Nonprofit Helps Girls Build the World They Want to See

Girls Garage is the manifestation of Emily Pilloton's mission to 'inspire a community of fearless builder girls everywhere.'

Emily Pilloton was born to build things.

She grew up in a house where both grandfathers were engineers and both grandmothers were librarians. She credits them for providing the sparks of curiosity and creativity she would eventually use to build Girls Garage, a nonprofit design-and-build program and dedicated workspace for girls and female-identifying youths ages nine to 18.

Through after-school and summer programs, Girls Garage provides free and low-cost programs in carpentry, welding, architecture, engineering and activist art to about 200 girls per year.

But before Girls Garage occupied even the tiniest particle of her consciousness, there was Quadro. Pilloton laughs remembering the hours she and her sisters — whom she lovingly refers to as her “first co-builders” — would spend creating things with the giant German-engineered kids construction set she was given as a child.

“[Quadro] was all tubes and elbow joints and I could build things that were as big as a room and I would just do that for hours,” Pilloton told Family Handyman. “I remember creating whole environments. I always loved making stuff, taking things apart and making physical space that I could occupy.”

The Turning Point

A summer service trip to Belize at age 16 was the moment in which Emily Pilloton, the original “fearless builder girl,” heard her calling. Teenagers from all over the United States worked alongside local Belizean volunteers to build a town park — a central space in which the local community could congregate, socialize and celebrate.

For Pilloton, the experience was transformative.

“That experience really solidified for me my identity as a builder,” she says.

“Through that process, I learned how to mix and pour concrete by hand. I learned how to frame a roof. I learned how to think about space and prepare a site for construction. And at the end of it, there was an entire town park that we had built — the furniture, the space, the gazebo, the entire site. Having that experience as a teenager helped me build a vocabulary where I could actually say I’m a builder and I want to be a builder.”

From Belize to Bertie County

Her experience in Belize inspired Pilloton to earn a degree in architecture and, in 2008, start Project H Design, a humanitarian design firm. Project H focused on using the acts of designing and building as catalysts for community development.

In a Ted Talk delivered in 2010, Pilloton detailed how Project H helped an impoverished rural county in North Carolina transform its public school system and dramatically improve educational opportunities for local students. She and her partner moved from San Francisco to Bertie County, N.C., and got certified as high school teachers to run the shop classes, mentoring the students who would ultimately become change-makers.

The underlying question that drove everything she and her Project H team did in those rural towns and schools was this: “Most shop classes have gone away. But what would it look like to bring back shop class in a way that was connected to the needs of the community?”

Fast forward to today and Pilloton is still finding ways to use building to inspire young people to connect with their communities. The Project H shop class was discontinued and the organization itself, Project H Design, has since become Girls Garage, but its legacy is still prevalent in the all-female program and mission.

The Evolution of Girls Garage

“Girls Garage evolved out of that desire to give a physical voice to young people to say this is what I want my world to look like and I’m going to build it that way,” Pilloton says. “And the focus on girls emerged in 2013 after teaching the shop classes. As a female leader and teacher, I’ve experienced things in the worlds of construction and in architecture that are deeply gendered.”

She says she never witnessed overt gender discrimination in those early shop classes. But she felt a collective insecurity among her female students that drove them to doubt their place, second-guess their abilities and ultimately censor their voices. So she started Girls Garage as an experiment to see what would happen if she removed that negative energy.

“The result was game changing,” she says. “We were all just sort of in it together doing the work, and there was nothing that we had to think about or self-censor.”

At last count, Pilloton’s girls have built 133 projects. Among them: Furniture for a domestic abuse shelter, a greenhouse for a community garden, a chicken pavilion to house 5o chickens, and a fruit stand for an organization serving refugee families. Since 2013, 460 girls participated in the design and creation of these projects, and all teens participate free of charge. Pilloton conducts 36 sessions per year and has awarded more than a thousand achievement badges to girls mastering new tools and skills.

From the outset, Pilloton built Girls Garage to be inclusive and representative; she set out to build a place girls could feel safe and confident being themselves. And when she refers to “girls,” she means cis and trans girls, non-binary youth, gender non-conforming youth, gender queer youth and any girl-identified youth. Seventy percent of Girls Garage participants are girls of color and 62 percent attend for three years or more.

Pilloton published a book in June 2020 entitled Girls Garage: How To Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build The World You Want To See. Her aim with the book is the same one that guides every decision she makes about her organization: “I really want to inspire a larger community of fearless builder girls everywhere.”

The Future of Girls Garage

Pilloton has been approached about franchising Girls Garage in other cities. With the continued success of the original incarnation, it’s easy to see why others would want to perpetuate it. But for now, she’s happy in her 3,600 sq. ft. workspace in Berkeley, Cal. She points to the intimacy and nostalgia of the original location and cannot imagine doing what she does anywhere else in the world.

That said, Pilloton is really interested in collaborating with women in other parts of the country to set up similar programs that can be tailor-made to serve the needs of those communities. She has done that with women friends and colleagues in the past and offers an open invitation to any women working in STEM or the construction trades to reach out.

“I love when I can connect our girls on a one-to-one basis to someone who’s working in a field they’re curious about,” she says. “It would just be really helpful to have a face and a conversation to bring that career to life.”

As far as the Girls Garage curriculum goes, Pilloton is always thinking bigger. A week prior to sitting down with Family Handyman, she and one of her teams tackled a 500 sq. ft. chicken pavilion that she calls “obnoxiously big.” Pride beams on her face as she recounts its “gorgeous shed roof” and the “beautiful sliding barn door.”

Despite her accomplishments and the growing popularity of Girls Garage, Pilloton has one goal she doesn’t know how to achieve. It’s the one type of project that could make the biggest difference to her builder girls’ lives.

“I have one specific dream that I’m just going to keep saying out loud, because hopefully someone will hear it and be able to help us achieve it,” she says. “I really would love to start flipping houses with girls and selling them and putting the profits into their college funds. I would like to do that for the rest of my life.”

Regardless of age or gender, anyone can be a larger part of the Girls Garage community.

“We love taking donations of either dollars or materials or equipment,” Pilloton says. “I just think the larger we can make the universe for our girls, the better.”