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Woman At Work: Connie Ashbrook

Co-Chair, The National Taskforce on Tradeswomen's Issues and Founding Executive Director of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.

Tell us about your career in the trades.

I worked in the trades for 17 years as a construction truck driver, carpenter, and elevator constructor. How many of you have been to the PDX Airport? As a carpenter apprentice, I helped build that beautiful curving off-ramp that leads from I-5 to the airport, the bike path, and the underpass system. One of my reasons for deciding to work in the trades—for enjoying my work—is the satisfaction of having such a solid proof of your labors—I know that's also true for many other women and men that work in the trades.

In my early career, my lifeline was the monthly tradeswomen potlucks. I’m not even sure who organized them. In the newsletters (this was before the internet made connecting so much easier) put out by Cleveland Hard Hatted Women, Chicago Women in Trades and California’s Tradeswomen Inc., I read about the work these other groups were doing and thought, “I sure wish someone would start an organization like that in Oregon. I would volunteer and help out if they did.”

I finally realized that if I wanted it to happen, that I needed to step up and do it. Oregon Tradeswomen Network (later renamed Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.) was started by carpenters Ann Zawaski and Kate Barrett, operating engineer Sandy Hay, and myself—all women who had entered the trades in the late 70’s. When we began our careers, we felt like pioneers, blazing a path for many women to follow in our footsteps. But as we matured and excelled in our various crafts, we noticed that the women we expected to see follow us weren’t there.

Initially, OTI was a loose network of tradeswomen who connected through potlucks and a phone tree. I served as the chief volunteer and Chair of the Board before becoming the first Executive Director in 1996. Our funding came from membership dues and local grants. By the time I retired in 2017, our budget had grown significantly, supported by a diverse range of grants, industry sponsorships, and individual contributions. Despite financial challenges, we remained committed to advocacy and organizing, driven by the desire to create change.

Students, instructors, and volunteers from Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.

We started guiding women into apprenticeships in 1998, and in 2004, we launched a pre-apprenticeship program. This program, offering guidance, soft skills, hands-on instruction, and visits to job sites, prepared women to excel in the trades, changing perceptions among supervisors and co-workers. Our major accomplishments include the annual Women in Trades Career Fair, aimed at educating girls and women about opportunities in the trades, and the Tradeswomen Leadership Institute. Our efforts have significantly impacted the representation of women in Oregon’s apprenticeship programs and in key legislative wins, such as the South Waterfront Apprenticeship Agreement and Senate Bill 894, which secured steady funding for supportive services for apprentices.

I believe in the power of collective impact, of people working together to create change. Looking at the data, at the many women whose lives were impacted by OTI, that is what happened!

What education or training helped with your work?

I graduated high school in 1972, the year that Title 9 passed. Title 9 said women should have equal opportunities in education, which resulted in girls being admitted to shop classes. Too late for me to take advantage of the opportunity. Consequently, I didn’t take shop. I took art, crafts, sewing, and photography instead. They require similar skills that you need to be a good construction worker: problem-solving techniques, measuring, materials science, spatial relations, to achieve a desired end. These skills prepared me to be a very good construction worker. I say if you can follow a Vogue sewing pattern, you can follow any blue-print or technical directions.

Photo credit: Madelyn Elder

What sort of difficulties did you face in your early career?

The biggest challenge for me has always been social isolation. Most of my co-workers had never worked with a woman before… Seems silly now at how painful this was, but back then, the hardest part was,day after day, the last seat to be taken in the lunchroom was the one next to me. I did go on to have male friends among my co-workers, and I see from Oregon Tradeswomen’s pre-apprenticeship graduates' experience, young people take friendship among men and women as a matter of course.

How did you become involved in advocacy?

In 1986, the Lesbian Community Project was founded to promote the well-being of the lesbian community with an evolving multi-issue, multi-cultural perspective. I met my wife at the convening meeting where it was formed, and I became a volunteer on the membership committee. I really saw how an organization was started and run from the inside. There were some lesbian lawyers that I met through both the Lesbian Community Project, and through my own need to get a living together agreement that would protect me and my then partner, now wife. My wife was a school teacher who was involved in the Cascade Union of Educators, the gay teachers group. Back then, teachers could be fired for being gay, so they were closeted. They marched in the Gay Pride Parade with bags over their heads so they could not be identified. So this was definitely back in the day.

Crowds marched in the 1992 Portland Pride Parade, protesting the Oregon Citizen Alliance’s Ballot Measure 9, which sought to label homosexuality "abnormal" and strip LGBTQ+ protections. Photo by Linda Kliewer, Just Out Magazine

What was it like to be a lesbian construction worker in the 80s and 90s?

I was closeted at work, although I had a couple of male friends I was out to that were supportive of me. I think people generally didn't know what to make of me as a woman because I was the only woman on my job, on my crew, not necessarily on my job site. Women from other trades were there and we would sometimes hang out at lunch.

One of the reasons I could put down the tools and go to work for Oregon Tradeswomen is because of the wonderful women from OHSU, who fought for recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to get benefits. Martha’s teachers union then fought for same-sex couples to have access to healthcare benefits. We could be domestic partners —we couldn't get married at that point –but I got on her benefits, which meant that I felt comfortable going to work for Oregon Tradeswomen as their first executive director. So Oregon Tradeswomen started in 1989, but I worked as a volunteer until I could get those healthcare benefits. That was 1996. The changes in our society just meant so much to me to feel comfortable being out.

Connie and her wife, Martha

 

Who’s a woman who helped you get to where you are?

One of my mentors was Kay Sohl, who started an organization called Technical Assistance for Community Services (TACS), now known as the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, the Northwest's largest resource for nonprofit capacity building assistance. I learned so much about running a nonprofit organization from her. They did monthly workshops on various topics, like how to read a financial report, how to deal with an auditor, how to create bylaws for your board of directors, and how to get your board involved in fundraising. So everything a nonprofit organization needs in order to be successful and run legally.

Connie working on Oregon Tradeswomen projects

You’re an integral part of The National Taskforce on Tradeswomen's Issues —tell us about that.

Our mission is to advocate for better rules and laws, processes and procedures that will provide more opportunity for tradeswomen and end the harassment and discrimination they face on the job, then share the best practices that we see developing around the country. There's many, many tradeswomen groups that get involved in their community, find something to work on, and make it come to fruition. For example, Care That Works in the Boston area was developed by the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues. They did a lot of advocacy around making sure there was child care available for extended hours that worked for tradeswomen, and that the childcare providers would get a decent wage as well. So we share that win around the country, so that advocates in other states can see those wins, and start to organize to make them happen in their own community.

The Taskforce also advocates for best practices in the federal government. For instance, The Office of Apprenticeship is updating its rule over apprenticeship that's called 29 CFR Part 29. They published their proposed rule, then the taskforce brought together a group of apprenticeship experts and legal experts, and made comments on the proposed rule change. The rule now has a lot of details around how harassment and complaints should be handled, and how apprentices can be protected from retaliation if they make a complaint. We also work with folks from the Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation to make sure that tradeswomen in different states where big infrastructure projects are happening know how to advocate for equal access, equal hiring, and respectful workplaces.

Photo by Sheldon Sabbatini

We do a lot of work around respectful workplaces —that's actually a big issue for men too. There's a lot of competition and uncertainty that comes with being a construction worker, even though the work is enormously satisfying and the prevailing projects’ wages pay well. In some states without a strong union presence, construction workers aren't paid very well. But there's a lot of pride in being a good worker, and seeing the fruits of your labor and just the skill that you develop, whether you're a cement mason or an ironworker, an elevator constructor, electrician, carpenter—the list goes on and on. So it's not surprising that the suicide rate for construction workers is fairly high because of those stresses. In many workplaces, the current norm, as it is in many male-dominated arenas, is a lot of banter, chest puffing, trying to be the top dog, putting people down as jokes. This is part of men's culture, and where a lot of men are working to improve, so they get to express emotions, be a vulnerable person, and don't have to be that callous and indifferent. They can express their love. They can express their camaraderie. Respectful workplace initiatives are important for every construction worker. I believe that as they spread, they will reduce the amount of suicide, and make construction work much more attractive.

What advice would you give younger women in the trades and advocates for more equitable work environments?

It gives me hope to see all of the resisters and other activists who are working for social justice. I believe that to change history, one needs to be persistent, to find and engage allies, to work on the small things that you can change, while continuing to hold up and remind people of the vision of bigger change that is harder to make happen.

Learn more about the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen's Issues here.

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