I wish I could say the topic of race wasn’t difficult to discuss openly, it would be disingenuous if I did. I need to begin this message by saying that I hope you will give me a chance to take a risk, to break open a conversation that is long overdue. I ask you to allow me some grace where I may not use the right words or may not share your perspective. The bottom line is that I’m willing to take that risk because I am not willing to give up on making this industry better. The bottom line is that the industry has come a long way, but there are still not enough African Americans participating in the Joy of Building that many enjoy. There is no shortage of talent, nor of energy in the Black community. I know, because I’ve seen it in the classrooms of our vocational schools and elsewhere. But we are missing a vital talent, voice, and perspective that can make our projects better. I for one have had the generosity of family and friends paving the way for me to enter this field, so I know my view may be slightly skewed. But in the end, I hope you will add your voice and together we can change course. Together we can share the joy of building.
When my grandfather would discuss the early days of our company, and the overt discrimination he experienced as an Italian during his tenure in the business, he’d also discuss the overwhelming discrimination against Delaware’s black workers, making sure I knew their plight was incomparably worse. I think he, like many of his and other generations, felt stuck in the norm of the day and the gut that they could do better. But sadly, in his day, individuals in the industry often settled for status quo and although weren’t, they felt stuck. I think it is important to recognize that “stuckness” (albeit wrong) and challenge it if we are going to achieve our full potential as an industry, as a company, and as people.
After my grandfather died, while the family was at his graveside, a 95-year-old Italian friend of mine, “Q-Ball” Albano, pulled me aside. Q-Ball and I had become fast friends, and for decades he was a wise carpenter in our company. He was my Yoda. Q-Ball told me it was fitting that his journey began and ended with my grandfather at that very grave site. In the 1930s, he had met my grandfather there as they were erecting the mausoleum for my great-grandfather. My grandfather saw Q-Ball wandering the street, and offered him a job on the spot, knowing nothing about Q-Ball or his skills. This put Q-Ball on track to pass along his learnings, trade, and wealth for generations. This memory still tugs on me today.
According to the Urban League, one of the challenges experienced by the black community is that there have been barriers to creating wealth and therefore transferring it to the next generation. This is something I learned from another Yoda of mine, Dr. Tony Allen. With this in mind, I began to think about how many of us in this industry come from different, but typically European backgrounds, and how our families have enjoyed our trade for generations. I reflected upon how the heritage of construction was accumulated, like wealth, and transferred from generation to generation. Wow, perhaps this was an underlying root cause of the wealth transfer gap. And then it hit me. If we can share the joy we receive in construction, perhaps we can begin a tradition of sharing knowledge, trade, and wealth between generations. The result? We emerge better, together.
When I met Frank Hanson, an African-born carpentry instructor at St. George’s Technical High School, I shared my frustration about not being able to figure out how the bright and enthusiastic black kids I was meeting in our trade schools were not ending up in our industry and on our job sites. His response, “Brian, they can’t see themselves in this career, until they see themselves in this career.” Another Yoda in my life, because the lightbulb went off (or on). Perhaps, with all of the best of intentions, many of us are not the role models kids need to see in order to project themselves into a career rich with tradition. Perhaps the key to sharing the joy of building was in discovering better role models.
So, where do we go from here? We get to work. And we need your help. In 2020, I was fortunate enough to have the support of EDiS and the Delaware Contractors Association to begin an initiative to Share the Joy of Building. We have spent, and will continue to spend, months identifying role models to demonstrate to communities of color that ours is an industry filled with joy, tradition, and the opportunity to build families’ abilities to prosper. We are committed to changing the outcomes of the past, but we can’t do this alone. If you know anyone from these communities who you think would be a good role model, please share with me their name. With your help we will recruit them to begin to help tell their stories, identify barriers to our industry, and help them become roles models for our youth. The sheer presence of their smile and joy for our industry in front of a young person could change the trajectory of our tomorrow. Let’s help them see themselves in this business so that they can see themselves in this business. Let’s Share the Joy of Building.