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A NEW Woman

Posted on Wednesday, September 10th, 2008.

Sherry Castro came to our Lower Manhattan StoryBooth through NEW Nontraditional Employment for Women, one of our many partner organizations in the city. Founded in 1978, Nontraditional Employment for Women is a nonprofit organization that trains women for skilled jobs in construction and other blue-collar industries. Most of the female hardhats at work today in New York City are NEW graduates.

Sherry has worn many (hard)hats in her field of construction. After graduating from NEW, she has worked as an operating engineer, welder, metal fabricator, and mechanic on developments and infrastructures throughout the city. Some of these sites include the foundation at the new Yankee Stadium, the Van Courtland Park reservoir, the Grand Concourse (a boulevard in the Bronx), an underpass on 161st Street, and the widening of a runway at JFK Airport.

Operating Engineer, Welder, Metal Fabricator, and Mechanic of Local 15 New York City“NEW taught me about all the different jobs and helped me to make decisions,” Sherry says.

For the past month, Sherry has been working as an oiler and operating engineer on the foundation for the new Brooklyn Nets stadium at the Atlantic Yards, a $4 billion mixed-use development project. As an oiler, Sherry greases the machines and performs maintenance and oil changes on them. As an operating engineer, she operates Earth-moving machines to drive piles (a type of deep foundation) for excavation. This means digging up to 50 feet into the ground and pulling boulders as big as cars out of Brooklyn soil!

“Without the [operating] engineers, nothing can go on at the job,” Sherry says. “The moment you step in the machine, you’re responsible for a lot. You realize that you’re at the top of the totem pole. You can’t let it go to your head, but it’s a nice feeling for a change being at the top of the totem pole than the bottom. Or not on the pole at all.”

Brooklyn Nets stadiumThe proposed 20,000-seat basketball stadium for the Brooklyn Nets. Photo by Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

When Sherry started at NEW, she didn’t know any other women in construction. “I didn’t think of it as being pioneering or anything like that. Just a good job,” she says. “It was more of a survival decision.” But now Sherry would like to see more women on the job. She also wants to see equality. “I get looks at lunchtime,” she says, “and it’s mostly from the guys. People don’t want to talk to me ëcause I’m dirty, but I make good money getting dirty, so I’ll get dirty every day.”

“I think my biggest challenge is to keep my mouth shut,” Sherry says with a smirk. “I let a lot of things slide. Like, [I’ve been] called girlfriend. ëCome here, girlfriend!’ I’m like, ëI’m not your girlfriend!’ I’ve been called Oprah, which isn’t really a bad analogy if you’re going to compare me to the richest black women in media. I mean, I’m kind of flattered. I’ll be the Oprah of Local 15.” Local 15 is Sherry’s branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers. She is one of between 30 and 60 female operating engineers out of 2500 in her union.

Sherry's Hard HatSherry’s hardhat sports stickers of union pride, and one from Local 15 New York City.

“I’m proud,” Sherry says. “I mean, I sit down at night and I pull my union card out and I stare at it. I took a bath with it last night. It was right there by the bathtub! I’m self-sufficient. I’m able to take care of my family. I’m not broke all the time. I’m able to pay for my mom’s insulin and take care of her a little bit better. And that’s really been the reward, seeing the relief on my mom’s face, like she’s not worried if I’m going to be okay if something happens to her. That was her biggest fear, that if something happened to her I wouldn’t be able to survive or take care of myself. So now that she sees that I’m making a decent amount of money she’s relaxed a lot. And just that alone is the best reward.”

After her StoryCorps interview, Sherry went back to work. While I was archiving her interview for the Library of Congress, I looked up at the buildings and down at the streets that surround our >StoryBooth in Foley Square. And I thought about all of the workers who have built and continue to build the setting of so many New York stories.

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