#132 Nov/Dec 2003

Building a Home and a Future

Elsie Robinson once worked as a cashier at a Salvation Army store during the day and as a stocker at the local Wal-Mart in the evening. It was a tiring […]

Elsie Robinson once worked as a cashier at a Salvation Army store during the day and as a stocker at the local Wal-Mart in the evening. It was a tiring schedule but there are few well-paying jobs to choose from in Duluth, MN.
“I was sleepy from working the night before, unloading pallets of merchandise,” recalls Robinson, 50, an Ojibway who grew up on a reservation in Minnesota. She was divorced and living at her mother’s house with her teenage daughter at the time that she held the two jobs.

Last year she saw a newspaper article clipped to a bulletin board at a community center about Women in Construction Company (WiCC), a project of the Women’s Transitional Housing Coalition in Duluth. Although her father and her ex-husband were carpenters, it was not a trade that Robinson thought about taking up herself – until she read about WiCC. The program would provide training and help her obtain employment. Now Robinson is working 40 hours a week with a WiCC crew, learning everything from putting up siding and installing windows to building staircases. “I love it,” she says. “It’s hard work and you see the results.”

Delaneyah (Delly) Fritze was 19 and delivering pizzas when she heard about WiCC. Now 22, she’s in her third year with WiCC. “Your training never really stops, we learn different things all the time,” says Fritze. In late November she was working on a single-family unit, redoing a back bedroom by putting in new walls and insulation.

Like many other community-based organizations, the Women’s Transitional Housing Coalition (WTHC) didn’t start out constructing and rehabbing buildings or training women for jobs, but slowly took on these services as it gauged the unmet needs of its community. The coalition opened its doors in 1988 to provide shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, rebounding from alcoholism or drug addiction or attempting to escape chronic poverty. In its first year of operation, WTHC provided 21 units of transitional housing in two adjacent buildings where women could stay for up to 18 months. Supportive services are also offered – counseling on parenting issues, custody disputes, addiction problems, assistance in finding a job, job training and pursuing further education. About 20 women and up to 45 children live on the site at any one time, and 15 additional families live off-site in subsidized housing in various locations.

By 1993 WTHC began to address the need for permanent affordable housing by rehabbing apartments and houses that were rundown and abandoned. Michelle LeBeau, one of the coalition’s founding members, says expanding into housing development was also a way to realize one of the coalition’s longstanding goals: to get women into the lucrative construction trades. Good-paying jobs are scarce in Duluth, a port town of 90,000 on Lake Superior. Liz Johnson, a program associate with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, a supporter of WiCC, says the local economy plummeted when the steel industry moved away in the 1970s. Still, she notes that Duluth is situated on a hill, like San Francisco. “It’s a real gem, with many brownstones,” she says.

But the employment opportunities – mostly in tourism, telemarketing, house cleaning and cooking – are less than gem-like. According to the Minnesota Workforce Center, most of those jobs pay below $10 an hour and provide no benefits. The trades offer a good inside track for job stability and financial security, but there are gender barriers to consider. Construction has long been a male-dominated industry and the coalition knew it needed to find women mentors who would nurture and help other women succeed. Finding women with enough expertise to teach plumbing, carpentry, electricity and the other trades was difficult, however. “We could never find women contractors,” LeBeau says. “Even when a company was ‘women-owned,’ it turned out the husband is doing the work and the company is in his wife’s name.”

In May 2001 WTHC began planning the Women in Construction Training Program to teach women construction skills, use women work crews for its own renovation and construction projects and help women get better paying jobs. The Duluth Workforce Center, the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe agreed to refer women from their own job training programs, which helped pay for more than 400 hours of training in the construction program. “Our priority was to make sure we worked with low-income women and women of color,” says LeBeau.

A grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and HUD gave start up funding to the project. Private foundations and the City of Duluth provided additional funds. In the first year WiCC trainees helped build a home with a private contractor, worked on a Habitat for Humanity house and installed new siding on a duplex for the Northern Communities Land Trust.

“The first year was difficult,” says LeBeau. “We were fairly disorganized and not prepared for the huge response from women who were interested in participating in the program.” Zoe LeBeau, a developer for WTHC has worked closely with her mother to develop the training program, but admits that in the first couple years of the program “it was all pretty overwhelming.” At least 25 women came into the program in the first year through referrals from transitional housing programs, social workers and job training programs, and another 250 women responded to flyers posted around the community. “They wanted to gain skills and find out what it would be like to work in construction,” says LeBeau. By the fall of 2002, Michelle LeBeau obtained her contractor’s license and set WiCC up as a limited liability corporation and a subsidiary of WTHC. All the women in the training program were hired and the company began bidding on work.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Last year the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency funded the renovation of 37 units of WTHC transitional housing. From May to December 2002, WiCC participants did everything from installing windows, doors and kitchen cabinets to patching and painting. In the summer of 2002, the company took on a new project for the Northern Communities Land Trust, this time building a three-bedroom, single family home. Jeff Corey, executive director of the land trust, says WiCC also helped his organization remodel another house and brought that project in on budget and on time. He hopes to engage the group in three to five home construction projects in 2004. As far as any conflicts arising from having women working in a male-dominated field, he hasn’t seen it when he visits the work site. “They’re a no-nonsense crew,” says Corey. “They’re professionals and they expect others to be the same.”

Along with building the land trust house, WiCC did renovations of properties owned by WTHC, including remodeling 35 apartments and a single-family home. The renovations were extensive: replacing windows and doors, installing kitchen cabinets, converting a bedroom into an additional bath, putting down ceramic tile floors and refinishing old wood floors. The five-month project employed 15 women and provided on-the-job training to another 25 women.

“They’re working on dream homes,” says Johnson of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “Over the past eight years there has been a .5 percent vacancy rate. They’ve taken the profit dynamic out of it to meet a real need.” In the process, the women acquire dream jobs. WTHC now has 12 women and three men in construction; as the women gain skills they become crew leaders. Women get $7.25 an hour, training and an assessment of their skills to help determine the need for further training. After working 400 hours the women are offered a job at $8.25 an hour. In a year they can progress to $10 an hour with full benefits, and in two years to $12 an hour.

A recent arrival to the program, 23-year-old Deborah Santiago, heard about the program through her mother and joined the WiCC crew in April 2003. “In the first two weeks of training I thought I’d be good at it and I wanted to learn more about it,” says Santiago. “I started with demolition work, tearing down walls and ripping carpets out.” Santiago has two children, ages four and two. Her family and friends have been supportive. “They thought it was pretty cool,” she says. “I was kind of a tomboy growing up, I always wanted to do stuff that boys could do.”

In addition to putting the women on a sound financial footing for the future, it has expanded their idea of what a workplace can be. Almost every woman interviewed spoke about the pride and pleasure of the job. “It’s been fun, really fun,” says Santiago, echoing the comments of other WiCC participants. “Coming to work, not knowing what I’ll be doing the next day, learning new things every day.”

WiCC teaches more than just how to wield the tools of the trade effectively. Participants also receive training in leadership and workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. “Radical economic justice is an important part of the allure,” LeBeau explains. “It’s not just a job.” Women must steel themselves against the bias they will face on a job site and explore some of the differences faced by women crews. A good learning experience for the women came in July 2000. A storm damaged the roof on one of WTHC’s own transitional housing buildings. The women wanted to replace the roof themselves but did not have the expertise. A local roofing contractor agreed to take on the project and WiCC approached him about working with its crews.

“He agreed, but sent out a foreman, carpenter and eight men to work with our crews,” LeBeau recalls. “We sent eight women up to work on the project and by the end of the first day all eight men were sent off to work on other projects.” The WiCC crew completed the roof in two weeks with the foreman and carpenter providing training and supervision. Working conditions were not easy that summer – LeBeau says temperatures on the roof reached 115 degrees. “At the end of the day, the men working on the job went home to a prepared dinner,” she says. “Our women, many who are single moms, went home and made dinner for themselves and their children. Two of the women had more than five children and four of the women lived in transitional housing and had been displaced by the damage to their units. They had a vested interest in working on the roof and getting it completed on time.”

The women are encouraged to directly confront the issue of discrimination, or seek out LeBeau or other colleagues for assistance. “Michelle has told us over and over that we don’t need to be pushed around by male subcontractors,” says Delly Fritze. “It’s our work site. She tells us, ‘It’s your place of work and not OK to be disrespected.’ And it’s our place to call people on it.”

Fritze recalls a work site on a hot day where one man took his shirt off, which offended the women working beside him. “That’s something we couldn’t do,” she says. “We made him put his shirt back on.”

By their presence, the women are providing an education for men and other women about what is possible. But they are also encouraged to examine their own latent prejudices about race, sex and age in the diversity training sessions. “At first it’s really scary,” says Fritze. “You’d sit in a room with women you’re just beginning to know – women of different races and sexual orientation. It’s stuff you didn’t really want to talk about. You’re confronting any possible issues you may be holding – about homophobia, racism, ageism. But it gets rid of that fear and it’s easier to work through. It’s scary but liberating, and at the end it’s ‘My God I can breathe.’ ”

Although WiCC is at the point of bidding on jobs “like a regular company” and sales for its first year were over $800,000, LeBeau says she has been careful to go slowly, and has even turned work away. “We could be bigger, but we don’t have that capacity right now,” she explains. “We need grant money to offset the cost of running a company with a large number of women in training.” There is still a need for women who already have skills and experience to train others. One recent hire was an experienced female carpenter who ran her own construction company in Michigan. “You just don’t have that in Duluth,” says LeBeau. Nonetheless, it has been satisfying to prove that “you can provide work with livable wages,” she says. In 2001 an outreach program for teenage girls was started (see sidebar), and in November WiCC held its first statewide Women in Construction Expo with information and workshops sponsored by local trades organizations, vendors and contractors to encourage women and girls to explore construction career opportunities.

WiCC also encourages women to start their own contracting businesses. One result has been Lindy’s DreamBUILDERS, which was started in 2001 by 10 women from the training program with a $150,000 grant from the Presbyterian Church Self Development of People Fund. In addition to building and renovating housing for low-income families, the program’s goal is to support each other in developing women-owned companies in the trades. Lindy’s is named after Lindy Askelin, a Duluth woman who was one of the few women carpenters and cabinetmakers in the area, and who succumbed to breast cancer in 1996.

Most tellingly, WiCC encourages women to expand their horizons, whether on a construction site or elsewhere. Delly Fritze is going to college to pursue an interest in pathology and forensics. “Michelle was the one who encouraged me to go, she enables me to work part-time. She makes it accessible for people with children, too.” It’s not such a stretch as far as she can see, from construction to science. “I would like to do lab work,” Fritze explains. “I have a thing for science, it’s another opportunity to do things hands on.”


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