Four women stood in the dim parking lot of the After-Incarceration Support Services program on a bitter-cold Wednesday night sharing a cigarette. I made my way past them inside where I headed toward the sound of laughter and loud voices. Women were gathering in a big room at the end of a hall. I walked in to a room with many tables surrounded by chairs in the center and chairs along the walls which began to fill. Some women seemed to be young while others seemed older, although not nearly my age. It wasn’t apparent if there were more white or black or Latina women. It wasn’t apparent if they knew each other before this night. What was clear to me is that they were all invested in being there.
I came to talk about careers for women in construction trades. My paid part-time job since July has been to direct a building trades pre-apprenticeship program called Community Works. Gradually, the room filled to capacity. I guessed there were more than 30 women present. I wrote a statement on a blank page of an easel that I found in the corner of the room. “Women deserve good pay for their work.” My thought was that everyone in the room could identify with that, even if they hadn’t thought about a career in construction.
When I asked how many women had experience in the trades or even doing home repairs, there was great commotion with many hands up and several women talking at once about what they’ve done—some joking about themselves, others dead serious. One woman is a self-employed painter. “Not enough work, though,” she said. Another woman mixed concrete all last summer. After giving a brief introduction to Community Works, I asked how many women in the room had a GED or high school diploma. Less than a third of the women raised their hands. I asked how many had a driver’s license. Only seven women raised their hands. A young woman proudly raised her hand for the GED but her face fell at the second question. I saw a few heads nod when she told me that she had to pay $1,500 in fines and didn’t see how that was going to happen with no job.
Without a high school diploma, the chances of women getting a living-wage job are nil. Without some money to start with, the chances are few that women will go back to school while they care for children or old relatives and everybody they know lives in distressed neighborhoods with no place to park a car even if they could afford one. At least there is a gathering every Wednesday night at AISS where women have hope that their futures will be better than their past.
Just how is this going to happen? How are their futures going to be any better? Incarceration for women is a predictive outcome of poverty and, or sexual violence.
The immediate and solvable problem is poverty. Poverty is solved with dignified work for decent pay. The solution and the money to pay for the work, is within walking distance of the room at AISS. Preserving and maintaining historic buildings and parks creates long-term, skill-building jobs for the people who need them most. Every window restored is a week’s food for a family and then is something beautiful for generations. I will carry the hope of these women as their scout to open the road that runs between city hall and real jobs.