Girls Garage, a nonprofit art space for girls and gender-expansive youth, began in the fall of 2018 after the Kavanaugh hearings, when the cold dismissal of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony had sent a nationwide shiver down every woman’s spine.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday after school, a group of girls and gender-expansive youth gather in a bright workspace in west Berkeley, Calif. Even after an exhaustive day of Zoom, they still manage to make small talk through their masks (sometimes effusive, sometimes awkward), and check their phones one last time.
And then they roll up their sleeves and get to work.
These girls are participants in the activist arts programs at Girls Garage, a nonprofit design and building space for girls and gender-expansive youth. Founded by designer and builder Emily Pilloton in 2013, the program offers architecture, engineering, welding, carpentry and—most recently—activist arts programming to youth in the Bay Area.
An art class at Girls Garage is a far cry from your typical studio “vibe.” For one thing, there are no boys staring broodily at a canvas like they’re the next Norman Rockwell. For another thing, almost all of the participants identify as womxn of color, and 73 percent of them are from low-income households.
“It’s great to find a space like this for girls of color in the East Bay,” said Malaya Conui, an alumnae of the arts program. “You don’t have to pay for it. You can just learn and explore.” As with all teen programming at Girls Garage, the activist art classes are free. Admission is granted by application, with preference given to girls of color and those from lower-resourced communities.
To experience a dearth of whiteness and wealth in an arts space, especially in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area, is rare. But from the very beginning of Girls Garage, Pilloton committed to serving as diverse a community as possible, both racially and socioeconomically.
“I opened Girls Garage as a physical space where all girls, especially girls of color, would feel safe and inspired to exercise their personal voice and power,” she said. “The fact that a space like this exists is in and of itself, a political statement, and the creativity that comes out of it naturally represents our hope, anger and identities.”
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The arts program at Girls Garage began in the fall of 2018, shortly after the Kavanaugh sexual assault hearing. The cold dismissal of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony sent a nationwide shiver down every woman’s, girl’s and survivor’s spine. Accordingly, the energy in Girls Garage—from youth and instructors alike—was low, angry, visceral.
So Pilloton threw out the scheduled plan and said to the girls, “Whatever you’re feeling, put it on a T-shirt.” Instead of drafting architectural blueprints, the girls screen printed their frustration, determination and fire onto fabric. Upon witnessing the palpable catharsis, Emily realized how powerful—and necessary—art was for young people.
And thus a new class was born: “Protest + Print.”
Led by Pilloton and Bay Area multi-disciplinary artist, HyeYoon Song, girls gather each week to learn screen-printing and printmaking techniques. Drawing from a rich legacy of protest art, the curriculum is rooted in social justice, and each session revolves around discussions of various (and often conflicting) aspects of personal identities: race, gender, class, citizenship, and sexuality.
The girls’ final artwork yields the fruits of such conversations—one poster reads, “I am not my diagnosis;” another states, “It’s not about what I wear.” For HyeYoon, the goal is “to hold space together to make an object we find meaning in.” In each artwork, the line between personal and political beautifully blurs.
Upon witnessing the girls’ enthusiasm for activist art, Girls Garage now offers an additional class: Advanced Print Shop, taught by Oakland-based artist, Yétundé Olagbaju. As with Protest + Print, the curriculum is based in social justice but with a heavier emphasis on the power of self-definition as “an act of protest for marginalized voices.” Through experimentation with more technical artistic mediums (such as block, cyanotype and Van Dyke printing), girls explore their ancestral and personal narratives.
In both classes, there’s an ethos of creative abundance. Participants and instructors collaborate on projects, share materials and swap ideas. “We’re not adhering to a capitalist framework of figuring out how we need to sell these items,” Yétundé said. “We’re just giving space to our voice and narratives.”
The point of activist art is not just to create aesthetically ‘beautiful’ art. The point is to honor each girl’s voice and experience, even when they deviate from what’s considered “normal” or “acceptable.” Unsurprisingly, what’s “acceptable” in a capitalist world run by white, cisgender, heterosexual men is a luxury for those who fit the bill and a danger to almost everyone else. Considering that just over a month ago, white supremacists stormed the Capitol wrapped in American, Confederate and MAGA flags with hardly any repercussions, terms like “normal” and “acceptable” are ineffectual at best, unscrupulous at worst.
In response to the violence of the Insurrection, the “Protest + Print” students are currently creating their own flags. “Flags as a symbol can feel really intimidating,” HyeYoon said. “They’re also something that people may have a different interpretation of, especially if you’re a person of color or thinking about your citizenship.” By designing their own flags, girls reclaim agency—they decide which truths to honor, to emblazon for the world to see.
It’s time to amplify new voices, especially from young people of color, especially from young womxn of color. Want to dismantle the white supremacy patriarchy? Start by giving girls paintbrushes, power tools, graffiti cans, sketchbooks. Encourage them to write, paint, build. Ask them questions and listen, really listen, to their answers. Give them the space, attention and energy to speak their own truths. Trust us—the world transforms.
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