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Sisters In The Building Trades – A Non-Profit Organization That Provides Women Working In The Construction Trades With Individual & Personal Support, As Well As Mentoring & Assistance In What Has Predominately Been A Male-Dominated Industry

Founder Excited About Connecting East & West Coast Women In The Trades During Two Major Conferences In New York City & Boston/National Trades Sponsoring First “Women Build the Nation” Conference in California, April 29th Through May 1st

Published Wednesday, April 6, 2011 9:00 am
by Tom Campbell/Editor-Publisher
Sisters In The Building Trades – A Non-Profit Organization That Provides Women Working In The Construction Trades With Individual & Personal Support, As Well As Mentoring & Assistance In What Has Predominately Been A Male-Dominated Industry

WNYLaborToday.com Editor’s Note: Melina Harris (pictured above) is president of the Seattle, Oregon-headquartered not-for-profit Sisters In The Building Trades organization, which was created in 2006 to provide women working in the Construction Trades with individual and personal support, as well as mentoring and assistance in what has predominately been a male-dominated field.  For more information on the Sisters In The Building Trades, visit their website at www.sistersinthebuildingtrades.org.  Harris can be contacted at 253-850-1458 or via e-mail at shyeshye@gmail.com.  Any viewer/reader of WNYLaborToday.com who is interested in attending the New York or Boston conference can contact Harris directly at 253-850-1458.  (Photo Courtesy of Melina Harris)

 

On Friday (April 8th) in New York City and then again on Sunday in Boston (April 10th), Melina Harris of Seattle, Washington will realize a dream that her non-profit Sisters In The Building Trades organization has been working on for some time – connecting East and West Coast women in the Construction Trades in an effort to not only provide individual and personal support to their Sisters working in the industry, but more importantly to also provide mentoring and assistance in what historically has been a male-dominated field.

But real measurement of how far her organization has come since it was first created back in 2006 comes later this month, when the National Building Trades sponsors the first “Women Build the Nation” Conference, which will be held in Oakland, California from April 29th through May 1st, making it a historic year that will be watched by women working in the Construction Industry not only here in the United States, but around the world.

During a recent telephone interview with WNYLaborToday.com from Seattle, Harris – who is a Union Journey Commercial Finish Carpenter – says she’s amazed by the growing number of women in the Construction Field, but disappointed by the lack of support women have received over the years by Building Trades Organizations - which is exactly the reason why she created the 501(c) 3 non-profit Sisters In The Building Trades.

“There were twelve of us back then and we didn’t know of similar groups that had been started in Oregon and in Chicago,” Harris told WNYLaborToday.com.  “We keep finding them (women in the Trades), but none of them were connected.  Women began finding us on-line because there was no support for women in the Trades.  It was rare thing for women to become journeymen and there were repercussions in the field, from gender discrimination to sexual harassment.”

With a background in such diverse jobs as comedy to high-end sales, Harris actually became a contractor back in 1994.  In 1998, she became the 11th person she had organized into the Carpenter's Local, becoming a 3rd Generation Union Member in her family.  Having been a non-Union contractor and then an Apprentice provided her a broad view of the issues women face in the industry.  When several local women in Seattle wanted to start a "Women In Trades" group in 2004, she joined in and in January 2006 volunteered to incorporate it, get it to a non-profit status, created a website and got the group on the Social Network Facebook in order to connect with women in the Trades.  Finding there was no mentoring for women in the Trades, Harris started the Sisters Alliance Project, which works to network all such Trades Groups.  The Sisters in the Building Trades recently received international recognition for their outreach to women in the industry by winning a Newsmaker of the Year Award from the industry publication Engineering News-Record.com and is also keeping busy working to pass a national bill to train construction workers for disaster response and clean up.

Over the years, the non-profit Sisters In The Building Trades has used creativity, innovation and some elbow grease to accomplish its goals, Harris says, with no paid staff and a few thousand dollars a year in donations.  The group is working hard to find and create ways, she adds, to make positive change and bring about immense progress within the Construction Industry, from the work, effort and dedication of women in all of the Trades.  “That’s why we’re coming to New York and Boston.  We want to connect to our East Coast Sisters, to know ‘their’ issues, solutions, ideas, problems, projects, passions and hopes, so that we may share them with all,” Harris says.

The mission of the Sisters in the Building Trades organization is to expand a network of active women that will affirm Building Trades Sisters as a positive and growing part of the Construction Workforce, as well as to increase the number of Trades Women through cooperative recruitment efforts and mentoring support for enhanced retention.  In addition, the Sisters in the Building Trades hold regular meetings which allow women to network and share their experiences.  The organization also matches mentors to new Trades Women, enters into partnership with disadvantaged women to provide encouragement and hope and works to reinforce appropriate workplace conduct, increase public awareness of construction careers, provide speakers to career fairs and other outreach opportunities, support recruiting efforts of Apprenticeship Programs and use its members’ skills in volunteer work.

In January, Engineering News-Record.com profiled Harris and the Sisters In The Building Trades Organization in a story that was headlined: Union Carpenter Connects, Fuels Support for Tradeswomen Around the World.  Written by reporter Luke Abaffy, the article appeared as such:

A Union Carpenter by day, Melina Harris has spent her nights as president and champion of Sisters in the Building Trades, propelling it from a local Seattle forum to an international link for Tradeswomen seeking to connect and find mentoring and support in their careers.  “After our launch in Seattle, we started getting phone calls from all over the U.S. and then from Canada, England and South Africa,” says Harris. “That’s when we realized there was a real need for this.”  Harris’ two decades in the Building Trades as a member of Carpenters’ Local 1797 inspired her advocacy.  “I was having a hard time on the job but found that I was handling it damn well compared to so many others.”  Harris pushed for support for Electrical Line-Worker Apprentice Jennifer Smith in her fight to gain her journey-card in the face of what she claimed was sexual harassment.  Smith won journey status and a $250,000 settlement from the Local Utility Board. The board and the Electrical Workers’ Union also agreed to advance opportunities for minorities and women.  Harris’ efforts have helped Tradeswomen in the U.K., Australia and South Africa, among other countries, learn about Workers’ Rights, Career Paths and mentoring opportunities in their own construction markets.  She was instrumental in helping Australian Tradeswomen form their first-ever networking group.  Harris now is using her group’s expertise and contacts in local emergency response to develop the Building Trades Disaster Response Project, an initiative in Seattle and beyond to coordinate training efforts between building trades’ members and local, state and federal officials. “She puts herself last,” says Selena Cryer, an Ironworkers’ Union Member in Oklahoma.

Harris tells WNYLaborToday.com that the Sisters In The Building Trades’ New York and Boston gatherings will hopefully attract about 100 women for an informal "breaking bread” meeting that will feature a number of speakers, a series of discussion and a question-and-answer session.  A number of other Union-involved and Women Organizations are also expected to take part, including: the New York Chapter of the Professional Women in Construction; The California Building & Construction Trades Council; The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); the Teamsters; The Sheet Metal Workers; The Boston, New Hampshire & Rhode Island Chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction; IUPAT (International Union of Painters & Allied Trades) District Council 35’s Women Committee; Women's Institute for Leadership Development (WILD); Massachusetts Jobs with Justice; The Coalition of Labor Union Women; The Massachusetts Tradeswomen Association; and the United Steelworkers’ Women of Steel group, to name just a few.

Each organization is expected to make a five to 20-minute presentation, making those women in attendance aware of who they are, what they do, what they would like to do and/or see happen, what they need help with, what they have to offer and how women can get involved.

And the gains being made on behalf of the Sisters In The Building Trades is reaching far outside the United States – thanks to the Internet. 

Harris tells WNYLaborToday.com that she was “shocked at the need” for what her group offers after receiving inquiries form female Construction Workers from as far away as Scotland and Vietnam, where as many as 40% of the industry consists of women. 

“These women are now finding us on-line because there has been no support for them within the Construction Trades.  They need direction because they don’t know how to relate or handle certain situations.  Our Sisterhood is uniting,” Harris said.

WNYLaborToday.com Editor’s Note: The Sisters In The Building Trades have provided the following of helpful organizations for women working in the Trades:

Legal Momentum: The Nation's oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women.  Website: www.legalmomentum.org/

Professional Women in Construction/New York Chapter (PWC): Founded in 1980, PWC is a national, non-profit 501(c) 3 organization committed to advancing professional, entrepreneurial and managerial opportunities for women and other "non-traditional" populations in construction and related industries.  Website: www.pwcusa.org  

National Organization for Women/New York Chapter: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States.  Website: www.now.org

United Steelworkers/Women of Steel: Website - www.usw.org/action_center/women_of_steel

National Association Of Women In Construction (NAWIC) - NAWIC has a membership of more than 4,500 and approximately 167 chapters, with chapters in almost every State in the U.S.  Website: www.nawic.org

Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 28/New York - Women’s Committee: Website - www.smwialu28.org

The New York City Council of Carpenters Women's Committee: Website:
www.unionwomencarpenters.com

IUPAT District Council 35/Women’s Committee: Website - www.iupatdc35.org

Women's Institute for Leadership Development (WILD): WILD advocates for a vision of a Labor Movement that includes Unions and all other organizations and people who join together to fight for the rights of Working People and for Social Justice.  Website: www.wildlabor.org

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