Washington Area Women's Foundation

WAWIT: Welding a new world for women.

A friend and I have a running list of people you need in your life, particularly as you edge towards "grown-up" living. 

Topping the list are a good mechanic and a good plumber, among a number of other skills we seem to be desperately lacking in. 

carpentry class.WAWITAt last week’s graduation ceremony of the first class of the YWCA National Capital Area’s Washington Area Women in the Trades (WAWIT) program, it struck me how our natural tendency to assume that these roles would be filled by men are long, long outdated.

Because the 10 women who graduated–with aspirations including careers in plumbing, carpentry, painting, landscaping and sheet metal work–not only intend to shatter stereotypes of the types of work women can do, and are doing, but to change the very structures in which they do it.

They intend not only to weld metal, but to weld the very world that produces it.

After only 12 weeks, which, like with previous classes graduating women ready to take on nontraditional careers, hardly seems like enough to contain it all–or to produce this level of confidence, strength and, even a twinge of well-placed rebellion–the ceremony was marked with graduate’s indications that their intentions went well beyond their own economic security, to that of changing the world of work for all women.

"We have come a long way from just wanting to get a job, to wanting to make a difference in the industry," said one of the graduates before stating proudly that they planned to establish a union among women in the trades throughout our region. 

One can only imagine that this sense of confidence and comaraderie only comes from the same holistic approach to support that was evident throughout the First Female Construction Employment Class of Goodwill of Greater Washington and what I can only imagine was present in their Environmental Services Training Course

As evidence of this, the women discussed taking each lesson bit by bit–and refusing to move on until everyone got it.  They talked about keeping each other motivated–sometimes with a phone call harrassment plan–when getting up at the crack of dawn (sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. to bike in from Virginia) and being on job sites in the dead of winter was almost too much to bear.  They talked of struggling through–and then gaining strength from–the mandatory kick-boxing and weight training courses that would be necessary to ensure that they could manage the heavy lifting of their new professions.

Including the mental heavy lifting that would be required.

Because, as one of the commencement speakers, Sarah Reynolds–a bus mechanic with Metro for more than 20 years–noted–even in 2007, "There are too few of us."  With part of her current responsibilities being to recruit young women into careers at WMATA, she said, "I’m not leaving Metro until I have more women behind me."

This is crucial, she explains, to handle some of the difficulties of being one of a few women in a very male-dominated world.  And the key, she says, is the support of other women.  "The negative things I dealt with, you will not have to deal with by yourselves anymore.  You will have other women with you," she promised, as she outlined a mentoring plan underway for the graduates with experienced professional women in the trades,

Joan Kuriansky, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, a partner of WAWIT, explained that this is precisely the point.  Construction is a billion dollar industry in this region, she said, and there is no reason that women–and their families–shouldn’t benefit from it. 

"This program," she said, "represents a breakthrough for many women not here today, because it is changing perceptions of what is women’s work.  One by one, the stereotypes about women, and what we can do, will be debunked!" 

And as these programs continue to demonstrate, changing these perceptions is always the beginning–from changing the women’s perceptions of what they can do personally, to changing their children’s perceptions of what women can do through their example, to changing society’s perceptions of women’s work. 

The graduates confirmed that, while a professional journey, it can’t be approached without taking into account the personal obstacles.  "If I can do it," said one graduate, "all these women can do it.  And we come from all different walks of life.  Not a Paris Hilton life.  A hard-knock life."

From hard knocks to laying hard wood, a path that started with learning skills has turned into a unified desire to transform the scope and scale of women’s work.   

"That’s the kind of stepping stone you represent," Kuriansky told the graduates. 

Words that couldn’t have been better selected, since this program is a perfect realization of one of the goals of our Stepping Stones initative–an early partner to WAWIT–to increase the economic security of low-income women in our region by providing access to high-growth, well-paying, nontraditional careers

With training programs like this throughout our region–many of them supported by The Women’s Foundation–it’s difficult not to get the sense that this is far more than shop talk, but rapidly evolving system change, which is what The Women’s Foundation, and our partners, are all about. 

About investing in women as a means of building stronger communities. 

With bright futures–and job opportunities already waiting for many–it’s easy to imagine this transformation unfolding.  In fact, with the graduates sometimes spontaneously bursting into Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, it’s harder to imagine that it won’t. 

From victories from the personal to the professional, from skills to scaffolds of an unlimited height.

As Kuriansky said, "The elevator, I don’t think it’s ever coming down."

If it does, it will only be on occasion, but only for these women to head back down to pick up those they’ll carry up to the top, just as they have been, and will be, supported by those women, like Reynolds, who came before. 

As one of the graduates said, "We are the blueprint and the foundation of it all.  It began with us, and we have the responsibility to keep this legacy going, even after today."

Echoed by another graduate, who said, "It started with us, and it won’t finish with us." 

Indeed it won’t.  The next class starts on Monday.  

For more information on The Women’s Foundation’s Stepping Stones, which supports programs like this throughout the Washington metropolitan region, click here

To learn more about WAWIT, and how to get involved, visit YWCANCA.org.  WAWIT is a collaboration among the YWCA National Capital Area, Wider Opportunities for Women (also a Stepping Stones Grantee Partner) and the Community Services Agency of the Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO.

To learn more about similar training programs for women breaking barriers, visit our blog to learn more about Goodwill of Greater Washington’s female construction and environmental services programs.

Then, join us in building a better Washington region by investing in and expanding strategies and programs like these.  Join in the power of giving together