“Exposure at a young age to a variety of things shapes what we imagine for our future as we grow,” explains CED alumnus Cameron Toler, AIA (B.Arch. ‘09). “And the more exposure kids have to architecture and design, and to design thinking, and the more tools they can put in their toolbox, the better off they are to build the future they envision.”
This is the belief behind Fam 1st Youth Architecture Camp, the brainchild of Toler and fellow CED alumnus and former AIA East Bay president, Jeremiah Tolbert, II AIA (B.Arch. ’04). Founded in 2014 by Toler and Tolbert, the Youth Architecture Camp exposes underserved and at-risk middle-school youth to architecture, engineering, and construction during a week-long immersive summer program that takes place in UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall.
The program is a partnership with the AIA East Bay and Fam 1st Family Foundation – a locally-focused nonprofit founded by Oakland natives and National Football League players Joshua Johnson (QB, NY Giants) and Marshawn Lynch (RB, Oakland Raiders) who earned recognition for his performance with the Cal Bears before turning pro.
This past summer, camp youth were invited to redesign Mosswood Park and Recreation Center. The park hosts many events, including numerous after-school programs and classes for kids, making it an especially fitting project for the camp. Architecture Camp students were invited to develop creative ideas that would help bring the community (especially students like themselves) to Mosswood Park. Noticing a small garden hidden behind public restrooms, one group proposed expanding the garden to different areas of the park, for example.
While centered on architecture and design, with interactive design labs, site explorations, model making and presentations, the camp isn’t just about training future architects. “We hoped to broaden the opportunity and their vision, so they can see more than what’s right in front of them,” said Toler.
Take for instance Savion Green, who participated in the first Architecture Camp in 2014 as a less-than-enthusiastic 11 year-old and returned in 2017 as an eager mentor. With a new-found passion for design, architecture and robotics, inspired by his camp experience, Savion is now working toward becoming an engineer, focusing on robotics and nanotechnology with the hope of making the world a better place.
The camp is a rewarding experience for CED student volunteers as well. Recent graduate Stephanie Chu (B. Arch. ’17), now an architecture designer working in San Francisco, has volunteered with the camp since its inception. She underscores the responsibility designers have to their community.
“One of the themes we have in the architecture camp is how we as designers can shape our built environment and give back to the community; someone must be willing to act and speak up about what the community needs,” she explained. “Design is the way we communicate our ideas about our own environment and how we can improve it.”
Johnson and Lynch themselves also provide inspiration to participants, visiting the camp every year to emphasize that academics are just as important as sports. “It means a lot that they show up,” noted Toler. “They engage with the kids, reiterating the importance of academics as well as staying healthy. They tell stories of more talented players who missed opportunities to fulfill their athletic careers because they weren’t focused academically.”
Fam 1st Family Foundation currently runs programs out of the West Oakland Youth Center while they work on fulfilling their dream to build a new youth center centralized in Oakland. Johnson and Lynch hope to incorporate the kids’ ideas, developed at camp over the last four years, into the future project. In the meantime, Toler and Tolbert are looking to establish a year-round architecture program in the West Oakland Youth Center, potentially two days a week to start.
Expressing his ambitions for the program, Cameron Toler commented, “I’m proud we’re able to expose architecture and design to kids who normally don’t get that, and excited about the possibilities to expand and grow, not only within architecture but also the environment. We hope to bring more outdoor activities to Family 1st – to these kids some of whom have never seen the ocean for instance. Or have never looked at buildings in a certain way, or realized that Telegraph Avenue used to have trollies. We want them to be able to look at things differently.”