great design, empowerment, and leaps in learning are not mutually exclusive – in fact they are reinforcing.” Realizing he wanted to delve further into design, he took the plunge and went back to grad school for architecture to become a better designer. Gilliam did a lot of research and work in grad school around developing new, more accessible ways for communities and youth to really change the inner city. A lot of what he was working on is more common now, but back at that time the work was still relatively novel. Right as he was finished grad school, he was invited to give a talk to an audience of urban designers and city planners, in which he described his work and how he believed it represented a new way of doing things.
“For me this was just what I thought about every day and tried to do, so I guess I didn’t realize how much it would resonate with those professionals. After the talk I had people who were 20 years older than me coming up to me and saying things like, ‘You give me hope, you make me want to keep on being an urban planner.’ And I thought ‘Oh God!’ On the one hand that made it even more clear to me that the current way things were being done was just out of date and out of context, but more importantly it made it really clear to me that I was on to something.”
It was right around then, just as he was leaving grad school, that Gilliam realized he should formalize this. So he created a blog, and just like that…Public Workshop was born. Through past work and professional connections he was able to secure some interesting projects soon after graduating, and for the next two years he followed the work. He was moving around the country, mainly between cities, following project opportunities. But around the end of 2011, he realized that it was not sustainable, but more importantly, not effective for a number of reasons.
“Through projects I was working on during those two years after grad school, I developed relationships with young adults, really deep relationships that were incredibly reciprocal. Because [on one hand], working with these young adults enabled me to help do some amazing work in their communities, and on the other hand I was providing them with a level support and pressure and mentorship that they were not getting anywhere else. But pretty quickly it became clear that if I was only there for a single project or in a city for even a single year, it was really hard to fully leverage those relationships, and even harder to measure my long term impact or allow projects to mature and reach their full potential. So in early 2012 I moved to Philadelphia and plan to be here for the foreseeable future. My decision to move was really about scalability and being able to do much better work and measure what I’m doing in a long term way. Hopefully that will allow me to make our cities better while creating a tidal wave of opportunities for youth.” Gilliam says that his goal is to grow an army of young adults, a civic design innovation corps, to extend impact both in Public Workshop’s projects but also to be empowered instigators of change in their communities. It’s inspiring to hear Gilliam talk about this, I could hear the passion rising in his voice as he described his goals for the future.I might be reading between the lines, but I’d venture to guess that he wants to do more than grow an army of young adults in Philadelphia, think this is part of a long term vision to grow an entire generation of civically engaged citizens who become leaders in their communities to help re-imagine cities.
The real trick is how to convince people that this is something important that they should invest in. The secret is that it’s actually not by starting with good intentions, it’s by starting with need.
Passionately Loving Work
“People ask all me the time, ‘how do you get the projects?’ And part of it’s people coming to me with project ideas or proposals, and sometimes it’s me going out and finding the people that I really want to work with and trying to make the case that we should do something. The real trick is how to convince people that this is something important that they should invest in. The secret is that it’s actually not by starting with good intentions, it’s by starting with need.
“Taking a needs-based approach is the only way I’ve been able to get my work funded. I spend a lot of time going and talking to potential partners, including government agencies, and helping them think about where they have needs within what they do, and where we could radically rethink the role of their local community to address those needs through youth engagement. It takes a lot of time, and it’s a lot of educating, and it’s a very slow conversation. But I really think that is where the opportunities are. Even so, making it financially viable is incredibly difficult, not to mention trying to grow or scale it. But I have to just smile at times, because when you zoom out and look at the big picture, it’s pretty clear that Public Workshop is succeeding in a significantly down economy.
“Sometimes people forget that this is still a relatively new business, the idea of place making, particularly youth-led place-making.So essentially you need to persuade people to pay for a business that they didn’t even know existed. And it’s usually not just one person, you have to diversify your funding streams to make it work. And understanding how to do that isn’t exactly something you can take a class in… I mean I don’t know of any courses called ‘how to piece together funding streams for community based place-making projects.’ So the people you’re convincing are a part of that equation too. I mean even if there was a course like that, a part of the funding is actually knowing people, having a network who are aware of your work, who can reach out to you with new opportunities, which in turn is based off of your having already done some of this work and made it publicly visible. So in some ways it’s a chicken and egg problem, which again goes back to my point, that I’ve probably stressed too many times by now…that this work is simply hard to do— that’s the real reason why there’s not more of it being done right now.
“I think one of the other critical things for place making and temporary urbanism is figuring out how it actually fits into longer term systems and processes. It’s not just about funding streams for one-off projects, it’s about finding ways to make your projects contribute, towards longer term goals that the city has already set and is already struggling to meet. But the really positive thing is that I keep hearing from planners and city officials that everyone wants more community engagement, and the communities are saying the same thing, so I think there are a lot of opportunities, but again, the money is still really tight. At the end of the day it’s really about identifying need and starting from there, really making any type of community engagement process come out of clear need for something, not out of desire to do good.
“Lack of funding for this work and the issue of convincing people that it’s valuable is only part of the challenge though, there’s also the more practical challenge that this type of work is hard because it requires a unique set of skills and understandings. One of the challenges that I have at times is that the stuff that I do, the stuff that Public Workshop does, needs to be very accessible to a wide range of people, and at times it looks so accessible that it looks easy, but it’s not.
“I think one of the problems with design thinking, or tactical urbanism, or whatever you want to call it, is that there is this assumption that anyone can do this stuff. And there are parts of it that anyone can do, but not so many people who can do it all. Those people don’t just grow on trees. They are few and far between. I mean if I think about what I need in a team, and this is something I think about a lot because I’m always looking for new people to work with, I need someone who is a great designer, great at working with people and communities; they need to be a solid educator and they need to be a great builder, and they need to be a really good lateral thinker and see how lots of different pieces fit together. Right there, that’s five things, and it’s really hard to be good at all those. Not to mention the fact that once you have those skills it’s also going to take a certain amount of willingness to sacrifice your time and energy to make the work happen, which in turn means it’s most likely someone who’s in the earlier stages of their career or life, which in turn means they have to be really special to be young and already have all five of those skillsets.
“But even if you have the right people and the right team, the work itself is both delicate and complex, and it’s not something you’re going to figure out in the first few months, or even first year you’re working. Because even if you do have all those skills and know how to make it work, you’re not going to get a contract to do this right off the bat, and even if you do get one, then how are you going to get the rest? I mean, I’m not tooting my own horn, but I’ve made a lot of personal and financial sacrifices, some of which I probably shouldn’t have made. But what I have seen over the past couple of years is that a number of people really want to do this, and really get excited about it and try to make it happen for about 6 months. And then realize, ‘ah shit, this is really hard.’ Then they go and work for institutions. In some respects, by the time you have the maturity to do some of this work, you’re around your thirties and you need to start planning for some other stuff in your life. So I’ve seen a lot of reformed designers and educators in their forties and even in their fifties who want to do this, but to really take the leap and dive into this type of work you run the risk of only making $25,000-40,000 a year, which for some people is a big risk because they already have a family and a mortgage and bills to pay.”
The more Gilliam described his experience and the sacrifices he’s made, the more it became clear that he made them because he passionately loves this work. Even though these different techniques, tools, and approaches arise out of his own deep analysis of human nature, they very much are a part of who he is as a person. At the same time, it’s clear that he is not simply exploring what he’s interested in. He is driven by a need - a desire to do more and do it better.
“I think that there are a lot of people right now who’d like to do this type of work, who’d like to start something like Public Workshop, but they are not in a position where they can make the kind of personal sacrifices this work requires or take the professional and financial risks that it takes. I’m not saying don’t do it, I mean Public Workshop is proof that those sacrifices and risks can really pay off, but you need to understand that doing this type of work is a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle choice to constantly question what you’re doing and relentlessly look for connections, to fearlessly test to see whether your ideas actually work and to be confident enough to be okay with being wrong but curious and analytic enough to always want to know why, and constantly work to do more and do better.”
Public Workshop is proof that those sacrifices and risks can really pay off, but you need to understand that doing this type of work is a lifestyle.”