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Producer Neal Baer Talks America Reframed’s If You Build It [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: PBS
Photo Credit: PBS

What if design and critical thinking could make learning fun and dynamic? What if using the tools of design thinking (Research, Ideate, Develop, Prototype, Refine, Build) made high school kids who weren’t that interested in school and learning excited to go to class? When Bertie school district superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger invited Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to come to Bertie county it not only started a full-scale community restoration in the poorest county of rural North Carolina, but changed the lives of 10 teenagers in the process.

I had the opportunity to speak exclusively to Neal Baer last week about how he became involved with If You Build It by Patrick Creadon, why an innovative approach to teaching like this is so important and what he hopes people will take away from this film.

Photo courtesy of Neal Baer
Neal Baer; Photo Credit: Chelsea Kyle

TV GOODNESS: You’re so well known for the dramas you do like Under the Dome and Law & Order: SVU. What drew you to this project?

Neal Baer: “I read a book that Emily Pilloton wrote called Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. I was so taken with it, I wanted to meet her so I Facebook friended her, we met and she was so compelling. She was living in San Francisco then and she was telling me she was moving to North Carolina to teach kids design. So I thought, ‘Wow. This would make an incredibly interesting movie.'”

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TV GOODNESS: When did you decide this would make a good subject for a documentary and how did you go about getting the money and putting everything in place?

Neal: “We met with Emily a couple of times, my partners Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley, and we just found her so passionate. You always need a very charismatic character when you’re doing documentaries. We just knew we had the passion, the charisma, the drive, the caring combination that would make a great subject for a documentary film. So we started raising money from all these different sources one goes to when making a documentary: Good Pitch, which is an incredible organization with Britdoc where you go and pitch to funders. We did that in San Francisco a couple of years ago; The Sundance Lab, The MacArthur Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, The Kendeda Fund and The Wyncote Foundation. There were so many different partners that supported us. It was really terrific.”

Emily Pilloton
Emily Pilloton
Matthew Miller
Matthew Miller

TV GOODNESS: I thought Emily was great and I really liked how she was inspired to come to Bertie county because of Dr. Zullinger, Superintendent of the Bertie School District. Once she was there though, he had to resign pretty quickly. How did that figure in to the filming?

Neal: “When he was fired, that was early on and we thought, ‘Uh oh. We may not have a film. They may not let us do it.’ So we just followed them. That’s what documentary filmmakers have to do. You have to follow the story and the story takes you down a road you most often never expect. You have to be open to that.

It turns out that the school board allowed them to say they weren’t paid and they were so dedicated, Emily and Matt, that we therefore had a show.”

TV GOODNESS: It was interesting that the school district had a substantial budget, but couldn’t seem to find $80K for these two teachers. I was shocked.

Neal: “Yeah. That’s the unfortunate story of eduction in our country. People who are innovative and dynamic often are feared and that was another real element of our show that we wanted to show. These kids were taking classes online, even PE, except for Matt and Emily’s course.”

TV GOODNESS: I was surprised by how many courses they were taking online. It didn’t seem like the kids were learning much from those classes.

Neal: “Correct. It’s a real problem, isn’t it? It’s terrible. The movie is about many things including the demise of rural america, lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, obesity, unemployment and, of course, dynamic, innovative ways of teaching using design thinking versus online learning now.”

Photo Credit: PBS
Photo Credit: PBS

TV GOODNESS: I liked getting to know these kids. At first, we can tell they’re wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. But by the end, to watch these kids build something for their community was pretty amazing.

Neal: “We loved working with them. They were amazing kids. Many of them were the first in their families to go to school, to college after this, using that skill set. So we were very happy about that. We wanted to show the positive impact Matt and Emily had to these students.”

Photo Credit: PBS
Photo Credit: PBS

TV GOODNESS: I felt like they were making such a difference in Bertie county. It’s kind of heartbreaking that Matt and Emily didn’t get to stick around for as long as they would’ve liked.

Neal: “Yes.”

TV GOODNESS: They’re doing this again in Berkley, CA. It seems like that community understands what Emily and Matt are doing and is really supportive. Hopefully we’ll see more out of them.

Neal: “I think you will. And we’re very grateful to PBS for airing the show on June 2nd.”

TV GOODNESS: Actually, let’s talk about that. How did PBS come into the picture?

Neal: “Pat and Christine have done a number of very well known documentaries: I.O.U.S.A. and Wordplay that have played on television and in theaters. Christine worked with PBS to find the right venue for it and get it on, which was really great.”

Photo Credit: PBS
Photo Credit: PBS

TV GOODNESS: In terms of this documentary, who do you think would get the most out of watching it and what do you want them to take away from watching it?

Neal: “I think it speaks to so many issues that our country’s facing today. We want people to see, as I said, the demise of rural america, lack of employment opportunities in rural america, the obesity epidemic, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, uninspired [curriculum] in schools.

We want the audience to see that there’s an approach called design thinking, where together you draw on all the disciplines to solve problems. It’s not just about rote learning of math or historical facts. The kids drew on a compendium of topics. They looked at historical architectural precedents. They studied Buckminster Fuller and they learned about his influence in architecture. They certainly had to use trigonometry and geometry. They looked up social issues facing their community in order to decide what kind of design to undertake that would help their community. As you see in the film, it’s a very dynamic way of learning that we fully support.”

TV GOODNESS: In today’s society I feel like so many kids might get overlooked because they don’t learn the way we’re used to teaching them.

Neal: “Right.”

Photo Credit: PBS
Photo Credit: PBS

TV GOODNESS: It was really nice to see this approach by Matt and Emily, really engaging these kids and inspiring them to give back to their community and how that helps other businesses come in. Can you talk about that?

Neal: “Yes, yes. That’s absolutely why we so endorse design thinking, because it takes a look at problems. Emily goes through the steps that involve doing research, talking to members of the community, laying your ideas out, designing and then redesigning until you come up with a viable solution. It’s a very interactive, dynamic, collaborative process that draws on multiple disciplines. It seems to me a wonderful way to teach and those students lit up in ways they never had before. It’s brainy shop class.” [Laughs.]

Edited for space and content.

If You Build It synopsis:

Follow designers-educators-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to Bertie County, the poorest in North Carolina. They work doggedly to persuade a school board to invest in their goal of offering a compelling and hopeful vision for a new kind of classroom in which students learn how to use the tools of design to build their own futures.

If You Build It premieres Tuesday, June 2nd at 8/7c on PBS.

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