Tiarra Bell hunches over a long wooden board, carefully spreading bonding glue while a table saw whines in the background, sawdust permeates the air, and other reassuring workshop sounds hum around her.
Tiarra, 18, is working in the basement of the new Tiny WPA headquarters on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. She’s making a mailbox for the location.
It’s a place that has transformed Tiarra’s life. And her experience with Tiny WPA’s Building Hero Project embodies the vision of the program’s co-creators, design expert Alex Gilliam and his partner Renee Schacht. Together, they’ve built a program for youth and adults to learn tools, create functional products to sell on the internet, and improve their neighborhoods and schools through hands-on design and building – all while learning teamwork and developing leadership.
“The Building Hero Project is a community design leadership curriculum where the training tools are projects,” Alex explained. “It’s kind of shop class on steroids!”
Participants perform their tasks in a visible location – on the sidewalk or in the storefront window, for instance – so passersby become intrigued.
“When people see what we’re building, they want to get involved,” Alex said. “And there’s no more powerful tool for stimulating or inspiring community engagement than Tiarra with a circular saw. When people see a teenage girl doing that, it’s like, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’”
A grant from The Barra Foundation will enable Alex and Renee to formalize the Building Hero Project, and offer three eight-week Building Hero training programs throughout the year. Participants of all ages and walks of life will learn how to make functional items—from cell phone amplifiers to desktop organizers—that will be sold on Etsy, an internet site for hand-made arts and crafts, with the money split between the program and the creators.
Brody Bauman, 16, has already earned $800 from desktop organizers that he made and sold on Etsy. He and Tiarra and other students have made this shop an impromptu after-school program, coming by to work on their skills in a comfortable, nurturing environment. “I just showed up one day and I never left,” he said.
Meanwhile, from time to time, neighbors drop by, asking Alex and Renee to help them make counter tops or front porch planters or a dog house. PhillyCAM, a local nonprofit, asked for help with a radio station console. When they can, they do it. The effort fits into their bigger dream, to use the Building Hero model to inspire students and residents to take up tools and help improve their neighborhood. Alex and Renee also hope to collaborate with the regional fabrication and design community, to create partnerships and mentoring opportunities. Furniture companies have already begun reaching out to them, seeking skilled individuals. “We want to weave the Building Hero Project into the design and fabrication life of this city,” Alex said.
A year and a half ago, Tiarra, a student at Science Leadership Academy, supported a group called ‘Random Acts of Kindness’, created by 9th grade girls at the Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus. There, working with Public Workshop—an affiliate of Tiny WPA, she helped them design and create ‘hang-out’ pods where students could sit and socialize. Tiarra enjoyed the process so much that she got involved in and became an integral part of the Building Hero Project. She has had a tremendous impact on Tiny WPA and Public Workshop’s work and her future has likewise been reshaped by the experience.
In near disbelief at how bored she would be had she pursued her original goal of studying to be a paleontologist, Tiarra changed her future plans and was accepted to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design as a furniture design major. She was among 819 students, out of 12,000 applicants, to be recognized by the National Young Arts Foundation and will receive a cash award, professional mentoring, and program opportunities. Tiarra was also the only person under the age of 25 invited to a recent national convening of experts organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Surdna Foundation on ‘community engaged design.’
“Designing and building is an outlet for me. After a stressful day at school… or a normal day, I look forward to coming to 4017 Lancaster Avenue and working with Tiny WPA,” said Tiarra. “It’s kinda my motivation for waking up in the morning.”