Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

“On Equal Terms,” an Art Exhibit by a Female IBEW Member, Comes to NYC

ON EQUAL TERMS, a touring mixed media art installation by Susan Eisenberg, will be making its way to NYC from February 24th to March 24th at the Clemente Soto Velez Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The exhibit, most recently shown at the Main Gallery of the Smithsonian-affiliated Michigan State University Museum, looks into women’s roles in the construction industry and what it means to treat people “On Equal Terms.” The exhibit combines audio, poetry, found objects, photography, banners and historical artifacts.

Some of the more interesting pieces include a plywood bathroom shack with graffiti; a “My Kids Know Which Bridges in Town Are Mine!” cake; and Stella, a life-sized figure on a ladder in a diamond hardhat.

While it has been nearly 35 years since Affirmative Action Policies opened the construction industry to women, many find they are still not being treated on equal terms. Part of the installation deals with how policy enforcement could have boosted women’s industry penetration to nearly 25 percent of the construction workforce. Sadly, the figure has only “risen” to 2.5 percent.

Eisenberg entered the trades as an apprentice in 1978 becoming one of the first women to achieve journey-level status in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). She began telling the story of women in the trades in 1991 by interviewing her peers across the U.S. Thirty of those oral histories became the basis for her book Weʼll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. The work would be recognized by the New York Times and included many stories of women’s first experiences on the work site. One such woman was Melinda Hernandez, a former jeweler’s apprentice who began to work in the trades after finding the jewelery profession to be too exploitative. In the book, the 5’2” Bronx Puerto Rican describes her first day as an apprentice:

I HAD A LITTLE RED TOOLBOX. I looked like Little Red Riding Hood coming onto the job. It was funny because I had been taught by the women at All Craft, they’re going to try to test you, so don’t take any lip. You just let them know that you’re there to do a day’s work and to learn a trade.

I was running late because I couldn’t find the job. When I walked into the building, I asked for the electricians’ shanty. The guys looked at me like, What the hell is she doing here? Like, they heard we were coming, but it was never going to be real, it was never going to materialize. And there is this little woman with a toolbox.

The job was 70 percent complete. The walls were up, the windows were in, and they were just roughing out internally. When I got to the electricians’ shanty and I opened the door, the foreman was sitting at the desk. He was about 60 and he was gray, all this silver gray. He looked at me and he says, “Yes, little girl, what is it? Did your father leave his tools home?” He was serious. He wasn’t being sarcastic. I think the shop just sent me and didn’t inform him, to kind of play this game, Let’s see how he reacts, you know.

I was 22, but I looked like 15 or 16 at the time. I said, “I’m here to report for work. I’m an apprentice.”

Stories like these eventually led to ON EQUAL TERMS which launched in 2008 at Brandeis University where Eisenberg is currently a Resident Artist/Scholar at the school’s Womenʼs Studies Research Center.

The NYC version of the art show will include a new element, “WOMEN RUN WORK,” which honors women “who have worked as foremen, general foremen, superintendents, etc on the job — to celebrate those accomplishments out in the field.” This part of the installation will actually debut for the NYC opening.

On Thursday. February 28th betweem 6 and 8PM an opening reception will be held to honor NYC Tradeswomen. The exhibit at the Clemente Center Gallery will be open 7 days a week between the hours of 3:30 and 7PM.


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