Constructing change

Despite bureaucratic frustrations, an innovative high-school program elevates lives in 'If You Build It'

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A Studio H student works on a project.
COURTESY OF LONG SHOT FACTORY

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Two of the most deep-rooted national-character-defining American tropes are a) that we are a profoundly self-reliant people, and b) the Horatio Alger myth that anyone can go from "rags to riches" if they have a good heart and a tireless work ethic.

Despite their enduring popularity, neither has aged very well in terms of real-world application of late. Globalization has moved offshore many of the jobs and services that corporatization had already removed from the small businesses that sustained smaller communities. And the Horatio Alger myth? Please. It was a highly effective weapon of mass distraction 150 years ago, and it's even more so now.

As the musical chairs of sustainable life in our society are steadily winnowed, hope continues to be pegged on education — where funding for music classes went away long ago, and probably chairs are next — because, really, what else is out there for most people? But public K-12 gets worse and worse, while higher education gets ever more expensive and less valuable. (Of course, without it you're even more screwed.) Recent years' legislated focus on test scores has helped make lower education grindingly tedious for most students at a time when they more desperately need to succeed at it than ever to have any chance at an adulthood that doesn't pledge allegiance to Sam Walton (and food stamps). Even if there were money for it, who is interested in innovating (rather than just privatizing) public education?

If You Build It is a documentary about two people who, in fact, are actively interested in just that: Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are partners in Project H Design, which runs Studio H, a program that draws on their architecture and design training to train middle-to-high schoolers in those disciplines while hopefully bettering their personal futures and communities as a whole. They get a chance to put their ideals (and curriculum) into practice when they're hired for a year by Chip Zullinger, the "visionary" new superintendent of schools in Bertie County, North Carolina's poorest. It's so badly off that the opening of a Domino's Pizza in county seat Windsor represents a major boon to area employment. There's "no reason to stay here" for local youth, no opportunity and little hope of any developing, making Bertie a perfect laboratory for H's experiment in ground-up community self-improvement.

But this "design bootcamp" has barely begun when Zullinger is canned by the school board for unspecified "numerous disagreements," and all his new projects are immediately shut down. In desperation, Pilloton and Miller offer to continue without salaries (foundation grants are in place to cover their basic equipment and materials), so they're given the go-ahead. Why not? They're a freebie, now.

The 10 junior class members who've signed up are a racial mix. Expecting "a class where we'd make little toys or somethin'," they're instead challenged to figure out the basic tenets of design themselves in a series of increasingly complex, locally relevant projects. The first is to create individual boards for "cornholing" — something that hereabouts does not mean what you're thinking right now, being more a sort of beanbag-toss game — the next constructing idiosyncratic chicken coops. (This is taken seriously enough that chickens are kept in the shop studio in order to study their behaviors and preferences.) Finally, there's a competition to design a downtown farmers market building — something the area badly needs, as there's no outlet for local produce and the sole available supermarket's monopoly allows it to price-gouge.

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