Building Hope paves the way for paid construction jobs for those who need it most

Like many in America, a family tragedy left Isis Harris reeling and, soon after, buried in medical debt. Unable to cope with the rising costs of prescriptions and hospital bills after her son was shot, she knew she had to change careers.

But she knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

With a conviction on her record for which she served six years in prison, Harris was acutely aware of the difficulty of finding and keeping a job. Even employers who were enthusiastic about hiring him often rescinded their offers after conducting a background check. The jobs she held had low wages and irregular hours that weren’t enough to keep her family afloat.

She felt stuck – until a friend told her about his experience with a local nonprofit, Constructing Hope, which for 30 years has provided free pre-apprenticeship training in construction for Portlanders working in low-paying jobs, who are homeless or who were formerly incarcerated.

“It was pivotable for a lot of reasons,” Harris said. “Not only did (Constructing Hope) come at a time when I really needed hope in my life, but the administrative assistant was able to put me in touch with her husband who gave me a job at the station- service he managed, which maintained my accommodation throughout the program.”

Isis Harris graduated from the Constructing Hope vocational training program nearly a decade ago and now works as a journeyman electrician.Courtesy of Isis Harris

The non-profit organization aims not only to increase diversity in the construction industry, but also to elevate disenfranchised or neglected groups to the middle class through sustainable and lucrative jobs in construction trades. construction. Many employers in the construction industry do not require background checks, which has long blocked people with criminal records from profitable fields.

“I never really considered construction as a career because I thought you needed a college education,” said Raleigh Morrison, who graduated from the program in 2013 and now works as a carpenter for Turner Construction. . “I thought that was a certain area that not everyone could get into.”

Founded in 1995, first as a program of the Irvington Covenant Church and now as an independent nonprofit, Constructing Hope’s more than 1,000 graduates have gone on to careers as laborers, d electricians, roofers and more. According to the organization, since 2015 nearly 350 graduates have been placed on apprenticeships in trades such as carpentry, plumbing and masonry.

Construction careers, while dangerous and physically demanding, often provide workers with a hourly wage well above state and national minimum and job security in the form of membership in local labor unions. Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a disproportionate majority of construction jobs87.9% are owned by white workers.

“I get a lot of double-takes on the job site,” said Harris, who graduated from Constructing Hope nearly a decade ago and now works as a journeyman electrician. “I don’t think they’ve seen many black women on the job sites, and I don’t even see other black women on the job sites. It doesn’t happen often.

Pat Daniels, executive director of Constructing Hope, has led the program since 2005. She said one of her organization’s biggest challenges is overcoming the information barrier and assuring students that building is a journey. viable career path, even for those with or without criminal backgrounds. Higher Education.

“For people of color coming out of the system, they don’t know the opportunities that are available to them,” said Morrison, who is black and Filipino. “Just because you have a criminal record doesn’t mean you can’t be a healthy member of society.”

Three men carrying construction equipment

Raleigh Morrison, center, pictured with her sons Robert and Scott, graduated from the Constructing Hope program in 2013 and now works as a carpenter for Turner Construction.Courtesy of Raleigh Morrison

To address the significant industry disparity, Daniels said Constructing Hope is deliberate in how it seeks participants.

“Portland lacks diversity,” she said. “And to get people in those positions, we have to be intentional.”

While Constructing Hope enjoys strong word-of-mouth marketing — which is how Harris and Morrison discovered the program — Daniels and his team partner with several correctional facilities, like Columbia River Correctional Facility and the Oregon State Correctional Facility, and Shelters to Find Prospects.

“We’ve thrown these people out of society outright, and just to say it’s okay for them to do dishwashing work that doesn’t pay anything, you’re not giving them the opportunity to start their lives,” he said. she declared.

Daniels is looking for people with personal qualities such as perseverance, determination and “mental toughness” because a construction gig is not easy. Call hours are very early in the morning, workers work rain or shine, in dry heat and showers, and the danger of heavy materials and machinery requires a keen sense of situational awareness.

Patricia Daniels

Pat Daniels, executive director of Constructing Hope, has led the program since 2005.building hope

And Constructing Hope incorporates many of these professional requirements into its curriculum. The lesson starts at 6:30 sharp. Most hands-on technical training takes place outdoors, such as on a construction site. And participants must take a random drug test three times over the 10 weeks.

That kind of rigor, Daniels said, is key to preparing students not only for the reality of construction, but also for success in the industry.

Constructing Hope also offers students three years of career support after graduation, guiding them on how to create a portfolio and interview for a job.

“Over time, we’ve found that if we take you to the front door and leave you, you’re going to fall,” Daniels said.

Three years ago, Constructing Hope also introduced green energy training for trades such as weatherization and solar installation. The rise of green energy was on Daniels’ mind long before the organization partnered with the Portland Clean Energy Fund last year. Building Hope will receive $600,000 through the municipal voter-approved program.

“We always try to stay on top of the industry,” Daniels said. “I like to make sure that if I sell my people, some who are formerly incarcerated, I want them to be more advanced than the average guy who walks in the door.”

–Meira Gebel

Michael A. Bynum