There’s something cool about solving problems, especially those really tricky, complex ones. If you meet someone who’s truly great at problem solving, you find they have a tendency to inspire those around them. They’re smart, often funny, and almost always strong, confident, wonderfully infectious individuals.
They’re the kinds of people who would make great teachers.
When Christine and I first heard about designer Emily Pilloton and her partner, architect Matt Miller, we were immediately drawn to them. Our friend Neal Baer had read a book by Emily called Design Revolution, which featured one hundred radical new ideas by designers from around the world that were changing people’s lives. One example is a genetically engineered flower that, when planted in an area that was filled with buried landmines, changed colors when it touched metal. There are do-it-yourself solar panel kits that bring lights to remote villages, water cups made from clay and organic material that purify water and fight disease, and eye glasses that allow the user to adjust to their own needs without a trip to the optometrist.
Emily and Matt both believe that great design—which is really just great problem solving—can change the world. Unfortunately, the people and places that are most in need of improvement often don't have access to designers and architects. Only two percent of the people in the world ever hire a designer or an architect. The world we live in is primarily someone else’s creation, so it’s difficult to feel true ownership of our own surroundings.
That’s why for years Emily and Matt worked hard to bring great design and creative problem solving to communities in need. They were especially careful to listen to those they worked with, and to include input from the community when new projects were designed and built and implemented. And although they were doing incredible work in communities all around the world, they recognized that there was only so much work they could handle. “These people don’t need us, they need our skill sets,” said Emily. That’s about the time their phone rang.
It was Chip Zullinger, a renegade school superintendent from Bertie County, NC, the poorest county in the state. Dr. Zullinger believed that if he could bring Matt and Emily to Bertie County and unleash the power of creative problem solving in a high school classroom, together they might be able to address some of the community’s most pressing challenges. “Would you two be willing to take everything you know how to do and teach it to our high school students?”
Emily and Matt immediately said yes, quickly created a design-build curriculum they called “Studio H,” and just weeks before the first day of class we were in North Carolina shooting what would become IF YOU BUILD IT.
Bertie County is the poorest county in North Carolina and faces countless challenges: high drop-out rates among high schoolers, high unemployment, stagnant education opportunities, high obesity rates, and a lack of access to fresh produce at reasonable prices. Those were just a few of the challenges. Emily and Matt would have been naive to think that their classroom and their students could have solved all of the problems that exist in Bertie County. But of course, that was never the goal. What Studio H was designed to do is plant small seeds and know-how in the students who participated in the class, and by doing so develop a new resource—a new generation of creative problem solvers—that could address some of these challenges in the near future with a new skill set.
We knew early on in the process that we would not (and should not) be able to shoot every day in the classroom. But we also knew that there were bound to be moments during the year that could be helpful in telling this story. So we as filmmakers did something we had never done before: we put cameras into the hands of the students and taught them how to tell their own stories. One student, Jamesha Thompson, was particularly good at shooting video and asking questions. We began to refer to her as the “Barbara Walters” of Studio H. When something important was happening in the classroom that we couldn’t document, we knew we could rely on Jamesha to get the story. This filmmaking technique felt especially appropriate because it was so similar to the Studio H approach; by inviting the students to take ownership of telling their own stories, we were able to create a much more honest and intimate portrayal of what occurred throughout the school year. Much of the footage Jamesha shot is in the final version of the film, and she became fond of saying, “I love the camera, and the camera loves me!”
The making of IF YOU BUILD IT was an extraordinary learning experience for Christine and me. Not only was this a challenging film to produce and an extremely nuanced and difficult story to tell, the lessons that all of us learned in Studio H—students, teachers, and filmmakers—went far beyond the lessons of how to design and build things. What we also learned is that schools need to be what we as parents and educators and students decide they should be, that we as a nation are relying far too heavily on on-line education, that real change can’t occur unless there is shared ownership in the new solutions that are being created to address our most challenging problems, and, perhaps most importantly, that there is a designer inside each of us that just needs a little encouragement to grow and develop.
Bertie County, NC is 2,600 miles from our home in California, and yet this always felt like a very personal story for Christine and me. Our three kids go to public schools in Los Angeles, so we understand the challenges and the potential that public education has to offer. We felt from the beginning that Emily and Matt and their students would make for an interesting story. What we didn’t realize was that it would become such a universal story, resonating with parents, students, and educators far outside Bertie County limits.
Imagine a world with better, more creative problem solvers. That’s what Studio H is about, that’s what IF YOU BUILD IT is really about, and that’s why we are so thrilled to share it with others.
—Patrick Creadon, Director