Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County

Women Build Month 2023

As Women’s History Month 2023 comes to a close, so too does Women Build Month at Habitat for Humanity of Whatcom County. Nevertheless, we encourage women of all ages to volunteer with us at any time of the year and gain valuable skills while furthering our mission to build simple, decent, and affordable homes.

The goal of Women Build Month, for both our affiliate and for Habitat for Humanity International, is to provide a hands-on learning opportunity which empowers women to develop strength, stability, and independence not only for themselves, but for the families that we serve. The skills that are developed by this opportunity are valuable from both a personal and professional standpoint, as evidenced by staff and volunteers of the past and present.

In the personal realm, women gain skills which foster independence and allow them to accomplish tasks which, traditionally, would have been appointed to the men in their lives such as building a fence or shed, home renovations, and landscaping, to name a few. In the professional realm, women gain experience necessary to begin a career in the trades, an industry where they are dramatically underrepresented.

To celebrate a few of these women and their contributions to HFH Whatcom, we sat down to interview them about their experiences and opinions on the value of construction experience.

Tralayna Haslett, Our Newest Site Supervisor:

Tell us about yourself. How did you get into the trade business?

I moved to Bellingham in pursuit of Whatcom Community College’s massage therapy program. Once I graduated in 2015, I did a bike trip down the coast. Though I had only intended to stay in Bellingham for a year, I found the term “Bellinghome” ringing true for me. I returned to Bellingham and spent the next five years in banking, another two years as an office manager for a local HVAC company, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with a movement studies concentration from WWU. When I started pursuing my bachelor’s, I had my sights set on becoming a clinical exercise physiologist in a cardiac rehabilitation unit. COVID shifted those plans. After a pilgrimage across Spain this past Fall, I decided to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. One of the construction managers saw potential in me and pitched the idea of working for the organization. Since I was between jobs at the time, I decided to apply. I was hired mid-December 2022.

How did you get involved in Habitat?

In college I spent a day volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity job site in Seattle. I spent most of the day hammering nails to frame a wall, but broke away for a bit when an Americorps member was excited to share the Habitat vision and mission with me. I found it was a vision and mission I could get behind. Since I would love to design and build a home from scratch someday, Habitat seemed like a good place to gain some practical knowledge and skills while contributing to a worthwhile cause. Although I had other career intentions and time-commitments then, I tucked Habitat into my mind as a place to volunteer down the road.

How do you navigate a male dominated industry? What do you see as the main barriers for women entering the trades?

I would say the communication style feels a bit different in a male dominated industry. Bluntness and banter are commonplace. Teasing is often a form of affection…and if there was a rare moment where it’s not, develop thicker skin. Generally speaking, individuals have personal biases and can come across subtly skeptical, or even blatantly skeptical, in regards to a woman’s capabilities. Thankfully, Habitat for Humanity is a fairly inclusive organization collectively, which trickles down to the individuals as well.

A couple of main barriers for women entering the trades include doubts surrounding the strength capacity of women as well as the cultural emphasis on women’s physical appearance. Women are sometimes concerned with getting dirty, or getting bulky ‘masculine’ muscles, or being perceived as ‘not feminine enough’. On top of that, women tend to be afraid of making mistakes. It feels like there’s a lot of pressure to be as perfect as possible and sometimes women won’t even try something unless they know they can do it well. There’s a commonly held belief that men are inherently more mechanically inclined while women are more emotional, but I think there’s something to be said for cultural conditioning. In school I was shown studies where men consistently outperformed women on spatial reasoning tasks. It can quickly become dogmatic ideology, but how much of that is really nature versus nurture? Our upbringing plays a significant role in our beliefs and pursuits. I come with my own familial limitations. My grandma was very gender divided. Only boys use the remote. Only boys touch the microwave. If it’s technical or mechanical, it’s a boy thing. My mom was more open-minded, but worked as an ER nurse for many years. Based on her experiences and exposure to accidents, she was concerned about me doing things that could potentially be dangerous. For example, my dad wanted to let me mow the lawn as a teenager. My mom wasn’t okay with me using the lawn mower. Granted, she wouldn’t use the lawn mower herself either. Reflecting back, it would have been nice to have a female role model doing physical labor or using power tools. The first time I used a lawn mower was in my mid-twenties. While it’s healthy to be aware of potential risks when using power tools or chemicals–safety IS important–fear shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all. As long as the equipment is being used as intended, there is nothing to be intimidated by.

Why do you think it is important for women to enter the trades?

The trades are fun! It’s rewarding work when the results are tangible. And in general, more women should enter the trades because they are just as capable of working in the trades as anyone else. As more women enter the trades, people will realize the trades are less about brute strength and more about functional strength. It’s about using the right tool for the job and learning to use your body or leverage to accomplish the task. It’s largely about technique.

How do you think Habitat can help be a solution to the lack of diversity in the industry?

Because access to building is as simple as signing up to volunteer, Habitat offers a great way to get an initial taste of the industry. Seeing the process of a full home construction from start to finish allows a person to figure out what niche within construction and the trades appeals to them. It provides an opportunity to establish a baseline level of skill. As more women participate in specific women-build events, they may be inclined to volunteer build regularly or even pursue a career in the trades.

And even though I learned about Self-Determination Theory in college as it pertains to motivation of exercise, I think it can easily be applied elsewhere; therefore, I think another way Habitat can increase the diversity of the trades is by cultivating an environment where people’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. An environment where people feel ownership over their decisions and show up because they want to be there. They feel confident they can accomplish the task set before them. The task is challenging enough to be engaging, but not too difficult for their current skill level. An environment where their need for social connection is met and they feel a sense of comradery as they move toward a common goal.

Groups from Ethos West Construction (left) and People’s Bank (right) came out to help us construct two tiny homes during Women Build Month

Becky McCarthy, Regular Volunteer:

Tell us about yourself. Did you have construction experience before volunteering with Habitat?

I had no construction experience before Habitat. About 15 years ago, Habitat was building something at the NWWA Fair. I signed up to volunteer with a group for a few hours. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to sign up as a regular volunteer. It took years before I applied and finally attended the orientation in the Fall of 2019.

How did you get involved in Habitat? What was your initial reaction? Did you feel welcome?

Soon after that, the pandemic lockdown shut things down. When I realized that Habitat kept building, I decided one day that today’s the day to volunteer. No more excuses. I had a migraine and the weather was windy and well below freezing temps. It was one of the coldest days that year. But I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I arrived and was so well received. They didn’t “dumb me down” for being a woman. The concrete foundation had just set and was ready for walls. I was taught how to use tools right away. They were patient with me. I learned how to use an impact driver for attaching self-tapping screws into the metal H and I bars that held the firewalls in place. I learned that the firewalls give families an extra hour to get out. I learned how to find the “crown” on wooden studs for framing placement. I enjoyed it and the movement kept me warm.

How has the construction experience you’ve gained with Habitat had an impact on your life?

Volunteering has made an impact. The camaraderie built was a real blessing in a difficult time. Thinking about the families that would eventually occupy these homes was satisfying, and I learned skills that I’ve used in my own projects.

After helping Habitat build the tiny homes, I figured that it looked easy enough to build my own shed (a smaller version of the tiny homes). I call it my “she shed by the sea shore”. I started saving material that I found at the Habitat store, the REstore, and Home Depot for over a year when lumber was pricey. In fact, the people at Home Depot were so helpful that they gave me huge discounts on lumber that had slight blemishes or tiny flaws. I had to be careful in choosing flawed lumber for framing and which ones to use for blocking between the studs in the walls. It has been a community project as friends came to help with various tasks.

How do you navigate volunteering with Habitat and its male-dominated volunteer base?

The male-dominated volunteer base hasn’t bothered me at all. They were kind and like brothers to me. They liked to joke around with each other, and I didn’t feel left out. I was still given tasks that required the use of big tools like the framing nail guns, one of my favorites. I finally purchased my own cordless, battery/gas-powered framing nail gun on eBay.

Do you think it is important for women to gain construction experience and/or enter the trades? What do you see as the main barriers for women looking to do these things?

I think women are already gaining construction experience. I’ve volunteered with female nurses, stay at home moms, single women, and wives traveling with their husbands after retirement. We call the traveling volunteers “Care-A-Vanners.” I was surprised how much they knew and how fast some of them worked.

Based on that, I can’t see any real barriers for women wanting this kind of experience in this day and age.

What advice would you give someone who is intimidated by construction or working in the trades?

I would encourage any woman who might feel intimidated by this to come by and volunteer for a few times. There are so many other tasks that need to be done that don’t require the use of heavy tools. Like painting or staining, for example.

Some progress photos of the “She-Shed” Becky was able to build thanks to the help of some friends and the skills she gained volunteering with Habitat.

Edie Stickel, Carpenter’s Apprentice:

Edie Stickel at Telegraph

Edie Stickel, a former volunteer and construction staff member, used the experience she gained on an HFH Whatcom project site to launch into a career in the trades. Prior to her acceptance into the UBC, Local 70 Carpenter’s Union Apprenticeship Program, Edie spent a few months in early 2020 working at the Telegraph Townhome Project Site.

She did so at the recommendation of one of her pre-apprenticeship class instructors as a means of gaining carpentry experience before her apprenticeship program began.

“Edie did a lot of it on her own,” said Chris van Staalduinen, Construction Manager at the Telegraph Townhomes, “We just gave her a chance to get more comfortable doing carpentry.”

He continued, “The cool thing about Habitat is one week we might be doing concrete work, the next week we might be putting up cabinets. We offer a broad exposure to a lot of different aspects of building. We also take the time to show people the proper way to do things. We can do this because we don’t solely have a production mindset like a for-profit jobsite…it’s hard in a for-profit industry of any kind to find a way to get your feet wet, to see if you like it or don’t like it.”

To read more of her story, click here.

We are grateful to all of the women who contribute to Habitat for Humanity of Whatcom County’s mission, be it in the store, the office, the construction site, monetarily, or by providing lunch. These contributions, big and small, are essential to our continued efforts to lift folks out of poverty through the construction of affordable housing.

Once again, we encourage women ages 16 and up to volunteer with us even after Women Build Month ends and enjoy all of the benefits that come with volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project site. With your help, we can empower women, our community, and future generations by making homeownership a reality for hard-working families.

There are many ways to bring affordable housing to our community and every hand makes a difference!

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