Evansville, Ind., Local 16 has a long, proud history. The city sent one of the 10 delegates to the IBEW’s first convention in 1891 and Local 16 has been a major part of the southwestern Indiana community for more than 100 years.
Participants in the NAACP’s “Power Up” program studied with Evansville, Ind., Local 16 signatory contractor Morton Solar for potential careers in the electrical industry.
Now, Business Manager Brandon Wongngamnit and others are trying to build on that history. Wongngamnit wants traditionally underrepresented parts of the community to better enjoy the benefits of IBEW membership. A new partnership with signatory contractor Morton Solar and the NAACP is a step in that direction.
The NAACP funded the installation of solar panels on the Greater St. James Community Center, a historically Black church in Evansville. As part of the program, Morton Solar and owner Brad Morton, along with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, provided early-stage instruction on solar-panel installation to three Black men and one Latino.
Wongngamnit hopes the program and others like it provide a path for as many new trainees as possible into Local 16’s apprenticeship program. Only licensed electricians are permitted to install solar panels in Vanderburgh County, where Evansville is located.
Although commercial solar installation in the area has slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is expected to pick back up when Vectren, the area’s electric utility provider, begins work on a solar farm about 30 miles east of Evansville.
“It’s baby steps,” he said. “If we can get some of these guys to be journeyman wireman and part of Local 16, it will all be worth it.”
Wongngamnit, who is of Asian descent, noted that only 27 of Local 16’s 1,015 members are considered people of color – just over 2%. One of his goals since being elected business manager earlier this year is to “offer more opportunities to people of color by making sure they know what we have to offer,” he said.
“A lot of them don’t know about us and that is something we want to correct. We want to be as diversified as possible.”
He credits Brad Morton for Local 16’s involvement. His company is a member of B Corps, an international program that includes nearly 3,600 companies that work toward reducing income inequality, lowering poverty, building stronger communities, a healthier environment and “the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose,” he said.
“We want to create the type of jobs the old mining companies did in this area, that are high paying and help the economy,” Morton said. “We want to create jobs across the spectrum. We believe in diversity.”
Gerald Arnold, far right, the president of the Evansville chapter of the NAACP, meets with participants in the “Power Up” program studying at Morton Solar. From left to right, Julian Sejuela, Keith Jenkins and Damar Young listen in.
It’s why Morton was receptive when approached by NAACP officials. The training program is part of the legendary civil rights organization’s “Power Up” initiative, which trains people of color to work in emerging energy technologies with the goal of closing the unemployment gap between Black Americans and the rest of the population.
“We are very happy to have this relationship with the IBEW,” said Robin Williams, the retired associate director of civil rights for the United Food and Commercial Workers and labor chair of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors. “Since it started a few months again, it has really been going well.”
Denise Abdul-Rahman, an NAACP regional field organizer in the Midwest and Great Plains and the Indiana State Chair of the organization’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said starting the program during a pandemic had its challenges. Some of the participants had limited internet access, for instance, and maintaining social distancing during training wasn’t easy.
But she said the program has been a success and a new group of participants trained with Morton Solar this fall. Like Wongngamnit, she hopes some of the applicants pursue an apprenticeship.
“In the midst of the pandemic, we can try to provide a stipend for some people and educate them,” Abdul-Rahman said. “When this nightmare is over, they can transition into jobs.”
Added Morton: “The tag line that I like about a certified B Corps company is that we use our business as a force for good. That sticks with me. We try to do whatever we can to help our planet and mitigate climate change.
“I believe that the IBEW is a great career. I would really love to get as many guys in there as we can. It’s a great profession. It’s a great way to earn a living.”