Poetic Justice: The women of Oregon Tradeswomen tear down the Sugar Shack

By: Shaley Howard - Nov 16, 2015
Source: PQ Monthly

The Sugar Shack is an ex-strip club in the Cully neighborhood, known for illegal activities such as prostitution, drugs and alleged human trafficking, is in the process of being gutted by the pre-apprenticeship students from Oregon Tradeswomen Inc (OTI). The “Living Cully Plaza LLC” a coalition of community groups and residents including Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro, Hacienda CDC, and Verde, purchased the entire two-acre site which includes the 26,000 square foot building, in July for $2.3 million with plans to turn it into something positive for the community.

There are 22 OTI women currently working on the site who are students enrolled in a 7-week pre-apprenticeship training program OTI offers that prepares low-income women for high wage, high skills careers in the construction trades. Amy James Neel is the on-site lead instructor and Construction Manager at OTI. She has been in the construction trades for over 20 years.

Neel says: “Many of these women come from Cully. They grew up with this eyesore in their neighborhood and many of them were not allowed to hang out in that area because it was too dangerous. This building was used to disenfranchise women. Now it’s being used as an opportunity to empower women through learning the skills that it takes for them to move into this higher wage, high skilled jobs in construction. It’s poetic. It’s a meaningful transition and it’s meaningful that women are doing the work. “

Senator Ron Wyden took a tour last Thursday and was not only thrilled to see the OTI women tearing down the interior building but also excited about the community participation that decided to come together and create a meaningful and positive change in the Cully neighborhood.

“I believe Cully is really a textbook case of how neighborhoods and communities can come together. When you have an eyesore like this lots of time people, just wash their hands and give up thinking nothing can be done. This community said that’s not what we’re about. We’re going to come together. We have the hard working women from the pre-apprenticeship program at OTI turning a community eyesore into a community asset and also providing ideal training for the women.”

The Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class (TACC) at OTI is a pathway for women into an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is an excellent avenue to get women out of poverty and into the middle class. There is an occupational segregation that keeps women from accessing these high paying construction jobs and jobs that are traditionally held by women pay far less. Nationally only 3% of construction workers are women, meaning 97% are men that make up the industry. Clearly men don’t have any problem moving into an apprenticeship in the trades, but women do. Here in Oregon the numbers are higher though thanks to pre-apprenticeship program where the average number of women in construction is closer to 6%.

The students that are gutting the sugar shack receive on-site construction training that doubles as class time. The program is free to students as it is funded through grants and donations. OTI currently has more women applying to participate in their program than they can currently serve.

“To continue to do our work the industry, our community and our country at large need to support pre-apprenticeship. The Obama administration through the Department of Labor just declared the intention to support the creation of additional apprenticeships. If women and people of color are to be a part of the renewed effort for apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship needs financial support. We could serve double if not triple the number of women with adequate support to make those living wages and feed and support their families.” – commented Neel.

No decision has been made as to what business will move into the building, but there have been 20-30 different vendors interested. At some point, the Living Cully Plaza organizers will be meeting to discuss ideas with the community.

“We can turn Cully into a very substantial community asset.” Senator Wyden said adding, “And we can do it by putting women to work who will make a big difference not just here but in the economy for years to come.”