BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA
Herlema Owens was going to school for hair and beauty when her husband tragically died. Left alone to raise her three children, she was unsure how she was going to make the money she desperately needed to provide for her family.
When a friend of hers from beauty school got word of her unfortunate predicament, she suggested that Owens, a self-proclaimed ‘girly-girl,’ look into the construction industry.
“She was telling me all about construction and at first, I was not interested,” she said.
It was not until after her friend told her the average salary of a construction worker that Owens began to seriously consider leaving beauty school. And much to her surprise, when she made the bold decision to give the industry a try, she fell in love with it.
“My first day on the job was the most enlightening and breathtaking experience I ever had. It was the dream of my life that I never even knew I had dreamt,” she said. “It was exciting and on that first day, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Though she truly loved every aspect of working with her hands, as a female minority, she encountered a lot of discrimination. She recalls that on her first job site, she was not the only woman, but also the only Black worker.
“At that time, I was literally a double quota,” she said.
Despite the hardships, Owens’ career in construction began to flourish.
“By my fourth job, I was made a foreman. It was exactly what I wanted,” she said. “Even though I’ve experienced sexism and sexual harassment, I always continued to work. The foreman harassed me quite often, but having the thick skin I had, I didn’t pay any mind.”
While Owens, now a proud member of Local 731 for 27 years, has accomplished a great deal in the field of construction, she understood that there were many obstacles for women trying to break in to the male-dominated industry.
So, as a means to help women looking to get into construction, in 2006, Owens began the Association of Women Construction Workers of America – a nonprofit which does just that.
“As a woman construction worker myself, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had the issues I was having, from the sexual harassment to the discrimination,” she said. “I wasn’t the only person feeling like that, so when I started to hear that from other women, I felt like there was a need for a program like this.”
Though Owens and her friend, the-late Joi Beard, began the AWCWA to help women go into construction, the Jamaica-based nonprofit has since continued to expand its efforts to advocate for the advancement of all minority groups looking for a career in the field.
“We realized there were also a lot of young men out there who did not have a place to go for pre-training. And construction is not one of those industries to turn a blind eye to men who have been incarcerated,” she said. “As long as they right their wrong, they don’t hold it against you. This is a career that can change a person who has been in trouble. It is an industry that creates self-worth.”
Hoping to give locals a life changing opportunity, AWCWA offers a free 15-week series of workshops, including the basic essentials of construction. Graduating students receive a certificate of completion and are often places by AWCWA at partnering construction companies.
“It’s important to me that this is a successful program. This is a life changing experience, so we really look to make a difference,” she said. “We want to make sure that those who come into the program get what they need from it.”
AWCWA offers two sessions – from September to December, and from January to May. Classes are taught Monday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the State University of New York Equal Opportunity Center, located at 158-29 Archer Ave., Jamaica.
For more information, call (718) 725- 3373, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718) 357-7400 ext. 123 or email@example.com or @nkozikowska.