Judaline Cassidy is a feminist plumber, Tradeswomen activist, and public speaker. A native of the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Cassidy is one of the first women to be accepted into Plumbers Local 371 Staten Island, NY, and the first woman elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local No. 1.
She founded Lean In Women In Trades to help tradeswomen share information and learn from each other, and a non-profit organization, Tools & Tiaras, to expose, inspire, and mentor young girls and women about trades that are “non-traditional” for women. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Cassidy talks about making her way through apprenticeship and her mission to make young girls confident from the get go, advising those just starting their careers to have a sense of humor and develop grit.
This article was originally published on Madame Architect.
Julia Gamolina: Let’s start at the very beginning – tell me about your background and how you grew up, and how that influences where you are today.
Judaline Cassidy: I grew up in the beautiful islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Growing up there influenced a lot for me, from the music that I like to the food, and more. Ironically, the name of my organization, Tools & Tiaras, is T&T which is also Trinidad and Tobago.
Being from the island, and being an immigrant, gave me incredible drive because I had an opportunity to achieve something that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to achieve back home. Being an immigrant had a big impact on me too.
JG: I’m from Siberia – that’s like the opposite of Trinidad and Tobago [laughs].
Well, I’ll have to go there, and you’ll have to visit Trinidad. I moved because I got married very young, and at the time, my then husband wanted to get away from our families – we eloped and didn’t tell our families because they didn’t get along, and when we got married, that made it even worse. We decided, “Let’s just leave.” He had a friend in America, so we came to America and started over.
JG: How did you begin your career in the trades?
Before my career in the trades, I was a teacher for a little while. I love kids. Then, I went to trade school, and I chose plumbing over electrical. I wanted to be a lawyer, but my great-grandmother who took care of me passed away, and I could no longer afford to go to university.
I grew up really really poor, so I said to myself, “What can I do where I can make money, and get myself out of my circumstances?” The trades were a great option. A lot of women would be applying for secretarial courses, or to be a seamstress, or home economics and culinary arts, but I took a chance, and applied for what the boys were doing. It resonated more with me, so I looked in that direction.
At first I figured that if I went into electrical, I would get shocked, whereas in plumbing you just get wet, so I decided to give plumbing a try [laughs]. Once I did it, I fell in love with it immediately. It worked parts of my brain that I didn’t realize – I was dyslexic for a long time and didn’t know, but I loved to solve puzzles, and plumbing worked the part of my brain. Then, I focused on getting into the union.
JG: What is that process like?
It’s very difficult, but if women only knew the possibilities and the money that can be made in construction, I think they would take a bigger leap. It’s almost like a secret society, because a lot of women don’t know about it – construction is not at the forefront of any magazine, or at the front of any television show, so women don’t know that it’s an option for them!
When I tried to get in, I was first told no; I was told to go home and to do dishes. But that was back then, that was twenty-seven years ago.
JG: In the States?
Yes, in the States. Things have changed, and the fact that that guy told me that, and I didn’t give up – the moral of the story is actually that the person who said that to me then became my biggest supporter. This is what I’d like to share with women – sometimes a “no” today is a “yes” tomorrow.
At that time, I cried – in my car, not in front of them – and then I kept doing my job as a plumber, and eventually somebody saw me, and said, “You’re a really good plumber! Are you in the union?” I said that I didn’t get in. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you in.” His name is Brian Detore. He spoke to someone who spoke to someone, and eventually I got into the Plumbers Local 371 of Staten Island. My life has changed since then.
JG: Tell me about that.
The union collectively bargains for its members’ salary, better pension, vacation time, and more. This is the only place that I know where a black woman – a black immigrant woman – without a college degree, could make over $100,000 a year. It’s a total game changer, and people don’t understand that. Because of the union, you have weekends and eight-hour days.
In this way, construction unions affect all facets of society. I think people look down on construction workers, but they don’t understand that the union actually affects a lot of people, and a lot of women, because you get equal pay, right off the bat.
JG: My dad worked construction when we first immigrated.
Of course, everything has its benefits and its downsides. The struggle for women in construction is leadership. I can see that changing, and I think we’re on the cusp, but that’s one of the downsides – I would love to see more women in leadership roles, and more women of color in leadership roles.
JG: It’s the same thing in architecture.
Of course – we have that across many industries, inequality in leadership. I think a way to change that is more women have to start their own businesses! And then to do what you’re doing – we have to support each other. That’s what I try to do.
JG: What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in your career as a tradeswoman?
Well, the first was the apprenticeship – after you get into a union, you are first an apprentice for four or five years. I was able to finish, but for a lot of women, it’s really a struggle, for many reasons – climate being one. It’s very brutal for your body and you’re outside working in –2 Fahrenheit weather, or however hot the day can be.
Then you have people who are always underestimating you. You can feel like you’re not learning your craft like the young men around you are. You have to be so emotionally strong, that for any woman who has finished her apprenticeship, that’s a hurdle worth patting herself on the back for.
JG: Tell me now about Tools & Tiaras! That’s how I first found out about you, when FXCollaborative did a workshop with you guys.
I started Tools & Tiaras in 2017. I started it after I spoke at the Makers Conference, I was one of the keynote speakers. I said in my speech, “You should give a girl both a tool and tiara – to give her independence, confidence, and power.” And when I said that, something clicked! The path forward was so clear, and I got back and told people what I was about to do. It all came from this moment of clarity on the stage, and I just had to follow that moment.
JG: What did you do next?
I literally googled how to start a non-profit. I wrote everything down. And then I just did it! Googling things and figuring it out.
JG: What was your drive for it, your hope?
I wanted Tools & Tiaras to be like the Girl Scouts. That’s the mission – that girls everywhere will never be afraid of using a tool. She’s going to be confident, and if her car breaks down, she will know what to do. I figured that if we start with young girls, we can change the world. You really have to get to them before the age of ten. At ten, that’s when they start to see the images they see in magazines. Up until that age, maybe they want to be an astronaut, but then they get to ten or twelve, the images that television, and magazines, show – what girls “should” and “shouldn’t” be, things like girls should be sexy, girls shouldn’t do plumbing – that’s when it all hits.
One of the core values of Tools & Tiaras is that women need to spend money on each other. I want products made by women-led companies, by minority-led companies, and products made here in the United States. Second, we have a principle of being diverse and inclusive – diverse in the sense that we want the girls seeing women in powerful positions, from being on our board to being part of the team. It’s intentional, and it takes work, but it’s very worth it because I didn’t want any little girl to grow up without the confidence to do whatever she wants.
JG: What kinds of programming do you do?
We do everything. My mission is to put tools in girls’ hands, and to teach them that jobs don’t have genders. We have three monthly workshops for women and girls – girls learn about plumbing, carpentry, architecture, engineering. They meet pilots that are women, fire fighters.
We also have a summer camp where we scale that. Girls come every day for a week and they get to meet awesome instructors – again, electricians, plumbers, iron workers, architects, engineers – all that are women. We always start with architects because we want them to know that before they build, every building had to be conceived and specifically designed! That’s what we did with FXCollaborative. And the last day of the camp, the girls visit a construction site, where they see all the professions they just learned about come together. They see it all – plumbing, electrical, carpentry, sheet metal, ductwork, fire sprinklers – they see it all going up and it’s not a mystery.
JG: That’s amazing. I’m signing up for the next camp.
Yes, and they get fully immersed in all of the trades! All across the spectrum. They see everything that goes into a building.
We also have a Youth Advisory Board, who tells us what they want. This year, they had a lot to do with how our programming was run; they didn’t only want to learn about building things, but they also wanted more sisterly and bonding activities. As women, we really are part of a sisterhood, and we really believe that. I loved that this summer, we all went around at the end and asked them what they learned at camp, the girls would say, “I learned plumbing, I learned iron-working, but I also learned that we’re all sisters.”
JG: That’s really incredible as well. It’s really true that girls really are taught to be competitive with each other! I don’t know where that comes from, but I think they are, so what you do is invaluable.
I think young girls start to feel this way when they start to do all of those activities like ballet, modeling – boys are always put into competitive team sports, and learn to depend on each other. Girls are put into ballet class, where one girl is doing something right just like the instructor says, and some girls are not. We should put girls into team environments earlier and more often. Boys really do learn that at a younger age, and they learn that even if they don’t like each other, they have to work together. That’s what I love most about Tools & Tiaras – that working together doesn’t dim your shine, doesn’t make you a less beautiful human being. We want to continue to encourage this sisterly bond.
JG: Looking back at your career, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
Being a woman as it applies to leadership. Never getting that opportunity on a construction site, to be a supervisor. Oftentimes you’re already doing that, but without the title or the money. That has been a challenge and I learned to start stepping back and not always volunteer like us women tend to do.
The other is also being a woman of color running a non-profit. We don’t get the same funding as other people. But I stay in faith, and I know walking into every space, that I’m a black, immigrant woman, and that things are different for me. That doesn’t mean that it’s not still hard though. I feel like a lot of people love my story, and it’s a good story, but then they don’t put money behind it.
JG: Where are you in your career today?
I’m working on being better about tapping into my network. Being an immigrant, we are so used to working hard for what we want, we’re not used to asking people. I’m not good at saying yes when people offer to help. So this year, my goal is to work on my network.
JG: Well the other thing about being an immigrant is that you likely have absolutely zero connections to start with! Building the network that you’ve built is very hard work and a feat in itself.
Exactly. I’ve built the network, and now I need to focus on being productive with it. I also really want to push Tools & Tiaras further – we have people in Poland, in Africa, who want to start Tools & Tiaras, so we’re working on figuring out ways to do that.
JG: What do you know now that you wish you knew when first starting out?
I wish that when I was younger, I had worn that two-piece bathing suit [laughs].
JG: Ha! That’s amazing. I totally agree.
When you’re young, wear the two-piece – trust me. You are beautiful at this moment. For girls sometimes this takes so long to realize. Looking back now, I see that I was beautiful; I just didn’t have confidence. So I want girls now to have confidence, to know they are magnificent.
JG: From that, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers in the built environment, in the trades?
Learn your craft. Learn to have a sense of humor. Have some awesome comebacks – there’s going to be a lot you’re going to need to respond to cleverly. Develop some grit. And finally, just know that you already have what it takes! You’re already there.