Women Build Missoula, part of Habitat for Humanity’s effort to provide safe, affordable housing for low-income families, celebrated its groundbreaking on April 26 for a new Habitat home on Missoula’s Northside. Habitat for Humanity International established the Women Build program “to promote the involvement of women in the construction of Habitat homes.” While on average 50 percent of the volunteers with Habitat for Humanity projects are women, historically they have tended to work behind the scenes, coordinating volunteers, fundraising and doing other organizational and support tasks. The number of women volunteers making up the construction crews that build the homes has averaged only 15 percent.
“It can be awkward to be the only woman on a [building] crew,” says Missoula Women Build spokesperson Molly Haislmaier. “I’ve been very intimidated on Habitat build sites before, and I’m not easily intimidated.” The reasons for this uneasiness vary depending upon the mixture of personalities on any given building crew. One volunteer of this women-only crew suggested from her own experience that “some men have a tendency to want to do the work for a woman,” rather than taking the time to explain how something is done. Overall, the women involved in Missoula’s first Women Build project are not all that interested in discussing how the actions of men may have contributed to the formation of Women Build Missoula. “We’re not trying to say that what men are doing is wrong,” says Haislmaier. “We just want to build a house on our own.”
Groups and organizations that participate in Habitat for Humanity building projects usually form their construction crews by drawing on the skills of people within their community, and they are the ones who organize the construction project and decide how the house gets built. Volunteer Tracy Sherick says that retired professionals with a lifetime of experience in their fields, such as carpenters, roofers, electricians and plumbers, can be an invaluable resource, helping to guide the work of volunteers. Sherick points out, however, that finding those same skills to support an all-women building crew can be a real challenge. On the Women Build crew “nobody has that lifetime of experience,” says Sherick. “We’re really having to gather collective knowledge and consult each other quite a bit.”
How strictly any specific group adheres to the “women only” guideline in their construction plan is a matter of collective choice. Sometimes exceptions are made by necessity. The women working on Missoula’s Women Build site have shown an admirable determination to maintain the “women only” status of their building process. “We had to search high and low for a backhoe driver,” says K.D. Dickinson, one of the Women Build crew leaders.
In fact, many of the crew leaders on Women Build have never directed a construction crew before. For example, Edie Love learned to work with concrete from her father, and worked previously on a construction crew building concrete culverts on the Fourth of July Pass in Idaho. Love volunteered for Women Build expecting to work as a laborer only, and was surprised when they asked her to direct the pouring of the footings and the foundation by virtue of her having the most experience.
The core crew, or “building goddesses,” as they call themselves, have aided the overall construction process by digging and laying the foundation as a team before bringing in the general volunteers. On Sunday, May 12, Women Build will celebrate Mother’s Day with a mother/daughter building day. After that, a variety of volunteer teams will work on the site framing, roofing, nailing drywall, and installing plumbing and elec- trical wiring each weekend through the end of July.
In spite of a few obstacles facing the organizers of Missoula’s premier Women Build, their efforts have elicited favorable reviews. Dave Crismon, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Missoula, says the Women Build team is “one of the hardest working, best organized groups” he has ever seen. The project being built for single mother Penny Ward and her two children, has also been very well-received in Missoula. More than 500 local residents have applied to help with the project, and many businesses have offered generous assistance with tools and materials.
Though the construction crew itself is restricted to women only, the organizers want those men who would like to lend a hand to know that their help is gratefully accepted in many non-building capacities: food service, volunteer coordinating, first-aid, fundraising, transporting supplies, etc. Men with skills in building may also be able to help by providing training. Prospective volunteers can call 549-8210, or stop by the Habitat for Humanity Missoula office (in the Warehouse Mall) at 725 W. Alder, Suite 19 to fill out a volunteer application.