Public Interest D/B Q&A with Sierra Rothberg

Who are you? What’s your background?

I’m an art teacher by training, but I’ve got my hands in a lot of different things. I do a lot of grassroots community organizing. I grew up with an electrician as a father, so there was a lot of tinkering in my life.

After college, I signed up for a grad program in Boston, and a few weeks prior to its start they cancelled the whole thing. It left me struggling to find my next move. I looked for things other than art and teaching and design to sustain me for a long time, but I couldn’t get away from it. That’s when a friend of mine told me about Yestermorrow.

She was taking a Green Roof Design and Installation course and I signed up for the Public Interest Design/Build course. From the ashes, from this feeling of not knowing what to do next, came this amazing opportunity. I was one of the oldest students in the class – I had two kids who came with me from Boston, and my sister flew out from Minnesota to watch them. We camped on the hill – it was very intense, those two weeks.

What do you value in your work?

I think that design should never be sacrificed. Frequently for sustainability or other considerations, design gets put aside. There’s no reason that a space can’t be functional and aesthetically pleasing. I’m very obstinate – I fight very hard for the space I work in. “This is how people should be entering the space, this is how they should experience it.” No one wants to walk into an ugly building.

If you have a vision, you don’t sacrifice it. You hold onto it and make it work. I try to keep that idea no matter what I work on. It’s about designing people’s experiences. I love problem solving and I love figuring out how to have it all. It’s not always the quickest or easiest way, but it’s the way it needs to be. I try to find those values in my own home, in my work. Everywhere.

What was the biggest surprise about Yestermorrow?

We didn’t even know what the project was going to be until we got there! We were working sixteen hours a day – I didn’t expect to work that intensely. There were about fifteen of us, instructors included, working round the clock. All walks of life, all different backgrounds. I loved working as a team. I loved how all of them had their own ideas. Our task was really to find a way to make all of them work together.

It was like a really intense getting-to-know-you session. It was sink or swim. It couldn’t be just an idea; you had to scramble and make it happen. Everyone was there with the goal to make it happen. The energy felt very alive. The different personalities dictated where people were willing to hold strong and where they were willing to bend. And I loved getting my hands dirty! It made me want to invest in my own spaces, to get woodworking tools and learn what wood could be when it’s really stripped down and used to its potential.

The next year, I went up and visited the site, and it was exactly as we had envisioned. I actually go back to Vermont every year now to camp with my husband. I fell in love with it while I was working there – I decided that I didn’t get to see enough of it because we were so busy!

What did you learn?

Anything is possible. When you’re designing and building – it doesn’t matter what, there’s a path from the idea to the finish. You look at the phases of building, and you go through it. Concept to reality – when you have a result in mind, you work towards it. Working on somebody else’s lead was a nice lesson, because I’m usually the one conceiving. I learned a lot about the realities of construction. It was really interesting being in somebody else’s hands and going through with the mindset of purely problem-solving. Their expertise pulled us all together and gave me a lot of insight into how to pull peoples’ disparate ideas into a whole. It gave me the training to go with what I imagine in my head.

Working on my own projects, all my ideas were loose. I couldn’t give instruction beyond just “get it done”. That changed. At Yestermorrow I paid attention to where people pushed and pulled, and how to get them motivated. I took a lot from the structure of the experience of people working together. I learned a lot about how things fit together – physically and socially. It’s really all about the joints and how they move.

What have you done since Yestermorrow?

I’m still a maker. I live in the city – I have all my life. I started a business called Lusterity. It’s a platform to source creative people for events, projects, and community outreach. I’ve also been doing everything I can to make more spaces like the one I felt at Yestermorrow. Vermont is this amazing haven for sustainable design and creative people, but I know that those ideas can flourish everywhere. I’ve been trying to make those spaces wherever I can, so as many people as possible can experience it. In the last few years here, I started a Clean Up Boston group to organize resources to make it greener and cleaner. My 11-year-old daughter has been petitioning and starting a bag share. The community is here – the space needs to grow, and that’s what I want to bring everywhere.

I think that momentum builds momentum, and there are a lot of people out there who have the drive but not the resources to make a difference. I think we’re in the middle of this renaissance where we aren’t covering things up anymore – we’re showing them and uncovering them. We’re taking exciting risks in design again, and I want to give people as many opportunities as I can to help them take those risks.