unCommon People: Bringing shop class and a new kind of workforce to New Orleans

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Aaron Frumin and the unCommon Construction crew. All of the incredible photographs featured in this post were taken by high school students. For more information on these talented photographers, visit http://gigsy.co.

In 2005, Aaron Frumin threw his hands up, dropped out of college and joined the Red Cross to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Once his extended term was up, he still wasn’t ready to return to a desk so he worked as a day laborer. He then went on to lead volunteers with AmeriCorps, finished school, and joined Teach for America. After basically joining every hands-on do-gooder organization in the country, it became clear that while he loved teaching, he hated the walls of a classroom.

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For the Spring 2016 session, 10 of the 25 applicants were female. YES.

So, as Aaron puts it, he decided to start a program that lets students build their own classroom walls. He recognized that there was a desperate need for skilled workers in Louisiana, and while the Department of Education has been trying to address this issue, those programs didn’t seem to be dealing with some of the core issues that are preventing people from stable employment. There are plenty of workforce training programs out there, but very few tackle the soft skills needed to really get and keep a job.

 

This is where Aaron’s unique combination of hands-on construction work and his understanding of systematic failures in education is invaluable and unique. He’s not throwing money at the problem–and he’ll surely corroborate the fact that he doesn’t have any money to throw–but instead, he digs in deeper to get to the root issues and starts from there. And speaking of money, his hardworking apprentices are paid for their time. As they should be. There are far too many exploitative training programs out there that benefit from the time and labor of those who need the money most.

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“These students can go into whatever specialized trades they want with this foundation, but I think it’s essential to start them with construction so they can have an immediate sense of accomplishment. Seeing what you’ve created is powerful.”

Aaron started unCommon Construction (uCC) just a year ago and is addressing this labor and education crisis in three ways:

  • Apprenticeships: Through after school and weekend sessions, high school students from diverse neighborhoods and schools build a house from start to finish over the course of four months. In this selective program, youth earn weekly pay and high school credit while developing transferrable job skills, and gaining valuable experience and leadership skills.
  • Pop-up Shop Class: To spark further interest in construction and involve more youth in our programs, unCommon Construction provides services to schools in the form of a “pop up” Shop Class. During these sessions, uCC staff facilitates hands-on, engaging construction experiences and classes for students on the school’s campus. Examples from previous sessions include birdhouses, sawhorses, benches, and flower boxes.
  • Post-Secondary Placement & Recruitment: uCC excels at providing the youth with high quality training and exposure to the construction industry and beyond. Through partnerships with local construction companies, training facilities and colleges, we provide youth with the opportunity to more successfully transition from school to the workforce and/or post-secondary education.

 

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This Spring, uCC is expanding to partner with four high schools. They’ve received 25 applications, including 10 girls and 15 boys ages 16-20. Five uCC alumni are returning for another semester. As you can see from the pictures, the students are into the work and are thoughtful about their time with the program. As Aaron explained, “You have to invest in your community. The students are the product, not the house. The house is just the curriculum.”

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The ToolMade Project can’t help but be partial to this student and his sentiments. For more on this crew, and for more photography from the incredible photography students that helped with this post, check back next month.

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Checking Back with Historic Green in New Orleans

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

Last month, we were able to donate a kickin’ little arsenal of tools to Historic Green, including:

These tools were based on the needs of this nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability in both Kansas City and New Orleans. For more on Historic Green, check out last month’s post here.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

I caught up with the crew after their most recent New Orleans trip, which, appropriately, overlapped with GreenBuild this year. According to Jeremy Knoll, the architect who pioneered the Historic Green nonprofit, they have done an astonishing amount of work in New Orleans, especially on the “Center” project. For this project, they have helped the CSED (Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development of New Orleans) with a wide variety of initiatives over the years, including:

  • 50+ home renovations/weatherizations
  • Playground construction/restoration
  • Community centers
  • Rain gardens
  • Community gardens
  • Supporting garden education spaces
  • Bayou access and restoration projects, and
  • Several design-build projects. Wow.
Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

The affordable retrofit demonstration house — the house they are working on in these pictures — represents the culmination of a lot of their efforts over the past several years. It will act as a new center for their operations where they can stage project materials, train and manage volunteers, and demonstrate affordable home renovation and green living strategies to area families through ongoing programs.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

For this house, Historic Green helped them to clear the lot of overgrowth, build a new roof (deck to shingle), deconstructed the bathroom, re-built the garage/shed, installed a rain-garden, re-structured and decked the front porch, re-built portions of the floor, removed the non-historic car-port, provided LEED Certification advisors, helped to develop an insulation strategy, and did research about the history of this (originally) 1880’s cottage in the Lower 9th Ward to help with permitting and decision-making about what elements to restore or ignore. One of their Board Members also helped them to put together and launch this a kickstarter campaign, which (if successful) will complete the construction budget for the project.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Obviously, this is, er, not a lazy crew. So, if you’re up for supporting these efforts and undoubtedly more, please consider donating to Historic Green’s efforts. These nonprofits are what stabilize neighborhoods and foster stewardship in the most meaningful and immediate ways, truly.

If you've ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

If you’ve ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important and happy-making this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

 

Historic Green: Sustainable skill-building from New Orleans to Missouri

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri.

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

I have a major soft spot for historic buildings and community outreach initiatives. These two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yin and yang. Captain & Tennille. Yep. A colleague recently pointed me to a group in Kansas City, Missouri that understands this perfect union all too well and has taken it to a level that very much deserves to be recognized, celebrated, and supported.

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Yes, there was much work to be done. Some challenges are larger than others, but hey, somebody’s gotta just pick up the tools and get to it. In this case, people are doing it for free, which should, assuming you’re not a cyborg, make your heart explode.

Historic Green is a nonprofit dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability. They started up in 2007 as a response to Hurricane Katrina. More than 85% of New Orleans’ existing homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, homes with rich histories and deep cultural significance, and the need for help and environmentally responsible action was too great to ignore. They started “Spring Greening,” an annual greening event in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood, a neighborhood I’ve been lucky to work in quite a few times myself with the same goal of making the neighborhood viable and sustainable. Here is a draft video recently completed as the first part of a series of videos they are producing around the New Orleans project.

Fixing brick piers, 2012 (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Repointing brick piers. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Now, to be clear, “sustainability” has become such a buzzword that it has become woefully detached from its intended meaning. The term can be downright cringe-worthy because people now use it interchangeably with unsustainable practices and materials in an effort to market these things as being environmentally-friendly for one reason or another. In the case of Historic Green, the term really does have chops. Historic Green is focused on making utility costs affordable, making buildings healthier, and teaching those who are living in these places how to maintain their buildings and act as stewards to the community at large. Sustainability is about how to realistically keep people in buildings so they don’t end up abandoned and it’s also about educating a population on how to care for these buildings so they will last. Sustainability is about people — it has little to do with recycled content and green gizmos that don’t even function properly without an education component.

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Restoring original wood sashes. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Obviously, it was a no-brainer to reach out and ask if they needed some tools — naturally, they did. The crews are currently working in both New Orleans and in their home city of Kansas City, in its Green Impact Zone. Both projects involve an historic home being fully renovated using affordable and replicable methods, and will feature restoration of historic detailing and carefully measured energy efficiency improvements. Swoon.

So…the tools have been shipped! Stay tuned for updates on what tools are most useful and how they are used in a project focused on restoration, efficiency, and community. I’m very much hoping to carve out time to drive down there and get my hands dirty with this crew. Yep, it’s gonna happen. 

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. Look at those piers!!! (Picture taken by Historic Green)