By Linda Chen, GETS Cohort, Fall 2015
Three months ago I was unemployed and unsure of my next step, a former teacher and baker with zero experience in construction, yet I had aspirations of becoming a carpenter. Today, I’m eight weeks into the GETS program, a tape-measuring, hammer-wielding, saw-operating badass, with a polished résumé, and a much clearer picture of where I see construction and solar fitting into my life.
It’s been a long journey, full of important lessons and realizations, and an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’m not gonna lie–nine weeks seemed like quite the investment. Back in August, I found myself at the West Oakland Job Resource Center, asking how I could get into the Carpenter’s Union, knowing that I had a passion for working with wood. I met Alex Francois (Founder/Director of B.U.I.L.D. Bay Area) for the first time that day, who introduced me to Rising Sun Energy Center’s GETS program. It came highly recommended, AND he told me they were going to be having an all-women’s cohort very soon. After hearing that, I jumped at the opportunity! I called right away, and was quickly able to schedule a time to come in for an info session, a pre-test, and then an interview with Melvin Parham, Case Manager extraordinaire at Rising Sun.
I was given the opportunity to either wait until March to be a part of GETS’ first all-women cohort, or to join the next co-ed cohort, where I was told there would be at least a few other women. Wanting to complete the program sooner rather than later, I chose the latter. But imagine my surprise when I showed up the first day and realized I was the only womyn in my cohort!
For the first couple of weeks, I felt super isolated. Everyday, I felt like I had to prove myself ten times over, and struggled with finding my voice and a sense of belonging in such a male-dominated cohort, in an already male-dominated trade. All of that changed when I was invited by Elena Foshay, GETS’ awesome Program Director, to attend this year’s Tradeswomen, Inc. Celebration Dinner. Being amongst so many powerful women that night, who had dedicated their lives to working and paving the road for other women in the building trades was not only refreshing, but empowering.
Early on in the evening, there was an older woman (pictured below), who sweetly invited me to sit at her table. I smiled, not knowing who she was, graciously accepted, and we proceeded to have the most tender exchange. She held my hand, encouraged me not to give up, and told me a story about how many years ago she met this small group of women in the trades who were struggling to find a safe and consistent space to meet. Eventually, due to her connections at the Department of Labor she was able to provide them with a space to convene and unite. Little did I know, I was talking to the amazing co-founder of Tradeswomen, Inc., Madeline Mixer.
I left that night with a sense of renewed hope. I held onto her words as I trekked forward through the next few weeks. What made all the difference from then on were the relationships that I started building with my GETS classmates:
Armando and I got to weather-strip windows together on our day volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Devoncia and I teamed up many times throughout the program to tackle class presentations for OSHA 10, energy efficiency, foundations, as well as a mini-home renovation for the large, wooden structure that we built together as a class.
George, Eric, Armando, David, and I spent a sunny Saturday together volunteering for GridAlternatives’ Solarthon, where we helped install solar panels for a low-income family out in Richmond.
And then there were others, like Q, who I had the opportunity to work with on Tuesdays and Thursdays during math class. Kalima, who provided the class with comic relief from time to time, due to his amazing ability to fall asleep just about anywhere. And Shaq, who I would never trust with a sawzall, but who I could always trust to provide me with a helping hand whenever I least expected it.
As we found ourselves working closely in small groups to complete big projects such as re-roofing Grid Alternatives’ practice roofs, doing home energy audits, framing an 8’x6.5’x8’ room in the workshop, and going on field trips to places like the Iron Workers training facility, we grew tighter as a cohort, and I was subsequently able to find that voice and sense of belonging that I didn’t think I’d ever have during the beginning of program.
Now that we’re almost at the end of our nine-weeks, I want to give a huge shout out to the amazing support team here at Rising Sun, who have been vital to our sustainability throughout this whole process. Our instructors, John (Carpentry), Laura (Energy Efficiency), and Mich (Math) were patient, caring, kind, and knowledgeable in their fields. Our professional development, job readiness, & case management superheroes, Elena, Melvin, Alex, and Makena held it down for us, and made themselves available whenever we needed their support. Also, Jodi, Alison, Marrion, and the countless number of other Rising Sun staff/community members who offered their time and expertise to help us with mock interviews, and to offer us tips in the areas of job retention and self-promotion. It’s been a team effort! And it’s been so nice to be a part of a program where the staff truly cares about your success and holds your well-being in their hearts.
To end this lengthy blog post, I just want to say that we have no way of knowing where life is going to take us. Something that I’ve learned throughout my 28 years of life is that it’s okay not to know. That it’s okay to take chances, and even to change careers if you have to—especially if it means being happier. Whether my future lies in construction, solar, or something else, is yet to be determined. But what I do know, is that the skills and the knowledge that I’ve gained at Rising Sun are invaluable. These almost nine weeks have been life-changing, and an experience that I’ll take with me wherever I go. I’m forever grateful to my cohort and teachers, and hope that others who have even the slightest interest in construction or solar will explore the possibility of getting into the building trades through GETS. I mean really, what have you got to lose?