Perhaps a cantankerous and obstructionist Congress should consider convening at the National Building Museum instead of the U.S. Capitol.
Why? Legislators could likely pick up pointers on cooperation, camaraderie, completion, leadership and esprit de corps—from teenagers.
This spring, 27 imaginative and motivated 13- to 18-year-olds devoted eight Saturdays at the downtown D.C. museum to scheming and then crafting five unique Little Free Libraries that will soon adorn a handful of community gardens sprinkled throughout the nation’s capital. The pint-size libraries—part of a global movement launched in Wisconsin in 2009—promote take-a-book, return-a-book gathering places where neighbors can share their favorite authors and stories. A grand opening at each D.C. garden is set from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 17.
The young library builders are participants in what’s called the Design Apprenticeship Program. It’s part of an initiative the National Building Museum created 14 years ago to not only expose students to career possibilities but to hone their observation skills and help them grasp the integral role design can play in how their fellow humans perceive all of the bricks and mortar around them.
Lauren Wilson, the museum’s teen program coordinator, was thrilled when she discovered that Little Free Library organizers encouraged recycling. That ethos prompted her to link her spring apprenticeship class with what she calls one of her favorite places, Community Forklift.
In mid-March, the five teams of students traveled via school bus to the Forklift to tour its 40,000-square foot warehouse and load up on an assortment of cabinets, shelves, lumber, hinges, small doors, doorknobs, drawer pulls, maple flooring, Plexiglas, table bases, newel posts, shingles, glass tiles and other baubles. Each team had a base budget of $200, which they could bump up by completing homework assignments.
“I could have talked to them about the benefits of repurposing,” Wilson says. “But it was much more inspiring and powerful to go to the Forklift building where people with expertise could talk about it.”
The students agreed that their Forklift field trip was “awesome.” But one-on-one interviews revealed that their grasp of the entire program went much deeper than that single-word assessment. Yes, each student had sketched a library design. But it was incumbent on them to collaborate with their teammates to decide what they kept and what they jettisoned.
Evangelina Hakes, a 17-year-old from Bowie, says having essentials from the Forklift removed the pressure of creating a project from scratch.
“We had to adjust and adapt and be flexible,” explains Hakes, a junior at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda. “We had to remember that this is for our team, it’s not just mine. And what I like about being part of the team is that you don’t just have to rely on yourself. It allows you to think outside of your own box.”
Hakes gained confidence using power tools in the museum’s workshop. Meanwhile, her 16-year-old teammate from D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood, Asif Zuckerman, says he enrolled in the program “because I have really good pet-sitting skills from taking care of cats and dogs but I need more people skills.”
Zuckerman, a high school sophomore who spends lots of time building biplanes and Lego creations, says this library project helped him have conversations with strangers who became colleagues and also friends.
Throughout the spring session, each team had access to a trio of volunteer adult mentors who offered insight and encouragement. For longtime instructor Giam Trinh, it’s the teens’ enthusiasm and open-mindedness that compels him to return year after year to volunteer with the Design Apprenticeship Program.
Over the last 14 years, he and other mentors have guided students as they have tackled projects as diverse as puppet theaters for Head Start classes, set designs for an in-house Shakespeare festival, and furniture for a local school and families in transitional housing.
“My role is to help them narrow their focus and ideas,” says Trinh, who was trained as an architect but earns his living as a graphic designer. “I’m a facilitator.”
The program focuses on teaching the teens how to work with their hands, manage their time so they can meet deadlines and take an idea from concept to reality, he says. They have to make scale drawings, critique their peers, practice their public speaking and figure out who will lead and who will follow.
“Watching them grow into confident professionals, that’s priceless,” Trinh says, adding that he’s especially proud of two program graduates now thriving in related fields—one as an art director and the other as a product designer. “I became involved because I was feeling stale at work and wanted to do some sort of outreach with kids. This is the best thing I’ve done in my career.”
Early on, each team visited the garden where its Little Free Library would be permanently “planted.” That gave the students a chance to connect with neighbors in local communities and capture the spirit of each garden. The five library recipients are Old City Farm & Guild, Common Good City Farm, Bruce Monroe Community Garden, Wangari Gardens and City Blossoms.
Sixteen-year-old Yasmeen Webb is over the moon that her team’s library will be “sprouting” near her own back yard in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. It is destined for a garden initiated by the nonprofit City Blossoms in the 1500 block of Marion Street.
Books are bliss for Webb, a junior at the city’s Columbia Heights Education Campus with a penchant for literature, science, art and music.
“I’m somebody who has enjoyed reading since I was little,” she says, noting that her love of words is a tribute to her parents and their well-stocked bookshelves. “I want to give everybody else a chance to read and enjoy books the way I’ve been able to.”
Lola Bloom, the appropriately named co-founder and co-executive director of City Blossoms, says the tiny library will be a welcome addition to the Marion Street community garden “that serves as a meeting place for a really diverse bunch of neighbors.”
Popular gatherings at the garden already include cooking demonstrations, art classes, potluck dinners, movie nights and seasonal celebrations, such as an event where visitors dressed up as their favorite insect.
The cheerful garden, which covers two city lots, fits right in on a block of colorful and appealing row houses. Strawberries and other plants thrive in tires transformed into planters, and reclaimed bricks line pathways adjacent to neatly labeled beds bearing a bounty of herbs, flowers and vegetables. Funky sculptures and a whimsical wall of handmade artwork are as well tended as the rain barrels, the trellis, the birdbath and the compost operation.
Readers can find ready-made respite on benches, a pair of picnic tables or a ring of painted tree stumps already set up in a ring suitable for a story hour.
Astra Robles-Gottlieb, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, is proud of the way teammates highlighted the themes of creativity, togetherness, family and nature with the library they built for City Blossoms.
“Seeing our project go from two-dimensional to three-dimensional was really satisfying,” Robles-Gottlieb says. “It was a lot of hard work.”
The 18-year-old appreciates how the Design Apprenticeship Program allowed her to merge her strengths in art and computers, and also forced her to overcome her innate shyness. She hopes it will give her a leg up in a competitive job market as she heads off to Montgomery College this fall to study photography and cybersecurity.
“I actually approached this as if it were a job,” she says. “I figure this is going to look good on my resume.”
* Learn more about the National Building Museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program athttp://www.nbm.org/families-kids/teens-young-adults/ and Little Free Libraries at http://littlefreelibrary.org/