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Girls learn tools of the trades at St. Louis nonprofit

Girls learn tools of the trades at St. Louis nonprofit

When Alicia Bernal took her turn at the miter saw Tuesday afternoon, she wasn’t quite sure of the angle she needed to cut. The sixth grader, still in her navy St. Margaret of Scotland gym shorts, had used a saw just once before, when her dad helped her make a wooden dog as a present for her mom.

But with a little guidance and a few small trims, the two-by-four came out just so. She pressed it up against the two other segments, forming it into a triangular shelf.

“You know what made it so great? We were pretty exact with our measurements,” Karley Berard told Alicia as they started dabbing on wood glue.

It’s one of many tidbits of advice given to Alicia, 12, and nine other middle school girls at an after-school LitShop pop-up at Thomas Dunn Learning Center in Dutchtown.

“It’s incredibly empowering for them to understand how to make things with their hands,” said Berard, a construction project manager at St. Louis University.

Berard is among LitShop’s stable of experts tapped by the nonprofit’s founder, Kelli Best-Oliver, to help teach woodworking, metalsmithing, design and other trade skills to girls ages 10 to 14.

“We’re giving them their own means of production,” said Best-Oliver, 39, a former educator. “That’s kind of subversive to give them the tools to create their own careers and not be cogs in the machine.”

Gender imbalance  

Demand for workers in the skilled trades is on the rise, with 3 million jobs expected to be left unfilled in 2028, when today’s middle schoolers are hitting the workforce.

Many school districts have cut shop classes and other supplemental curriculum in favor of test prep, including St. Louis Public Schools, where Best-Oliver spent six years as a teacher and administrator.

“As long as I’ve been in urban education, we push college, college, college,” she said. “But the tides are starting to turn. There are different ways of providing for yourself and different careers.”

The median wage for construction workers in 2017 topped $45,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than $8,000 higher than the median pay for all industries.

But the construction trades are among the worst careers for gender diversity: Fewer than one in 20 workers are women, according to a study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The imbalance has been blamed on barriers including a lack of female role models and early tracking of girls toward caretaking roles — which pay less, on average — while boys are encouraged to work with their hands.

But in the past few years, programs such as the nonprofit Girls Garage in Berkeley, California, have been attempting to recalibrate how girls view design and building through hands-on classes, mentoring and peer support.

Last year, Best-Oliver was working as a Catalyst Fellow through the Opportunity Trust, tasked with designing a new educational program. She had always had a sweet spot for middle school girls — still young enough to light up with new ideas but old enough to exercise some autonomy.

A visit last fall to Girls Garage, which opened in 2013, helped cement her plan for LitShop. She included three threads: building, leadership and literacy.

“If you want to get middle school girls interested, tie it to a narrative,” she said.

So, printmaking would be paired with poetry. The Deathly Hallows symbol from “Harry Potter” could be a template to be traced, hammered and threaded into string art.

And power tools? Well, those are enticing enough on their own, as evidenced by the parade of young visitors to Berard’s sawing station on the parking lot behind Thomas Dunn.

Expanding opportunities  

LitShop’s first full sessions started this semester, just after Best-Oliver landed a fellowship with EdHub with the intent of figuring out how to grow the nonprofit in a sustainable way. Eventually, she’d like to have a dedicated space and an expanded programming schedule.

For now, she has intentionally chosen locations within St. Louis neighborhoods where there aren’t typically a lot of extracurricular choices. Classes are free to any girl ages 10 to 14.

“We’re connecting (girls) to things they’re not going to have in other places,” Best-Oliver said. “There’s a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots.”

LitShop’s first after-school classes are at Fanning Middle School in Tower Grove South and Hodgen Elementary in the Gate neighborhood. Confluence’s Aspire Academy in Walnut Park East will host a session starting next month.

The nonprofit’s overhead so far has been low. Best-Oliver has not been drawing a paycheck and has raised enough from friends, family and a few corporate donors to keep her girls in tin snips, screwdrivers and sandpaper.

The tools aren’t the only thing, Best-Oliver said. It’s also the camaraderie.

“There’s a lot of power to having an all-female environment,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in a girl wielding a blowtorch.”

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