Beach volunteers had the perfect backdrop, with the Lake Michigan waterfront meeting Chicago’s famous skyline. IBEW members helped beautify two sections of beach and two parks in the city’s South Side on Thursday morning, May 5, for the 40th International Convention’s Day of Service.

On a chilly May Chicago morning, one refrain summed up the good will as gloved hands cleared debris from acres of South Side parkland and beach: “It’s what we do.”

At a stretch of Lake Michigan beach east of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, project coordinators load volunteers’ trash bags into a waiting garbage truck.
IBEW volunteers pick up trash in Ellis Park, formerly the site of a public housing project.
Volunteers at Dunbar Park across from Local 134’s hall celebrate a job well done.

Nearly 300 brothers and sisters, including many young members representing the RENEW and NextGen programs, arrived at Chicago Local 134’s cavernous hall at 7 a.m. Thursday, May 5, for the 40th International Convention’s Day of Service.

“This is something we’ve adopted the past few conventions,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said as volunteers enjoyed their host’s early morning coffee and doughnuts. “It’s a great opportunity for you to get a chance to meet one another from all across the United States and Canada and to go out and help the communities where we’re holding our event. I want to thank you all for that.”

Participants signed up for one of four sites, two nearby parks and two stretches of beach and greenway along Lake Michigan. They packed into buses after picking up fluorescent work gloves and protective glasses donated by Milwaukee Tool.

Two large groups headed for lakeside beach east of the Bronzeville neighborhood, renowned in the early 1900s as a Black American business and cultural hub. Longtime Local 134 journeyman Yassin Namdar, donning one of the bright yellow vests of project captains, was ready with trash bags and rakes for the onslaught of volunteers.

Rick Hockworth, a foreman on one of the many grid-scale solar projects in Riverside, Calif., Local 440’s desert jurisdiction, was one of them. “It’s an honor to be here,” he said. “This is a way to give back to the community.”

Detroit Local 58 President Kimberly L’Heureux, another captain on site, said each beach cleanup group drew about 75 volunteers. The idea was to drop off them off to the north and south and work toward the middle. It didn’t happen that way, but the beach area still got cleaned from end to end.

“There were liquor bottles, blown rubbish, but it wasn’t really too dirty,” said second-year apprentice Lauren Hennrich of Boise, Idaho, Local 291. “It’s fun to see a bunch of people out here my age and meet new people. I met a bunch from Canada.”

Another group was busy at Dunbar Park across the street from Local 134. Spirits were high, folks were chatting, and the park was spick-and-span in about two hours, leaving plenty of time to exchange stickers and pins.

For Shomari Davis, a Los Angeles Local 11 business representative, the day of service is nothing new. “It’s often the best part of the convention,” he said. “And a way to say thank you to the host city.”

Portland, Ore., Local 48 retired journeyman electrician Ronnie Jimmerson said it’s a way to “let the city know we’re here and leave it better than we found it.”

Hale Landes, vice president of Local 134’s retiree club, said he’s always proud to take part, noting that “nonunion people don’t know what we do.”

The projects were organized by Local 134 journeyman and Chicago Park Department electrician Joe Wells after Business Manager Don Finn suggested beautification efforts as a good way to engage a large number of volunteers.

That’s just like Finn, said Dunbar captain Pamela Wilson of Local 134.

“He’s very passionate about giving back to the community,” Wilson said. “That’s one of things that I love so much about being a part of this organization. It makes you proud to be a member of the IBEW, knowing that they prioritize things like that.”

Wells worked out the details with his boss in the park department’s trades division and SEIU Local 73, which represents city landscapers and had to sign off on the volunteer help. The union agreed and selected the specific parks and beach areas.

As volunteers noted, the locations were in pretty good shape to begin with. “Our SEIU brothers and sisters do a great job, but they were appreciative of the IBEW’s help keeping up with the debris,” Wells said. “No matter how many paid employees there are, keeping the parks cleaned up is a big job.”

Wells thanked the Day of Service captains, eight from Local 134 and six from Detroit Local 58, all of whom walked through their project areas with him a day or two earlier.

“We’d been planning this, going back and forth, for a month and half, two months,” Wells said. “I think it all went very smoothly. We’d scheduled four hours for the cleanups, and it was more like two to three hours at each location.”

At Ellis Park in Bronzeville, volunteers included John Culp, a 52-year member of Local 134 and lifelong area resident.

Culp noted that the park had been the site of the Ida B. Wells Homes, a public housing project that was demolished in 2011. Today it is greenspace bordering baseball and softball fields that members cleaned of trash.

Ida Wells was a legendary black journalist of the late 19th and early 20th century who reported on the horrors of lynching while also advocating for better conditions for women in the workplace. In his own way, Culp is continuing that legacy.

He entered Local 134’s apprenticeship program in 1969, just as the Nixon administration’s new Philadelphia Plan was requiring the building trades to bring in more members from historically underserved groups.

Culp worked as a traveler for 46 years but remains active in Local 134. He helped form its Electrical Minority Workers Caucus chapter nearly 20 years ago and now serves as its president. He didn’t hesitate when asked to help organize this year’s Day of Service.

“The motivation [to keep working] is the young people,” he said. “The black journeymen who were there ahead of me were the first generation to work in Chicago. This city is unique in a lot of ways, particularly in labor history and race relations. They sat me down and told me their stories and passed it along. I feel like I was in the right place at the right time.

“Now, I’m here to motivate the young women and minorities the reasons why they’re here. Those sometimes get lost and they don’t understand the history. After they hear about it, they know. They say, ‘Now we see things are like the way that they are.”

Another Ellis Park volunteer was first-time delegate Beau Burton, a Local 58 wireman and instructor at his local’s training center.

“Part of [attending a convention] is the day of service, so the IBEW can show we’re part of the community,” he said. “We’re not just looking out for our members, but for the others. If the local is going to put me up, I should come out and help.”

Back at the beach, volunteers included Melanie Zavala of Las Vegas Local 357 — who, as proud Business Manager James Halsey pointed out, was named Apprentice of the Year at April’s Construction Conference.

“I just wanted to give back,” said Zavala, who is also involved in local’s women’s and RENEW committees. “I couldn’t ask for a better community to be involved with.”

At a beach parking garage, Britney Morris, a clerical unit member from Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, cleared out trash along with third-step apprentice Shawn Donahue from Boston Local 103.

Morris said joining RENEW and coming to the convention, her first, took all of three text messages. “It’s how I get involved in things: I say yes to things first and then ask questions later. One was what size shirt do I wear. Next thing I know I was here.”

Other IBEW sisters at the beach included Lisa Taylor and Charlotte Reed, journeymen inside wiremen at Indianapolis Local 481. Reed said volunteering for cleanup days through the union changed her.

“I don’t throw my cigarette butts on the ground anymore. I was cleaning up one day and was like, ‘Who are all these [jerks] throwing their butts everywhere?’ and then I thought “Me! I’m one of the [jerks]!’” she said laughing. “I’m not a jerk anymore.”

Reed joined the apprentice program in her early 30s after a career as a dance teacher. Her dad was a Pipefitter, so going into the trades, she said, was like putting on an old pair of pants. “I had Jennifer Beals’ career in Flashdance backwards,” she joked.

Up on a grassy area, a neighbor walking his dog looked on with admiration at the teams of volunteers. Jeff Epton was born and raised in the South Side, and returned a few years ago from Washington, D.C., where his wife worked in the Obama administration

“I love that the IBEW is doing this,” said Epton, who takes 12-year-old Jetta to the beachside park three or four times a week. “My hope is that cleaning up the debris helps people value the park, and maybe next time they’ll take their trash with them when they leave.”