When Donna Hammond was assigned a young apprentice who made a racist comment, she could have joined the calls for him to be punished, but she didn't. Instead, she did what she's always done in these circumstances. She educated him and she changed his mind.
"When I talked to him, I could tell that he wasn't a Proud Boy-type, he was just unaware," said Hammond, a business representative with Portland, Ore., Local 48 and one of its first Black female members.
Hammond chose a course of action that would require a lot more work on her part, but it's one that's been working for her for her entire life. She chose the path of compassion and sharing her lived experiences to shift his perception.
"This was a good kid, he just did something careless," Hammond said. "And it's not like he's the only one. He just got caught."
Hammond offered to work with the apprentice, sharing resources that included movies and podcasts on racism and how it impacts different people. It was information he'd never gotten before. But he did his homework and it opened his eyes — as well as his heart and his mind.
|Hammond is working with Local 48 and others on a racial education and inclusivity training for apprentices and others in the industry.
"I want him to want to be an ally," Hammond said, "And I want him to be the loudest voice in the choir."
Hammond's approach to dealing with racism and oppression goes back to lessons she learned from her parents and as a child of the civil rights movement, including the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These lessons also taught her about the value of a union.
"It's like Dr. King said, 'What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy the meal?'" Hammond said. "He understood the connection between civil rights and labor rights, their parallel paths."
Hammond was one of the first Black students to attend a desegregated school in Oregon. It wasn't easy. She encountered a lot of racism and cruelty, and it continued into her days as an electrical apprentice in the 1970s.
"They tried to kill me. Twice, that I know of," Hammond said of her early years in the trade where she was one of very few women of color.
Fortunately, Hammond also had support, and allies.
"This is where I find the value of being bused. I don't think that I could have survived a four-year apprenticeship in Portland, Ore., or anywhere in a white male dominated profession had I not experienced the racism and the torture that I went through as a kid," Hammond told local news station KGW last year.
"Just like what happened at the elementary school — there were people that supported me," she said. "On the job there were white men, my brothers who stepped up and welcomed me as their true IBEW sibling, who said, 'We're going to make you the best electrician that you can be. You were admitted into the IBEW, into the brotherhood and so you're our sister.' And so, I always had allies. I feel extremely blessed that there were always more allies than there were adversaries."
But allies don't just happen. Sometimes they need to be created and educated on how to truly be an ally. Hammond has seen firsthand how minds can be changed. She's done it. But it takes work. And she stands behind her philosophy that it's worth it.
"I've had men dislike me — until they got to know me and saw that I worked my ass off," Hammond said. "One guy made me walk ten paces behind him — until he finally came around. Then he would invite me to dinner with his family."
That work ethic doesn't just apply to her tradeswoman skills of pulling wire and bending conduit. It's also on display in her work to help her local, undereducated members included, who sometimes take a little longer coming around the race curve, to learn to live and work in a multiracial society. The apprentice who made the racist comment has since become the ally Hammond knew he could be, even attending a Black Lives Matter rally last summer to support his Black brothers and sisters.
"On my walk, at the journey on the intersection of race and gender in the labor movement, I've been able to have people be uncomfortable with me. However, with love and grace and seizing the opportunity to share my experience with them, I've been able to shift the mindset of a lot of different people. And it has transformed our local union," Hammond said.
Hammond is also working with Local 48 and others on an inclusivity training for incoming apprentices that would be taught over the entire course of the five-year program. They're also working on an industry-wide version. And while much of the impetus for the training has been spurred by racist incidents, Hammond is quick to point out that the training aims to go deeper than any one social construct, to the core basics of how we treat fellow human beings.
"We've been raised in a racialized society, but most people don't really understand systemic racism," Hammond said. "It's about debunking, analyzing and elevating your thought process. It's asking yourself what do you know, when did you know it, and who did you trust to tell you."
Local 48 is working with the Commonway Institute, a nonprofit that does work on inclusivity training, to create the curriculum.
"A lot of it is about unpacking common sense," Hammond said. "We all have implicit bias, so we need to create a safe space where it's OK to make a mistake."
Hammond credits Local 48 Business Manager Garth Bachman for his leadership, and for being an ally. In addition to the forthcoming inclusivity curriculum, Local 48 has created a cultural awareness committee, held discussions on race and distributed "Stand Against Racism" stickers that were popular with the membership.
"Garth has been amazing. He's caught some heat for it, but it's been a minority of voices," Hammond said. "He understands what it means to be an anti-racist. He's the right person for this time. He understands that as electricians we get paid to do a job and when race gets in the way, it's ultimately the customer who suffers. And most importantly, it creates an unsafe work atmosphere where everyone's safety is at risk. We want everyone to be able to come home to their families at the end of the day. There are many dangers on a jobsite. Our fellow colleagues shouldn't be one of them."
Not everyone who has dealt with the racism that Hammond has would come out of it believing in the power of people to change, much less for the better. But as Dr. King said, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." From her days of winning over hostile tradesmen to educating the next generation of Local 48 members, Hammond has figured out a way to be truly inclusive. Not because it's easy, or nice, but because it's necessary — and because it works.
"We have a lot of work to do in terms of real human behavior," Hammond said. "But I have faith in humans. And I have faith in the power of love."
There's one other intersection where Hammond can be found. She has a historical marker at 17th Avenue and Alberta Street in Portland, part of an arts project commemorating the city's Black heritage.