Sarah Turner Interviewed by BNN
Sarah Turner, the new president of North Bennet Street School, was interviewed by Chris Lovett of Boston Neighborhood Network News on October 10, 2018. She talked about our trade and craft programs, growing job opportunities, and new facility in Boston’s North End.
Watch the full interview here.
Here’s a full transcription of the interview:
Host Chris Lovett: It’s well known that Boston has a thriving knowledge economy along with a good deal of new construction. What’s less known is the growing demand for people with some special skills in trades and crafts. Meeting that demand is the goal of the country’s first trade school, North Bennet Street School, in the North End. Here to tell us about the School and some of the opportunities is its new President, Sarah Turner. Thank you very much for being with us, Sarah.
First if all, what about your own background before you came to the School? What were you doing before?
Sarah Turner: Well, before I came to the School, I was working for another specialized school – a graduate school in art, design, and architecture in Michigan, called the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and I was the Dean of the graduate school. But behind that, lies my own education in craft. I was trained once upon a time as a jeweler and metalsmith, have done a fair amount of woodworking, some textiles. So I come out a background of having studio teaching – directly teaching people hand skills and how to use tools – all the way up to a career in academic administration. So that’s my past before I got to Boston.
Chris: Well there are a couple of things at least that distinguish your school from other ways to learn trades. First, the kind of trades and crafts that you’re teaching. What are we talking about here?
Sarah: Yes, that’s right. We’re unique in the suite of programs that we offer together. [We think of ourselves as] educating people for employment in the crafts and trades. And what does that mean? That means that people are coming to us to study bookbinding, carpentry, piano tuning and piano technology, locksmithing, jewelry making and repair, violin making, preservation carpentry, and cabinet and furniture making. So this is the whole suite, and that’s what is unique about North Bennet – is you can find these programs elsewhere, but you can’t find them where they’re going to intersect with each other, and really build a whole community around craft and trade.
“That’s what is unique about North Bennet – is you can find these programs elsewhere, but you can’t find them where they’re going to intersect with each other, and really build a whole community around craft and trade.”
Chris: Now some people might say, that sounds nice, but – such refinement, is there really a market for all of that?
Sarah: There is! And this is one of the things I love about the School, is that it educates to employ. They’re very careful about making sure that their graduates can be employed when they leave. And they have a great track record with that. What we’re learning from the Department of Education is that over the next five years, about 68% of the jobs in the trades will remain unfilled. Because the generation that was filling those jobs is retiring, and people aren’t being educated in those areas to replace them. We see a real need for this – it’s a need regionally, it’s a need nationally. And we’re delighted that people come to us to learn these specialized skills and specialized trades.
Chris: One reason, there’s a need for customization, is that you have partners who demand it, some of whom are large institutions. Start with the large ones – what kind of things does that mean?
Sarah: Some of our largest ones are places like the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A number of our students from our Piano Technology program are interning at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer program, which is giving them terrific new skills and leading to employment. Our graduates from the Bookbinding program are working behind the scenes in the Boston Public Library, at the Boston Athenæum, they’re doing conservation work to repair documents, to preserve special collections of printed materials. They’re doing this around the country at universities that have special collections and special libraries. So, we think of our graduates in some ways as the unsung heroes of the cultural world, often doing the quiet work behind the scenes, to make the rich cultural life of this community possible for all of us.
And there are more modest projects as well. For instance, the Carpentry program rebuilt food lockers for the women and children of the St. Mary’s shelter in Dorchester. A very practical need, and it was a way that we can give practical help to a complex problem of people needing to secure food and personal belongings when they’re in transition.
“We think of our graduates in some ways as the unsung heroes of the cultural world, often doing the quiet work behind the scenes, to make the rich cultural life of this community possible for all of us.”
Chris: Another project out in the neighborhoods in Mattapan: the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm. Now, it’s an old farmhouse, you fix it up. But what else was going on there?
Sarah: That was a farm in Mattapan that was built around the 18th century, and at that time, it was a rural farming community. And as the city grew, of course Mattapan changed, so the farm changed hands and it became a derelict property. Literally, fallow fields and nothing happening there. And in fact, it was a discouragement to the community, because it was empty and it became a bit of a blight. So Historic Boston Inc. was able to purchase that property, and then partnered with NBSS in order to do some of the investigation as to what the original structure had been like, where the windows were, etc.. The NBSS Preservation Carpentry students were able to find changes that had been made that were not historically accurate, and actually some issues around the foundation that were going to damage the house. This brings the whole farm back online and now as you know, it’s now the headquarters for the Urban Farming Institute. So, bringing a historical farm back up to date for contemporary uses, and this is what I think is really terrific about combining these organizations and these skills.
Chris: I’m sure the students are well beyond looking down on work done by hands. But at the same time, what about the feeling they get from seeing an old building get fixed up the right way, the historically authentic way?
Sarah: That’s right. Making your living working by your hands is just an incredibly gratifying way to live and work. Our students learn that one of the wonderful things about working with your hands is you get to see the whole arc of the process, with your authorship. You get to do the research to start the project, you get to set the goals – whether you’re making a violin, or tuning a piano, or installing a lock – you know the endpoint, and you’re the author of all of that work. You learn the skills, you learn the tools, you learn the materials. So that gives real pride, and a real sense of self-satisfaction to have seen something from concept, all the way through to finished. Whether it’s a building or it’s an instrument.
Chris: What about the kind of people who go to this School? I can imagine them being young people, but maybe people in the middle of life who need to make a change. How does this work out?
“Making your living working by your hands is just an incredibly gratifying way to live and work. Our students learn that one of the wonderful things about working with your hands is you get to see the whole arc of the process, with your authorship.”
Sarah: Yes, that’s exactly right. We have some folks who are coming right out of high school and know that a four-year college education is not the right path for them, and they’re looking for an alternative to that. We have people who have decided after successful professional lives that they want to do something different, they want to do something special and unique to them, and so they come and study with us for a change of career.
We also have about 20% of our students who are veterans. This is a population we’re really proud to have in our community. They are transitioning out of military life, starting civilian lives again, and they’re finding that they skills that they bring from their military training have great application – collaborative working, problem solving, goal setting, overcoming obstacles. Theses are terrific skills that they bring, and it turns out that it works well when they study with us.
Chris: Well you’re a very old school, but it turns out you’ve got a new facility. Let us about it.
Sarah: Yes, we are. We were founded in 1881, in Boston’s North End. Happily we’re still in the same community where we started. But about five years ago, the Board and [President Emeritus] Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, starting thinking that they needed to get all of their programs under one roof. And they did just that – we’re now in buildings right on North Street, in an old police station and an old Boston printing press. So now are not only the facilities remarkable, and remarkably well-suited to the work that we do. It also puts us all together, so that carpenters are having lunch with violin makers, and piano tuners are having lunch with bookbinders. It makes for a very cohesive community.
One of the programs I haven’t mentioned is our Continuing Education classes. If people are interested to just test the waters, see if they’d like to take a class, they can go to our website and see the current list of classes. It’s a great gift for the holidays.