Let’s Team Up with Kelli Best-Oliver, Founder of Lit Shop.
To kick off our new blog series “Let’s Team Up”, where GIL team members interview changemakers in our partner cities, GIL Team member, Jess McKay interviewed Kelli Best Oliver, who is celebrating the 1st anniversary of her nonprofit LitShop. Lit Shop is a St.Louis-based nonprofit that hosts summer and afterschool programs focused on building and making and literacy opportunities for girls ages 10-14. Read about the work Kelli and the Litshop team are doing to empower St. Louis’ girls below:
JESS MCKAY: In a nutshell, what does LitShop Do?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: We provide after school and summer programming for girls ages 10 to 14 that combines engaging literacy-building activities with hands-on building and making. So, girls can come in and participate in a book club and a writing workshop and then [we’ll] teach them woodworking, carpentry, printmaking, or anything that fits under the very broad umbrella of hands-on building and making.
JESS MCKAY: That’s so cool. How many girls do you usually get per month?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: So it usually depends. We are only a year old, but we serve over 100 girls. We have 5 workshops going right now that are ongoing. I would say right now, we have 60 girls. And every 8 weeks we have new modules and sometimes they stay the same. Like our full-size ones are ongoing, but then we will have public or community-based workshops, and we will have 12 new girls when we have new modules.
JESS MCKAY: That’s really cool. And when you say Modules….
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: Yeah, they are 8 week-kind of programs [the maximum length].
JESS MCKAY: That’s such a cool combination of hands-on [learning], and writing, and creativity. I wish I had that when I was a kid. So, what is your specific role at LitShop?.
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: So, I’m the founder. I do basically do all the work of an Executive Director, and I co-lead a majority of the workshops. So we have 6 people who are on payroll right now to lead workshops.
JESS MCKAY: What gender inequities do you see in St. Louis and in education in St. Louis right now?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: We specifically target girls because of the disproportionate number of girls at the endpoint of building and making. No kids in St. Louis right now are getting [Wood]shop class. When I was growing up and in middle school, everyone took shop class, everyone learned how to use basic power tools. It was just part of what kids did as part of school and it doesn’t exist anymore. And so there is this real gap just for kids in general.
There’s a gap for middle school-aged kids. There are always more opportunities for elementary and high school-aged kids. But for girls, in particular, we know that the outcome of disproportionate opportunities at this age lead to these really inequitable outcomes when it comes to careers.
If you look at the building career rates, only 9 percent of people who are employed by the building trade are women and that includes administratively. Like, that's crazy because construction firms can’t staff their job sites. There’s always a high demand for labor in the trades, but they have historically disenfranchised women. There have always been ways to fix that but that's not true when you think of maker’s spaces. There's a real drop off after middle school, naturally, of engagement in maker’s spaces from girls. It drops by 25 percent and by the time that leads into career- type fields when you think about robotics or technical design, or things like that, girls are drastically underrepresented there. So, we are trying to increase the amount of opportunities at a really young age when girls are just trying to be getting affinity with anything that could be a potential career path. We are trying to disrupt that pipeline earlier because so much of the work that we have done in urban education has been pushing kids towards college. Which is awesome, for those who choose that career path, we want that to be a legitimate option. But the tides are turning and college is not for everyone. Four-year liberal arts degrees are not providing graduates with a return on investment of long term job stability, but the trades can do that.
Trade jobs are stable and what is interesting in terms of the building trades is that they are real tools of mobility that people don’t acknowledge. People can go straight from high school into an apprenticeship or a trade school and get paid while they are learning and be there on the job and learning while they provide them with really solid and stable employment for the rest of their lives. And so all of that is to say, girls don’t know if they will be interested in a career in the trades, because they have zero exposure to them, unless they have a family member [that’s in the building trades]. That’s valuable. But half of that is that it’s just super valuable for girls to learn how to use tools. It’s cool like it’s awesome to learn how to use a drill. So, that’s kind of the long term goal for us-- to provide girls with opportunities to develop skills that have real-world and career applications.
JESS MCKAY: That is so cool. Like really cool…
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: If you have ever worked with girls in this age group [and asked], What do you want to be when you grow up? they will give you kind of lofty ideals or goals and they have no idea like they’ll say “fashion designer” or “doctor”. There are things that they have witnessed firsthand and so, we want to expose them to more than that. [We want to expose them to] all of these valuable career paths that [they] could choose based on what [they] enjoy and what [they are] interested in and where [their] talents lie, but also lay out a roadmap for them. Something we do is, every module we have at least one maker/mentor come in, like a guest speaker, and it’s always a woman or someone who is gender-expansive who works in some aspect of building and making. And that could be someone who is an apprentice all the way to someone who is a Vice President of Diversity for a manufacturing firm. [We want to involve] Women who are working in trades/ fields that are in terms of building and making and letting them know that these women did this and this is how they got to this job. And [we want girls to know that it’s] not this like nebulous, floaty path and then hopefully you graduate and then you just have a job. Like there are these tangible things that these women did that led their career paths in this direction and I want the girls to be able to see what that is. So that they can see that it’s possible and not just this random luck of the draw thing that may or may not happen when they’re older-- that if this is something that they are interested in and they love, things they can do from now until they grow up to be able to engage with that and build their skills.
JESS MCKAY: That is so cool, that is really awesome. I am smiling a lot, I think it’s so cool. What made you want to start this?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: So, in 2018 I was doing a fellowship with an organization in St. Louis called the Opportunity Trust. As part of that fellowship we went and visited innovative organizations in San Francisco -- schools, nonprofits, anything with things like that, anything that had to do with learning. We visited a place in Berkeley, in the Bay Area, called Girls Garage. And it's basically the same thing but they don’t have an academic component. It’s girls' building. Girls learn how to build, weld, do carpentry, do woodworking, printmaking, and things like that. It was just such an amazing place and … the story they were doing behind the work they were doing was just so powerful and it made me reflect on my work at the time, which was, as a Curriculum Coordinator for St. Louis Public Schools, specifically around literacy, how far we have gotten away from empowering kids to construct their own learning.
That experience [At Girls Garage] kind of stuck with me and before we even got back from San Francisco, I was researching to see if anyone was doing anything like this in St. Louis and I was trying to see if like this was something that could launch in St. Louis. What I realized is that the idea, which is not my own, is good. And someone would ultimately land on that and [at the moment I thought that] if I don’t launch it into, someone else will and I will just be mad that I didn’t take a risk at it. You know what I mean?
So, we did a pilot in April . We incorporated in February 2019 and we did a pilot in April 2019. The pilot just reaffirmed that yes, girls in St.Louis need these opportunities and want these opportunities, and so we just kind of have been spreading the word and have been having one-time, family pop-up workshops for girls. We did some camps over the summer and in the fall we launched with three school sites. Now we have 4 school sites and a community site. We could do more and we have the demand to do more. We just don’t have the money to do more right now.
JESS MCKAY: So, it started very recently. Aside from Litshop and the work that you’re doing, what other programs do you see that other organizations are doing work to empower girls in St. Louis?
KEST BEST-OLIVER: So one of my favorite organizations is Black Girls Do Stem and they are a cohort model of girls in middle school and they are led by their founder, who is a Black woman, who is a Chemist. The girls spend a year together on the weekends and after school getting exposed to all different careers in stem fields-- meeting with and getting mentored by black women who are in those fields...Obviously, Girls on the Run is doing great things and the Girl Scouts are doing really cool things. Those are all organizations, that when we are looking how to meet girls’ needs, they have kind of started and done a roadmap that we can follow or learn from what they know about the landscape in St. Louis.
JESS MCKAY: That’s awesome. I didn’t know about Black Girls do Stem. That is really awesome. That is really cool that they are doing that. So I know Lit shop is new, so I think this question will hit home. For organizations that are looking to start up on working towards gender equality, what recommendations would you have for them?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: Do your research and make sure the need that your trying to meet exists and no one else is trying to fill it in the way that you are trying to fill it. I think that if you are a woman walking through the world, you see inequity everywhere. There are people doing good work but St. Louis people operate in silos, a lot of time. So really making sure that you are not trying to reinvent the wheel is valuable, and then just network and meet with as many women as possible… Basically, I want to work with as many women as possible, and because I am the leader of my own organization I can choose to do that. And so, if I want to connect with an organization and its not woman-led, who is the woman that I can speak with there? Because I have found that women say yes and women are willing to say how can I support you? How can I connect you and collaborate, support and pay it forward, as opposed to gatekeep. And so that has been tremendous. Learning from groups who are serving girls and women longer than me. There is always something that I can learn from an existing organization and so I guess I just try to learn from as many organizations and people doing great things as possible. And I don’t say no to meetings usually because I feel like there’s an opportunity for a connection and new knowledge and insight that I could gain a lot more quickly if I am engaging with as many people as possible. And then just trying to pay that forward.
If you’re willing to meet with me as an organization that's a micro-organization and young, I have to be willing to do that for other people too. So I try to collaborate with organizations as much as possible -- support other women who are seeking to do work in this field as much as possible and really just help them find what their path is to support girls.
JESS MCKAY: That is so cool. So, as you may know, we do a lot with empowering girls through sports or having a platform so that organizations can do that. So, I just wanted to ask personally, have sports impacted your life?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: Yes, so I played soccer all throughout college. I was the captain of my team. [It was] one of the transformative experiences of my life. I think it helped me become just the woman who I am and I realized so much of my character and who I am was formed by being a college soccer player. There are women who, to this day, l am close with, and are my solid friends. Yeah, sports...as you can see I can’t even articulate. Like incredibly important to my development and who I am. And now I have a 4-year-old daughter and she’s running around playing soccer too.
JESS MCKAY: And so, if you could play soccer with any historical figure, who would it be?
KELLI BEST-OLVER: Like, historical soccer player?
JESS MCKAY: Anyone, it can be anyone.
KELLI BEST OLIVER: I mean, I don’t really want to play against anyone at this point in my life as 40 encroaches quickly, but as Megan Rapinoe is a goddess and I think that what she and the rest of the US soccer team has done for equity in women’s sports is-- I am going to get choked up talking about it. I think Megan Rapinoe as a white woman is like a model for how you become a co-conspirator in representation. Like she was taking the knee with Kaps [Colin Kaepernick] like when it happened. White female activists mess up a lot, especially when it comes to intersectionality. And I just feel like she’s just a model for what a woman with a platform can do for all people who are fighting against the patriarchy and white supremacy. She’s just a boss.
JESS MCKAY: Yeah, she’s such a cool person. And then, last question. Do you have a life slogan or motto that guides your work?
KELLI BEST-OLIVER: I don’t think so. No, not that I know of… but the thing that always drives me is reducing suffering. You don’t have to look very hard in St. Louis to see suffering and it seems like, What are we doing if we are not doing something that is reducing other people’s suffering? I mean I guess overall that’s what drives me. Period… Doing work that is benefiting people who are not getting equitable opportunities. I think they are all kind of related.
We are so grateful that Kelli took the time to speak with us. As you can see, the work that she and LitShop are doing is great. Happy 1st Birthday Lit Shop. We can’t wait to see what amazing things the second lap around the sun has in store for you.
By GIL Team Member, Jess McKay