Construction is booming in Rochester as the city enters the sixth year of its Destination Medical Center program, a 20-year, multibillion-dollar initiative to enhance its status as a medical hub.
And now Rochester has been selected to lead the way in an effort to bring more women of color into the construction field.
The city is one of 15 selected from more than 600 entries worldwide for a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayor's Challenge grant. It's a thrill for the hundreds of local residents who contributed to the effort, Mayor Kim Norton said.
"We're still reeling to understand that among 631 global cities, Rochester ... was selected," Norton said. "It's been terribly exciting. All of us responded with awe."
This year's challenge asked cities to focus on responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In Rochester, where more than 2,000 construction jobs are created each year, the community put its lens on the building industry.
Of all the well-paying jobs in the building field, fewer than 1% are filled by women who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, even though they represent 13% of the area's population. That 1% figure also applies across the nation as a whole. Women overall fill about 12% of construction jobs nationwide.
Research showed that BIPOC women also have suffered more economically during the pandemic than other groups. So the initiative's organizers set out to understand the barriers that keep women of color from getting into the building trades.
Organizers conducted hundreds of interviews with residents, officials, union leaders and people in the construction industry. Many topics were discussed, but a few key areas stood out, said Karen Martinez, one of the initiative's co-designers.
"Child care — that's huge," Martinez said. "Mentorship. Family came up big. As a woman, the majority of the time, we're caretakers of family members, whether they're children or other family members. Technical training is another." A barrier can even be as simple as not having a women's restroom on a jobsite.
Working with construction industry owners and others in the community, the group plans to figure out how to overcome those barriers. And the effort goes beyond driving nails, said Norton, noting that the group always referred to the larger concept of the "built environment."
"So we talked about architecture and computer-aided design and electricity and plumbing," she said.
It's been common in the construction world for men — most often white men — to pass on skills and opportunities to their younger relatives and friends, Martinez said. Think of the young man whose uncle helps him get his foot in the door at the union hall. The challenge now, she said, is to make those kinds of opportunities available to a broader slice of the community.
Aaron Benike, owner of Benike Construction Co., said he believes the effort will really make a difference.
"Successful teams often allow each other foul balls," he said. "But we don't often allow a lot of foul balls for folks that aren't already on our team."
Through the recent process, he said, "I learned that I shouldn't listen to the narrative that's going on in my head. Because those are just assumptions. I should just ask people questions and learn from them and not assume things."
Martinez grew up in Texas and learned about the physical world from her father, a mechanic who taught her how to work on a car and fix an air conditioner. She hopes other women of color will have the same opportunities.
"Things are changing, and that's a good thing," she said.