Constructive Conversation -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1
Two Habitat women compare perspectives and trade stories about building with Habitat.
Amid the bustle of getting houses “dried in” for winter weather, two Habitat builders took time with Habitat World to compare notes and reflect on where they, as women, fit into the larger scheme of building with families in their communities.
Barb Metz. Photo by Steffan Hacker
Debbie Hendrickson. Photo courtesy Debbie Hendrickson
Barb Metz is a volunteer house leader with Greater Columbus Habitat in Ohio, and Debbie Hendrickson is a staff construction manager with Oakland County Habitat in Pontiac, Mich.
Habitat World: Talk a little about how you got involved with Habitat.
Debbie Hendrickson: I worked hands-on in remodeling for about seven years before I started volunteering at Habitat in the fall of 2006. I came on as a volunteer first and then worked into crew leader, house leader and then came on staff after about a year.
Barb Metz: I started about 15 years ago. I had heard about it and thought this would be interesting to do, so I just showed up one day. I really enjoyed the time, so I started going back. Through the years I worked on a number of houses, and the company that I worked for sponsored a couple of houses. Then I found out about Women Build. They were just starting their third house in Columbus, so I went out for that and we’re now on our eighth house. This is my third house as house lead.
Debbie: Do you do start-to-finish, and is there a site super or a construction staff person out there with you? How is that working?
Barb: I do the house start to finish, and yes, there is a site supervisor who stops by, and he’s available at any time to talk to by phone. Either he or the construction director is available to answer questions.
Debbie: So you basically learned how, over your years of — I don’t like to say “just” volunteering — you basically learned how to build a full Habitat house, right? You didn’t have any other kind of training?
Barb: No, no other kind of training; it was by working on the houses with the house lead. On the first Women Build house that I worked on, the house lead was very good. She showed me a lot and then, as I say, any time I run into any questions, I just call the supervisor or we meet before the house starts and go over the plans to see if there’s anything unusual.
And this year there is — we’re doing a rebuild instead of a new house. So this one has brought all sorts of new opportunities. Sometimes I’m scratching my head looking at something saying, “Oh my goodness, what are we going to do here?” And if we can’t figure it out, I call him.
HW: Do you think that, as a woman, you’ve connected differently with the work that Habitat does?
Barb: A big part of Women Build is not just building but teaching women the skills to build and empowering them to be able to do things they wouldn’t normally think they could do. We have so many women who come out for the first time, have never touched power tools, and by the end of the day have been instructed on how to use them safely. They’re so excited because they’ve done something completely outside of the realm of what they usually do.
Debbie: Unless they’re very upfront and willing to step out and say, “I want to learn that,” women will just go with the flow and not think they should step in and tackle a project. If I’m on site and leading the house, I will specifically make sure that the women are scheduled construction jobs and make sure that I create an environment where they feel comfortable tackling a project. That empowerment thing, Barb, you were talking about, I just love it.
It’s a lot more rare, but I have encountered it where even guys haven’t picked up power tools, and just the look on their faces and the smiles at the end of the day when they’ve learned how to use that power tool that they were scared of. It’s amazing. If the homeowners are out on site — and specifically the women who are typically “Oh, I’ve never done that” or “Oh, I can’t do that” — I say, “Yes, you can.” It’s just a matter of instruction.
HW: It’s probably a different dynamic on the build site if it’s a Women Build house. Do those women stay involved on mixed crews, or do they keep coming back just for Women Build?
Barb: It definitely serves as an incubator for skills because that is a primary focus for us. We would like to be able to do a Women Build every year. In the past that’s not been possible, and so we have seen that those women who have come out and have developed skills have gone on to mixed crews and worked with them. And that’s where I think it’s often interesting to see the dynamic because these women now will go in and say, “Oh, no, I can do that,” or “I’ll go do that,” or “What do you want me to build?” and they’ll have the terminology and they’ll be able to stand next to the guys and say, “Yeah, I can work along with you doing this.”
HW: What are some of the big construction challenges that you’ve encountered?
Barb: Our crew size is usually about five-foot-four and below, so if we get a tall person, they’re star status immediately. We have a lot of issues with having to get things up high and very heavy things. We were putting up trusses and we had sheeted the gable truss — it was very heavy — and we had to get it up on the porch. So we had to come up with some solution other than just muscling it up there like the guys do. And we run into that a lot, that we can’t just use brute strength because of our size, so we have to think, “How else can we do this?”
HW: We have talked about the construction side; let’s talk a bit about the other side. Statistically, more than half of Habitat homeowners are women heads of households. How have you seen their gender impact their Habitat experience?
Debbie: I see things in the same way as women volunteers — when I get homeowners, it’s simply about empowering them. It’s part of our training to teach the homeowners how to take care of their houses, and we’re mainly just saying, “You can. It’s all about education. It’s not about your ability, it’s just about educating you.” They can do it. And the sense of empowerment they get from that is amazing.