A couple months ago I went on a walk to the pocket park with a group of six girls from the preschool. On our way we stopped to watch some construction happening in the road. There were four male construction workers and one female. This was, in fact, the first female construction worker that I can remember encountering with a group of preschoolers. During the short period of time that we watched them work, I noticed one of the male workers grab the shovel from the female worker’s hands and essentially do her job for her. In the same moment that I was heartened for the young group with me to see a female holding this stereotypically male job, I was disheartened that they witnessed the actions of her co-worker.
I am a member of a co-counseling organization that offers workshops and support groups for peer counselors. This group has evolved over the years and one of the tenants of its current structure is that no one should lead alone. This results in the belief that leadership is available to all of us. An idea that directly contradicts social conditioning that many of us receive about leadership, that it is not available to us because of our gender, culture, race, age, class, etc. Or that we must be responsible for everything and hold the entire burden of a project or group because we are the sole designated leader or because of our gender, race, age, class, etc.
Similarly, the educators at Reggio Emilia discovered early in their history the extreme strength of the shared leadership model and have since designed schools where at least two adults teach in each classroom and these adults are in regular contact with studio teachers and curriculum/program advisors, as well. This serves to promote collaboration, conversation, reflection, and connection and prevent isolation and power imbalance.
I just began reading a book titled Women and Power by Nancy Kline which has offered me a different way to view that initial episode of watching the female construction worker. She theorizes that because of the way both males and females are conditioned in our society, women are encouraged more widely to use the skill of “interactive thinking.” And that it is precisely this skill that is necessary to lead and make decisions that are humane, creative and sustainable in our world. But that generally, women are not conditioned to become leaders. Therefore, she argues, we should not necessarily strive for a 50/50 ratio of male/female construction workers if it is at the sacrifice of these skills. Instead we can look toward the Natural Building movement and its emerging female leaders for inspiration and a new paradigm. Cooperatives of women natural builders exist throughout the world; they offer apprenticeships and workshops to women interested in entering the field and authentic opportunities to participate in leadership and construction that remains connected to humanity and ecology.
A tiny microcosm of this larger movement is present here at our VBC site. We have the privilege of working with not one, not two, but three natural building leaders–all of them female. June, Eva and Sarabel each individually bring knowledge, skills, humor, creativity, physical strength, joy, aesthetic vision, discipline and endurance to the building site. And together they provide a model of female leadership, co-leadership, and interactive leadership that is immensely powerful.
Yes, the children are getting to stomp in mud and straw. Yes, we are building a child-designed space that will promote community, play and staying dry in the winter. Yes, we are coming together as a community of families and supporters to learn new skills and pitch in to create something beautiful, long-lasting and environmentally responsible. AND we are giving these young children a glance at a subtle, but radically different model of leadership and construction in our world. Long after the cob crust has been cleaned out from beneath their nails, they will remember what it felt like to contribute and participate in this experiment of changing their world for the better. And the women builders who led the way.