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Stories Rarely Told: The Trials & Triumphs of African-American Women In Construction

OPB | Jan. 31, 2014 midnight | Updated: Jan. 31, 2014 7:45 a.m.

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Donna Hammond, business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 48

Donna Hammond, business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 48

Aevum Images / Donna Hammond

“It was hard. I went home in tears so many days. The sabotage that happened,” says Donna Hammond, recalling the early days of being an electrical apprentice in Portland more than 35 years ago. Hammond is one of few black women in construction and one of the first in her field locally. 

She remembers a frightening incident while she was doing some welding at 20 amps. She says someone secretly turned up the amperage on her welder to 150.

“Sparks were flying. Fire everywhere. I thought my hair was on fire,” says Hammond, who also recalls an electrician who did not want to be seen working with her. “He would make me walk 10, maybe five paces behind him.”

Hammond is profiled in the multimedia play My Walk Has Never Been Average. The play recounts the trials and triumphs of a black female electrician, welder, carpenter, laborer, contractor and utility worker.

“The tradeswomen are amazing, strong. They are survivors. They are people with great dignity,” says Roberta Hunte, assistant professor at Portland State University. The play is based on 15 interviews from Hunte’s dissertation and was adapted for the stage by Bonnie Ratner, executive director of The August Wilson Red Door Project. The project’s mission is to improve Portland’s racial environment through arts and dialogue.

Bonnie Ratner, the executive director of The August Wilson Red Door Project, adapted a dissertation into the play My Walk Has Never Been Average.

Bonnie Ratner, the executive director of The August Wilson Red Door Project, adapted a dissertation into the play My Walk Has Never Been Average.

Alison Collins

Ratner knew she had great raw material for a play after reading Hunte’s dissertation. “These stories just jump off the page. They were funny, scary, infuriating. They cried out to be fully embodied,” says Ratner.

Black women are greatly underrepresented in the trades according to Oregon Tradeswomen 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.

The dearth of black women in the trades is troubling, because construction jobs can lift African-American women out of poverty, says Ashbrook.

“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,” she says.

New apprentices make between $12-$17 an hour, and after three to five years of training, can earn $21-$38 an hour, according to Ashbrook.

“Sixty percent of black families are female headed. Women in our families are the breadwinners. Our breadwinners need to have good waged jobs,” says Hunte.

One reason so few African-American women enter the trades is that they lack the connections, says Ashbrook.

“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,” says Ashbrook.

Another obstacle is the perception that construction work is a man’s job.

The play My Walk Has Never Been Average underscores the dearth of black women in the trades.

The play My Walk Has Never Been Average underscores the dearth of black women in the trades.

Dawn Jones / Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.

“It was taboo. When I got into the trades, my mom was embarrassed that I was going to be a construction worker,” says Hammond.

Once in the trades, black women often feel subtle and overt pressures to get out, Hunte says. She’s also concerned that African-American women are often relegated to the lower-paid, lower-skill construction jobs. Another issue facing black tradeswomen: They often feel like outsiders, says Hunte. “You are in an environment where there aren’t very many of you. You can be very isolated. It can be too much.”

Ashbrook says one way to attract more black women to the trades is to showcase role models like Hammond. Hammond is glad she stuck it out. She says she had to build her reputation.

“Primarily people like my work ethic and my attention to detail. I usually win them over and demystify people of color,” Hammond continues. “Today I have some of the best relationship with these guys. Their kids call me Auntie Donna. They’re my brothers. They’re my family.” 

Hammond believes My Walk Has Never Been Average accurately captures her career. She hopes the play will fuel important conversations.

“When you are part of a minority community, when people haven’t walked in your shoes, you can’t have a conversation. It’s so foreign. Perhaps the play will give people a new perspective they didn’t have before,” says Hammond.

Ratner hopes the performance will compel the audience to ask hard questions, such as “What can I do to make my environment, my workplace and my neighborhood more inclusive?”

Featuring videos, music and a slideshow, the play will be presented February 1 at Portland Playhouse as part of the Fertile Ground Festival. The festival showcases new works ranging from theater to dance, performed by new and established arts organizations.

Tickets for My Walk Has Never Been Average sold out within 48 hours of going on sale. But you can catch a repeat performance on June 7, 2014 at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. For more information, visit the My Walk Has Never Been Average Facebook Page.

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