Design Matters: Building Up the Next Generation


A weeklong summer camp offers youths exposure to architecture and design

Jeremiah Tolbert can distinctly recall when he first heard the word “architect.” He was in the second grade and the assignment was to share your career ambition. His teacher noticed that Tolbert was stuck. “I like to draw and build things,” he told her, to which she responded, “That’s called an architect.” Fast-forward a couple of decades: He established Tolbert Design Architects in his native San Jose. An early client was renowned Silicon Valley developer John Arrillaga, who enlisted Tolbert for myriad projects; among them, philanthropic endeavors such as a Menlo Park gymnastics center and the Second Harvest Food Bank facility. His residential clientele grew to encompass tech executives and venture capitalists.

In 2014, the year Tolbert served as president of the American Institute of Architects’ East Bay chapter, he and Cameron Toler—a fellow Black architect and UC Berkeley alumni who called Oakland home— launched the Youth Architecture Camp at their alma mater’s College of Environmental Design. The duo teamed up with local nonprofit Fam 1st Family Foundation, started by NFL athletes Joshua Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Marcus Peters, to host the annual summer event for middle- schoolers—specifically “underrepresented youths of color, Blacks and Latinos,” says Tolbert.

Last year, the camp, which is free, expanded from five to six days; in 2023, it will take place July 10 to 15. (A fundraising campaign allows for contributions: From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.—a continental breakfast and chef-prepared lunch are provided—the 25 or so students selected by Fam 1st engage in design exercises, like producing drawings and models, plus learn SketchUp and analyze case studies. “It’s all about exposure,” says Tolbert. There are also field trips; for example, to an architecture firm and Memorial Stadium.

In addition to Tolbert and Toler, the core group of instructors includes Omar Haque, Stephanie Chu and Andrew Lau. At the camp’s conclusion, parents often approached them and asked, “What’s next?” With the Community Design Process, a CED class taught last year for the first time, Tolbert and Toler have an answer: They mentor 15 undergrads who in turn mentor 15 high school students; together, they collaborate on sites in West Oakland. In 2022, it was Blk Girls Green House, for whom the class designed and built a new greenhouse; this past spring semester, the focus was designing a community wellness garden for Sankofa Garden. These efforts are potentially impacting generations to come. “It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond—it ripples outward,” says Tolbert. “In a sense, the real start of the ripple effect was my second-grade teacher, rippling through me…and now rippling through these students

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