When the By The Hand Club completed a $6 million, 24,000 sq. ft. facility at 416 N. Laramie in 2013, Rev. Reuben Robinson said there were probably a handful of locally hired, black tradesmen who had worked on the site. Two years later, as the faith-based after-school organization anticipates the August completion of a 53,000 sq. ft. facility right across the street from its still-new Laramie facility, Robinson needs more hands to count.
“Right now, we have three local subcontractors and 33 [local and/or African American] people who have been working on this job site,” said Robinson during an interview last month. “We’ve got three females, 20 local hires and 10 union-sent.”
Robinson, the founder of Empowerment Consulting Group — a firm that specializes in placing minority tradespeople, contractors and subcontractors on construction sites — said he was recruited by Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) to help place qualified West Side construction workers on West Side job sites. He’s been working with the alderman since her push to bring a Walmart into the ward.
“Over time, from Walmart to [By The Hand], we’ve probably placed anywhere from 350 to 400 [local, minority hires] on worksites,” Robinson said. “They’ve earned anywhere from $11 to $50 an hour. That’s a lot of empowerment.”
Robinson said the secret to his placement success is his close, direct collaboration with project developers. On this most recent construction project, Robinson said he worked directly with Donita Travis, By The Hand’s founder.
“The alderman brings me to the table to talk to the developer,” Robinson said. “I’m on the developer’s team. The subcontractor has to comply with the developer.”
Robinson said his presence ensures that developers are complying with fair hiring practices, something, he noted, that’s missing within the larger construction industry.
“Right now, local hires at the city and state level are still not following through with hiring [minorities and skilled workers who live near sites], because there’s no accountability,” he said.
Azuri Falconer, 37, was brought onto to the By The Hand construction site as a carpenter. She’s a first-year apprentice and a member of Local 80.
“I just started carpentry work in January,” the Austin resident said. “I was a crossing guard for Oak Park before this. I love carpentry. I’m not a desk person. I’m not about to sit at a computer answering phones — none of that.”
Falconer receives her training at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters. She was paired with the school by Chicago Women in Trades.
“They sponsor us and take us to a lot of places and a lot of different schools,” she said. “You get to pick and choose professions and I chose carpentry.”
Devin Payton, 37, did some roofing work on the By The Hand Site in May. Payton, a member of Local 11, worked on the site with his father, Larry Payton.
“He’s a second generation roofer and I’m a third generation roofer,” Payton said. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years — ever since I came out of school. I blame my dad,” he said, laughing.
As with Falconer, Payton had effusive praise of his trade. He said he earns $41 an hour and gets a break during the slow months — namely December and January.
“It has its ups and downs,” Payton said of the work, before adding that how up or how down often depends on the company a tradesman works for. Payton and his father work for WBR Roofing, a company based in Wauconda, Illinois.
For Falconer, a self-professed tomboy, the very work itself is so consuming that there’s little room to consider what has to be the elephant in each unfinished room she labors on.
How is it being a woman in a male-dominated field?
“I think I harass them more than they harass me,” said Falconer, laughing. “Every day is something different. I learn something new. I’m just so grateful to be doing it that, if something bad ever happens, I don’t pay too much attention to it. I be in my own zone. Before you know it, I’m looking back like, man the day is over already? That was quick.”
And when the work is done, Falconer said, there’s always the satisfaction of looking back — something that can’t as easily be said for desk work.
“What’s better than seeing something you helped build? Every day when I go past there, I get to say I had a hand in putting that up there. It don’t get no better than that.”