Girls Build Kalamazoo inspires do-it-yourself building and technical confidence in young Black girls

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Twala Lockett-Jones has always been comfortable with a hammer and a screwdriver.
Her father worked with concrete and was a brick mason. Her brothers knew how to work with tools. Her husband is a licensed builder.
It was power tools — especially anything that could cut a finger — that always intimidated her.
Kalamazoo Realtor and property owner Twala Lockett-Jones started Girls Build Kalamazoo to help empower girls and expand their horizons.“I grew up pretty intimidated by power tools,” says Lockett-Jones, now a realtor, property owner, and investor.
She says, “A lot of time, women aren’t expected to know how to do things with tools.” But she says, “I just wanted more than that for girls.”
So, during the work slowdown that she and many others experienced as the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, she began planning a program to help introduce girls to tools, working with their hands, and expanding their exposure to the construction trades.
Crystal Haydo, Senior Sales Counselor for Allen Edwin Homes, talked to Girls Build Kalamazoo about the process of designing every aspect of a dream home.“I thought about just how important it is for girls to be exposed to the skilled trades,” Lockett-Jones says. That’s important because women are under-represented in the construction trades, she says, and because she doesn’t want girls to be afraid to use tools and help themselves.
Called Girls Build Kalamazoo, the first cohort of the program, a seven-week summer session (July 15 to Aug. 26) introduced middle school and high school girls to the use of hand tools, tape measures, woodworking, power tools, dry-walling, and interior design, as well as home construction and property development.
“I think it is great,” Carole Morgan says of the program.
The president/owner of StageRight Home Staging of Southwest Michigan, says, “I don’t think that we, as adults, let our young people know what opportunities are out there. I didn’t know anything about different vocations. And so these are things they can do that will help them through life. Whether they decide to make it a vocation or not is entirely up to them.”
Morgan says the program should help the girls understand how things happen in her world. StageRight is a 17-year-old consulting firm that helps property owners try to maximize the sales potential of properties. It does that through interior design, strategic placement of furniture, photography, and marketing.
Morgan says she was encouraged that the girls she met were all very engaged.
“They were all very interested,” she says. “They all wanted to do well. They wanted to ask a lot of questions. And they were there for four hours.”
In the initial summer session of Girls Build Kalamazoo, middle and high school girls were introduced to sanders, circular saws, impact drivers, and other power tools.The certified interior design specialist says the 12 young people who participated in the summer program met with her for four hours on July 29 for a session on “Fundamentals of Design” and another on “Repurposing & Design on a Dime.”
“I talked with them about interior design, (how to) design on a dime,” she says. “and how to make something from nothing essentially — picture frames, pillows, that sort of thing.”
Girls Build Kalamazoo was started officially near the end of 2021 as it received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Twelve girls in middle school through high school (ages 12 through 17) met from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday to learn from guest speakers, and they visited several workplaces and sites to learn about professionals there.
The girls were recruited from the Kalamazoo community through word of mouth and an online posting.
“We want to build their confidence in working with tools and with their hands,” says Lockett-Jones.
Educator and tiny house builder Raymond Gant introduced members of Girls Build Kalamazoo to sanders, impact drivers, tape measures, jigsaws, circular saws, routers, and other tools as he helped them create beautiful benches.Raymond Gant, a retired Ferris State University educator, and builder of a tiny house (360 square feet) on Reed Street in Kalamazoo, says he wants the girls to know there’s nothing they can’t do.
“I don’t want them to be intimidated by saws, by drills, by numbers, by mathematics, by science,” he says. “Too often our society discourages women directly and indirectly, subtly and overtly. But what I wanted to do was remind them of how great they are. There’s nothing that they can’t do.”
Gant helped the girls cut boards and use drills, sanders, and epoxy to complete a bench-building project in mid-August. For most of the girls, he says, “This was the first time that they ever worked with a sander or a saw or a router in action, or took a straight board and turned it into a project.”
Members of Girls Build Kalamazoo put the finishing touches on their custom bench build projects by adding epoxy and a high gloss finish.Lockett-Jones says she hopes the exposure the girls had to measuring, fixing, and creating will make them want to embrace STEM classes in school (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and perhaps spark their interest in the building trades. At a minimum, she expects the knowledge to help her young proteges learn how to maintain their own homes when they become adults.
Each learning session has been led by an experienced professional recruited from the Greater Kalamazoo area. The sessions have included field trips to Gant’s recently completed tiny house in the Edison Neighborhood, as well as PlazaCorp’s Exchange Building in downtown Kalamazoo, Allen-Edwin’s Design Studio in Byron Center, and Allen-Edwin’s Copper Leaf neighborhood in Portage (to see home construction from site excavation to framing to completion).
Angela Burkhardt, vice president of services for PlazaCorp Realty Advisors Inc., talks with Girls Build during a tour of the Exchange Building in downtown Kalamazoo.Allen-Edwin Homes, PlazaCorp Realty Advisors Inc., Old National Bank, Sun Title, Hubbard Supply Co., KZOO BNB, Realtor Tammy Dykema, and My Mutual Mortgage made financial and/or in-kind donations to the program. Professionals from those organizations also volunteered their time to teach sessions or lead tours of their workplaces for the girls.
Lockett-Jones says that the program has thus far cost about $15,000, including an estimated $7,500 in terms of the volunteer participation of speakers and trade industry colleagues. Volunteers who have helped plan and execute field trips, workshops, and other efforts include Wanda Thomas, Wenona Aaron, Lakheasa Gonzalez, Shannon Lockett, and Donna Johnson.  Meeting space and clerical services for the program were provided in kind by Faith Temple Church of God. 

From left, Rayah Jones, Kennedy Lockett, and Amit Bigby show houses they crafted from popsicle sticks as part of Girls Build Kalamazoo.A fall session is planned to start in mid-October and continue through May. Participants will meet twice per month. Charitable donations are welcomed. More information about the program is available at Girlsbuildkzoo.org
“It’s about opportunities,” Morgan says. “It’s about thinking outside the box. It’s about helping each other. Those are the things that we talked about.”
Lockett-Jones says, “A lot of times we, as women, are not expected to know how to do things with tools. And so a lot of time, we don’t know how to do anything with tools. I just wanted to expose girls to construction trades and build confidence in them in working with tools, working with their hands, and being empowered enough to know when they get homes of their own – even if they have to call a contractor in to do something — they have enough knowledge about it themselves so to where they don’t get ripped off.”

Girls Build Kalamazoo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to empowering middle and high-school girls in Kalamazoo County.

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.