John Weiss has transformed his life-long passion for tinkering into a project that teaches at-risk teens in San Francisco how to make their own boomboxes.
Tagged as the “engineering school-of-the-streets”, The Bayview BOOM teaches these teens how to build a boombox from whoa to go with skills such as electronics assembly, woodworking, metalworking and product design. Professional engineers mentor the kids through the process.
“The boombox itself is our classroom and our textbook,” says John. “BOOM is based on the idea that people learn best when what their learning has direct, real-world relevance. So when you’re building a boombox, you want to feel the bass, you want to rock the party, and that has real-world relevance to them — and to me.”
“They are also learning design solutions developed by professional engineers, so they’re learning best practices.”
The classes take place across backyards, communities centers and youth facilities, and never include more than five teenagers at a time.
“We have demonstrated that at-risk teens and those on probation will sit and quietly solder and build, screw and glue and paint a boombox. They will have the patience and dedication to finish the project,” says John. “We also have a special emphasis on getting girls into technical training — we have more girls than boys.”
The Project Genesis
The inspiration for the project came from both John’s own childhood and Burning Man. Born to a father who learned electronics in the Navy and a handy-arse mother to boot, John was exposed to technical skills from a young age. As a teenager, he was enamoured with electronic music and built electronic circuits.
In 2010, he moved to San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point — also known as the Bayview — where he fell in love with the neighborhood and the kids.
“My first gig in SF was running the youth recording studio at the Bayview YMCA, and I discovered how awesome these teenagers are, but I also noticed that these kids didn’t grow up with the kind of opportunities to do learning projects that I grew up with,” says John.
“My parents built things and I built things with my parents. I wanted to give that to these teenagers because I thought it could make a difference in their lives. Our competitors are dangerous drugs, guns and gangs,” he says.
“But BOOM is not a judgmental project: It’s about celebrating youth culture and street culture.”
The Burning Man Connection
And taking it to the streets is where Burning Man comes in: John’s initial vision was an art car and art bike parade in the Bayview.
“I love art bikes and art cars, so that was a big early inspiration for the project, and that aesthetic is in our DNA. To me, a parade is a healing community ritual and the importance of community ritual is something that Burning Man helped me understand,” says John.
With the help of a small grant from Black Rock Arts Foundation, John did run a small parade in 2012. But art cars need sound systems, and John decided to focus on teaching teenagers how to build these instead, so he established the nonprofit organization, The Bayview BOOM.
The project continues to rub shoulders with the Burner community, with The Box Shop SF recently hosting BOOM for three months. The Box Shop SF is run by Burner artist Charles Gadeken and houses a wide array of Burning Man art collectives and individual artists.
The Future of Boom
BOOM’s next goal is to sell the boomboxes and further expand the skills of their makers to include sales, marketing and entrepreneurship. Classes are on temporary hold while the organization’s engineers perfect the boombox design, and some retail outlets have already signed up to sell them.
“BOOM is a nonprofit, so even though we are going to sell boomboxes, our success is not based on the number of boomboxes we sell or how much money we make. And we’re not trying to be an employer of teenagers,” says John.
“We want to give them an endorphin rush from what they’ve made: to help guide them toward valuing what they can accomplish and valuing what they can create with their own hands,” he says.
“And we want to reach hundreds, or thousands, of teenagers in the Bay Area and beyond. Bayview is only the beginning.”
Top photo by Hanah Letran