New York, NY – Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) has a unique mission: the nonprofit organization prepares, trains, and places women in careers in the skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades. In doing so, it lifts up those who might not otherwise have had a shot at a middle-class life for themselves and their families. NEW’s goal is to place its graduates with New York City trade unions, public utilities, transportation authorities, and building operations companies.

NEW also has an admirable additional aim, as it focuses on women in underserved communities and those who are underrepresented such as those with low incomes, those who identify as transgender, and non-binary.

LaborPress had the honor to speak with the new president of NEW, Leah Rambo. She is the first woman of color and tradesperson to serve as president of the organization. And she brings an unparalleled amount of experience to the role. She began as an apprentice in the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 28, which was suggested to her by a NEW tradesperson. Just some of her many roles and distinctions include being a trade speaker at the organization, a mentor to apprentices while teaching, and then, as the Training Director of Local 28, placing NEW apprentices. She also recently served as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau.

LP: Where did you grow up?

LR: I was born in Brooklyn, in East New York, and grew up in Queens.

LP: Did you have any family members in a union?

LR: My dad belonged to the Correction Officers union. He worked on Rikers Island. Having a good union job was always something that we heard in my family. In terms of the trades, as kids we always did a lot of volunteer work, so I was around construction and on construction sites.

But even before that, I always loved tools. I got my first tool set when I was 10 years old. I loved putting things together and taking them apart – I think my parents were very indulgent (laughs). They wanted us to have a career, if we could, that we enjoyed and did well. Trades were important…I went to Brooklyn Tech, which is an engineering high school, my sister went to Hillcrest Nursing, my brother, a printing school. So we were all encouraged to learn real skills for work while we were still in high school. They wanted it to be a real skill, and have, ideally a union job.

LP: You’ve said women should learn their trade but “it doesn’t always mean to put your head down.” What advice on keeping your head up would you give to other women, and does that mean they ought to challenge injustices towards them in the workplace? By what method?

LR: Women definitely have to challenge the inequalities in the workplace. You can’t fight every battle but you have to know where your line is, and once you determine where your line is, you need to speak to it. And sometimes you need to adjust your line, because women might say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother me, that doesn’t bother me.’ Well, it should bother you. This is inappropriate. This person should not be allowed to speak to me that way. This person cannot touch you. You have to be an active part of your career. Also, you need to ask questions if you don’t understand something. And know the importance of safety. Because typically you learn the safe way to do things in the apprenticeship program. Then when you get into the field, it’s like they tell you, ‘Ah, you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to do that.’ It’s not quite as bad as when I was coming up, but you will see people doing unsafe things and that’s where you really need to draw the line. You say, ‘That’s not the way I was taught to do it in apprentice school, we’re not allowed to do it that way, but if I can do it this way, or if you give me this piece of equipment, then I can do it.’ And there are unfortunately still people out there that think it’s funny to take a new person and tell them something unsafe to do. Fortunately it’s not the majority. So you have to be very active and not just blindly follow.

If you think about where you want to be in your career, you need to understand the entire job. Within the union, when you see the Shop Steward, or the Business Rep, if you want to become that, you have to learn about that, which means being active in your union, going to your meetings, understanding your own collective bargaining agreement, reading your constitution…all those things are as active a part of the work as learning how to work safely, and to use the tools and the skills that you’re taught on the job and in the apprenticeship program.

LP: What are your thoughts about having the distinction of being the first woman of color and tradeswoman in the role of president of NEW?

LR: Being the first is a distinction that I’m used to having throughout my career. When I became an instructor in my union I was the first woman, and only the second person of color. When I became the Training Director I was the first woman. When I became an official in my union in the Executive Board I was the first woman. So I am accustomed to being the first in a lot of areas, but one thing I will always say is that my intention is never to be the last.

When I had the ability, when I had the power as Training Director to do things differently, I made sure there were women on my training team. I served as Deputy Director at the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, and when I left, I gave several recommendations to other tradeswomen that I told to look into the government, look into the Department of Labor, look into these career positions, and appointed positions, as career opportunities. Even at NEW, although I’ve only been here a couple of months, I’ve mentored people throughout my entire career, so I’m eyeing some people as far as, one day, who could replace me. When I walk in the door, I’m already thinking, who can I train, to keep this work going. I’m always looking to see who can be lifted up.

So much of it comes from my parents, my upbringing, the importance of things being fair. Ultimately, it’s just my desire for this, for people to have opportunity. That’s the right way. Whether or not we do it, we all know it’s the right thing to do.

LP: What gives you the strength and courage to fight for the changes you want to see? You mentioned your parents, but aside from that, and just, your own self, is there anything else that stands out?

LR: I think yes, myself, the moral values I was brought up with, but also, just the people. I know the benefit that this job has had for me in my life – I was able to buy a house as a single woman in my ‘20s, that is not the norm for a young black woman, and not only is it so fulfilling and so enjoyable, the trades themselves, but to spend so much of my career in education, to see that person change, to see something in their life change where they can take care of their family, to see how they feel, how they light up when they understand a concept… I enjoy teaching and I enjoy helping them. It’s a great opportunity – I want people to know about it. I’ll sit on the train and see somebody and say ‘Hey, are you looking for a job? I work at an organization and it trains women for the trades,’ and I’ll give them my card. I just really love what I do. So I’m just going to keep telling people about it. It’s a life-changing opportunity.

Leah Rambo


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