Photo of three women leaning against a wall

From left to right, Natalie Duncan, Diana Hosseini, Shirin Karoubi / Photography by John Hyemin

How Toolbox workshops challenge gender stereotypes

Women and non-binary mentors run hands-on programs to teach kids self-sufficiency and build confidence

Last year, 16-year-old Aaron Quil* had a heart-sinking moment. A piece of the table he was building warped, and it no longer fit together properly. The novice woodworker had been feeling defeated, but after a mentor showed him how to fix it, he was able to finish his project. “It felt so nice. Like, ‘I made something!’” he recalls. “I’m so used to being on my phone and computer; I don’t really make stuff.”

Quil was a participant in a free grassroots program called Toolbox, created on a practical level to encourage high-schoolers in East Scarborough to work with their hands. Most Toolbox students come into the program not knowing how to use tools, but for several months they spend their weekends in workshops where they learn skills like woodworking or electronics. Participants make specific items that the instructor is demonstrating (last year it was ukuleles and theremins) or have a go at an independent project.

But this isn’t your typical shop class, explains executive director Shirin Karoubi, who also teaches woodworking. For starters, all Toolbox instructors are experienced tradespeople who identify as women or non-binary. “What we’re aiming to do is teach kids how to become handy, but to learn that from maybe not the most traditional type of person and alongside people that they don’t know from various backgrounds and gender identifications,” she says. The ultimate goal: To break down gender barriers and encourage women to learn trades skills.

Another aspect of Toolbox—now in its third year—is to create a collaborative and safe space where all the youth work together. “We’re trying to take away the intimidation factor associated with things that seem maybe too big for them,” says Karoubi, who also wants youth to become comfortable advocating for their own needs. Her hope is that they’ll get to a place of understanding, where saying you don’t know or can’t yet do something doesn’t make you look weak. Quil had experienced such challenges in school: “I wouldn’t ask the wood workshop teacher any questions because he’s kind of scary,” he explains. “Toolbox felt so much more welcoming than a school course.”

Toolbox is also about self-sufficiency and building confidence. It has helped make 15-year-old participant Yathushan Jeyakumar become the handyperson in his home. “My parents are more confident in me. I fix the door, I fix so many things,” he says. And, he sees first-hand how having these skills empowers women: After seeing the work of her brother and other participants at the end-of-program presentation, Jeyakumar’s 11-year-old sister asked to sign up, too.

Kisa Jafri, 16, had no experience with tools prior to taking Toolbox last fall, but she’s very confident in her abilities now, thanks to her instructors’ patient and non-judgmental approach. “I learned that no matter what you do, you can always fix it or go back and try to at least do your best to put it together,” she says. For her independent project, Jafri built a table that also holds books. It was so well-made that, when it was delivered to her home, her dad thought it was something her mom had bought in a store. “My parents were proud because it turned out so well,” Jafri says.

Photo of a group of program participants in a classroom around boxes

Before Toolbox, Quil says he’d heard of women working in the trades, but he had never seen them doing it. Learning from his instructors opened his eyes to what women in the trades experience. But hearing about how his instructors pushed past barriers, such as guys in workshops giving them a tough time when they were asked to use safety precautions, was inspiring. “Even though those guys at wood workshops were being douchey at first, my teachers still went through [the full course] and became really good at working with wood, to the point where they could teach it,” he says. The stories he heard also spurred Quil to notice if, in other areas of life, he might be acting like those guys, and to stop himself from doing so.

In the future Karoubi says the plan is to make Toolbox a social enterprise with paid year-round programming that subsidizes free courses for high schoolers in the area. They’d also love a dedicated workshop space. But for now, this grassroots initiative has accomplished a lot on a small budget: In teaching people to make things from scratch, the Toolbox team has broken down harmful attitudes and built up young people’s self-confidence and -awareness. (Photography courtesy of The Tool Box Initiative)

*Name has been changed.

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