Alex Gilliam - The Doer

portrait by Mark Likosky

portrait by Mark Likosky

"Amazing things happen in communities when its most resilient members—youth—are empowered to visibly take the lead in designing, building and problem-
solving for its future.” — AG

Any designer can draft plans. This one is drafting an army of doers, makers and earth-shakers. Alex Gilliam is the indomitable force behind the design consultancy Public Workshop, which works locally and nationally to help empower young people to become agents of change capable of building a better world. He’s left an impressive string of projects across the country—from rolling treehouses at a struggling public school in Virginia to a maker space at Science Leadership Academy's Beeber campus and a pop-up skate park in Camden. But more important to him than his many accomplishments—including being a National Building Museum Fellow—is the glint in the eye of every kid he’s taught to use a circular saw.

His philosophy at Public Workshop is built on the power of possibility and the momentum of action.“Rather than problems, what if the acute physical needs of all of our public schools, parks and public spaces were seen as opportunities for rich learning, empowerment, community-building, local skills development and growing new builder/entrepreneurs?” he asks. Some projects have transformed a space in as little as two hours, and others have unfolded over months, like the new playspace at Smith Memorial Playground, designed and built by a handful of young adults from the Building Hero program, a community design leadership initiative which is part of his nonprofit organization Tiny WPA (Works Progress Administration).

Gilliam sees every listing library shelf, rotting park bench and underutilized lot as an opportunity for kids, parents, teachers and community members to work together and meet their collective needs. “We all know that the needs exist, have proven time and again that these projects work, and that people of all ilk truly want to build and have a positive impact in the places they live, work and play,” he says. “We’d like to see this happening in every public space and school in Philadelphia.” 

Gilliam also wants to make Philadelphia a national model for empowering people to rebuild their communities. It’s a big idea. But if you combine a dynamic leader with battalions of charged-up kids armed with power tools, it’s just crazy enough to work.