It’s not common to see women of any cultural background holding it down on construction sites and the like. They do exist, however, in microscopic proportions compared to that of men – infinitely smaller for Black women. The intriguing new presentation, My Walk Has Never Been Average, examines stories rarely told: The tragic & triumphant experiences of Black women in construction trades.
Donna Hammond, one of the women profiled in My Walk Has Never Been Average, recalls being isolated, degraded and even sabotaged during her early days as an electrical apprentice over 35 years ago. “It was hard. I went home in tears so many days. The sabotage that happened.” Hammond is one of few black women in construction and one of the first in her field locally, OPB reports.
She recounts one incident where she believed she was welding at 20 amps, but someone snuck around and amped her tool up to 150. “Sparks were flying. Fire everywhere. I thought my hair was on fire,” says Hammond, who also recalls an electrician who avoided the appearance of working with her by making her “walk 10, maybe five paces behind him.” Men were not the only one who felt uncomfortable – even threatened – by her presence in the field. “It was taboo. When I got into the trades, my mom was embarrassed that I was going to be a construction worker,” Hammond says.
Portland State University Assistant professor Roberta Hunte clarifies that from the moment they enter the trades, “Black women typically feel subtle and overt pressures to get out.” She’s also concerned that African-American women are often relegated to the lowest rungs of their chosen trades. “You are in an environment where there aren’t very many of you. You can be very isolated. It can be too much,” she adds.
For more context My Walk Has Never Been Average is based on Hunte’s dissertation, which encompassed 15 interviews and adapted for the stage by Bonnie Ratner, executive director of The August Wilson Red Door Project. The project’s mission is to enhance racial harmony within Portland via arts and discussion. “These stories just jump off the page. They were funny, scary, infuriating. They cried out to be fully embodied,” Ratner explains.
“Black women are greatly underrepresented in the trades according to Oregon Tradeswoman Executive Director Connie Ashbrook. African-American women comprise only 0.4 percent of construction workers in Oregon, according to the Bureau of Labor Industries. Ashbrook says black tradeswomen are based mostly in Portland, where the U.S. Census reported a 6.3% African-American population in 2010.”
-Geneva Chin, OPB
“We rarely talk about working class women and work. Pundits talk about work in the media, but rarely do we hear grassroots folks talking about what it means to have a job, to find meaning in work, and what is required of some of us to walk our path.” Hunte observes. “Sixty percent of black families are female headed. Women in our families are the breadwinners. Our breadwinners need to have good waged jobs,” she continues. Ashbrook emphasizes that point, illustrating that construction jobs can elevate Black women from the confines of poverty. “The apprenticeship trades are among the highest paid blue-collar careers you can get. And if you’re not going to college, it can get you into the middle class.”
Ashbrook explains that new apprentices make between $12-$17 an hour, and within 3-5 years of training can expect to earn $21-$38 an hour. So why aren’t more women able to secure a well-paying job in the trade industry? Ashbrook suggests on reason is lack of connections. “Most trades careers are found through a family and friend network. So if your family and friends do not work in the trades, then it’s hard to get the info that these careers are out there.”
Ashbrook told OPB that the stories told in My Walk Has Never Been Average are an excellent means of attracting more Black women to the trades. Donna Hammond’s, for example, is a sure enough tale of victory. She rose above the hostile ignorance of her co-workers, stayed the course and advanced her career. Today, that sister is a business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 48 “Primarily people like my work ethic and my attention to detail. I usually win them over and demystify people of color,” Hammond says. “Today I have some of the best relationships with these guys. Their kids call me Auntie Donna. They’re my brothers. They’re my family.”
Once the box office opened earlier this year, My Walk Has Never Been Average sold out within 48 hours. A repeat performance will take place in downtown Portland on June 7th, and hopefully in time, we can anticipate a film adaptation…