Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If You build It

"In the fall of 2008" as I'm usually saying these days to the point where, notice, I'm quoting myself, "if Barack had done one thing, just one, if he'd have tossed us one bone, I could maybe say, 'okay, I get how the system works. But he at least threw us a rope we can hang on to.'"

Back then I had the idea to take $70 billion out of the TARP and tell the banks, Look, assholes, we're not gonna just hand over $770 billion to you numbnuts and not give the people whose money you're robbing nothing. So write down this $70 bil and stfu! You're STILL getting $700 BILLION so, one more time, STFU!"

Then, take that $70 bil and start a campaign where startups can apply for seed money. They go to the "restartamerica.org" site and can view tutorials, go through a bootcamp, see examples of what works, find mentors, find co-founders, network with others... 

That leads to putting together a pitch package: exec summary, slide deck, maybe wireframes or diagrams if applicable, maybe a short video. Then it gets vetted. If it passes muster, it gets seeded, let's say up to $70k. That's a lot of startups.

Most will fail. That's ok. Because even the failures will be better off; they'll have acquired very valuable skills in how to prepare a professional presentation, how to meet and greet, learn what investors are looking for... and with the advent of crowd funding, now they even have a second chance. Maybe that'd even be their first choice.

But the successes... there'd be a few... would be so motivating, so positive a message for us that we'd almost forget the evil empire because, well, who wants to focus on them when we got this great stuff over here going?

Hell, take that money and lay fiber in America  everywhere. Massive project, huge job creation, big stimulus for supplier entrepreneurs ... and at the end of the day, something to show for it: a state of the art network that will boost productivity (hopefully).

I believe entrepreneurship is one of the keys to unlocking the unprecedented set of problems that EM08 presents. And though all but the uber-rich have been hit with the EM08 wrecking ball and at least its shrapnel, young people today are up the creek. Have we ever put an entire generation at risk like this? This is suicide in the making, and the EU is foreboding in ts massive unemployment among its young people.

Enter Studio H, its founder, Emily Pillotin, and filmmaker Patrick Creadon's brilliant film on Studio H's foray into the unknown, which in this case is tiny Bertie County, NC. Yee haw, time for a hoedown.

Not quite. Studio H -- Emily and her partner Matthew Miller --  having been recruited by the superintendent to bring their design approach to the local high school. There are, of course, many letters between that a and z, but, as with all good stories, the troubles mount.

What sticks is watching these country kids come alive in new ways -- there's a great line by one of them when he's being introduced to the audience, and he says something like, "I'm an old fashioned boy" -- ways that city kids could never imagine, even in private schools. One of my big buzzwords these days is "craftsmanship," and I believe it's a dead philosophy, certainly in our dead ass educational system. Studio H teaches design from a holistic perspective, from the community perspective, in thinking and doing as one integrated process.

Olvera Street is where the City of LA "officially" got started, and is all touristy now. When Ma would take me there as a kid to eat, I remember wanting to stop and watch the glassblower dude. For me, the fascinating part was not watching the corny animals and baubles "come to life" but how he'd prepare the tubes, how he'd heat them, blow a bit, form them... the technique, the deftness... There is, for me, great pleasure in watching someone who's adept at something.

But the genius of If You Build It is not the voila! of watching these kids as design whizzes, it's in the how they become adept at design. And that speaks to "the 10,000 hour principle," but presents a problem for the artist; how do you convey the sweat magnitude of the principle? For Studio H, it's getting down to brass tacks; design begins with approach, consideration, thinking, then planning, and last but not least, doing. It's a ton of hard work.

One of the observations about East LA's lowriders is this; many, if not most, of the kids then were languishing in school. The schools in my hometown were some of the worst, with ultra-high dropout rates, recidivism and all of the attendant ills that go with a socio-economically-challenged area. But those kids who were into lowriding... they'd ply endless hours at dead-end gigs and plow that revenue into their craft, working tirelessly on their cars. And when you think about what goes into car restoration and customization, the myriad considerations and details... it really is remarkable.

I think that same spirit and practice is on display with the kids of If You Build It. Their "character arc" is also remarkable, as you watch kids who have no inkling of design principles and aesthetics blossom with the water of creativity.

An old acquaintance once remarked his displeasure with the dating scene thus; "Any woman I meet from now on has to be into something." And he didn't mean "shopping". That, I think, is what's so great about watching the kids of If You Build It, that they really get into it. Currently, California is having a statewide debate on the so-called "Common Core," what students must know. But it begs the question: Will students get into it? And beyond, method, to borrow from McLuhan, is pedagogy.

If You Build It is not a panacea, nor is it "the solution." Our educational system is so broken here that saying that is beyond trite. But things that work are already known, and some I have written about here. Let me add design and the pedagogy, the admirable practice of Emily Pillotin and Studio H. If I had a young kid in school now, I'd kill to have her/him experience this program.

The farmers market: Student designed & built.

Studio H founder Emily Pillotin with students CJ Robertson & Stevie Mizelle

IYBI's director, Patrick Creadon