Obama Foundation releases hiring report on the Obama Center

Mamon Powers Jr. always envisioned being in business because that’s how he grew up, surrounded by business owners in his home and community. By the time he was 15, he was running his own carpentry crew on construction sites.

He says he’s always had this “can-do-anything” attitude and it’s something that he’s trying to do with his company, Powers & Sons Construction. As part of the Lakeside Alliance, the collective that is managing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, he wants people of color to realize their potential.

The Obama Foundation released its annual workforce report Wednesday, which cites the organization is on track to meet its workforce and diversity goals for construction with 52% of contracts already awarded to more diverse vendors, with 32% of the workforce coming from the South and West sides of the city. The city of Chicago requires that developers award 32% of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses, and that 50% of the workers reside in Chicago.

“Everything’s going according to plan,” said Michael Strautmanis, executive vice president of civic engagement at the Obama Foundation. “I’m not taking my foot off the gas. We have to push because the goal is not to meet our numbers, the goal is to build wealth and to create a new model for taking people into these good construction careers in a community that has been underinvested in for generations. That goal will be complete beyond my lifetime. The numbers are good for accountability purposes … good for people to understand what we’re trying to get done. But I’m not here for the numbers. I’m here for impact and transformation.”

Powers & Sons Construction is one of four Black-owned construction groups managing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, which broke ground last September and is set to open its doors in 2025. The Lakeside Alliance comprises Turner Construction Co., Powers & Sons Construction Co., UJAMAA Construction, Brown & Momen and Safeway Construction Co.

Kelly Powers Baria, vice president at Powers & Sons Construction and Mamon Power Jr.’s daughter, recalled that President Barack Obama was still in office when her father came up with the plan to increase the number of Black contractors and Black people building Obama’s center.

“Usually what happens is a major (construction) project comes along in the Chicago area, the white contractor goes out to get the job, and he tries to bring some Black people along with him in some kind of, in my opinion, inferior role, so they can say they got Black participation, but the white man is in charge,” Powers said. “I thought that it’s time we change that. I thought we Black people should be in charge. We can build anything. We’ll select the white partner, most compatible with us, that believes in our vision, our mission and our goals, to work with us. That way we would have the right team rather than somebody picking us, we wanted to pick somebody. So we put the president’s alliance together.”

Powers Baria said breaking up the larger construction bids into multiple smaller contracts to ensure smaller and minority-owned businesses could compete for bids is helping Lakeside Alliance meet its goals. She said the team is responsible for making sure each vendor has regular check-ins and that they successfully complete their contracts.

“We’re doing everything we can to support them and make sure that the job is a success. That’s how we’re doing it,” she said. “The Lakeside Alliance, our mission and vision that we set was to use the construction of the Obama Presidential Center to bring about sustainable and transformative change in our industry. And the only way to get what you’ve never had is being intentional, intentional about offering opportunities in ways that haven’t been offered before. That’s what’s most important. We’ve been working together for five years now. We have to remind ourselves not to lose focus. It’s how you go about building the building and who gets opportunities and benefits from it.”

Sharika Harris, 32, is benefiting from working on the Obama Presidential Center. She’s a plumbing apprentice with four years in the trades already. Her company is helping to set up the center’s garage. She’s been working with the nonprofit Chicago Women in Trades to help her prepare for the journeyman’s test. The North Lawndale resident said she went looking for a career in the trades after custodial work became boring. Now, when the mom tells people she’s working on the center, folks get excited.

“It’s been really cool,” she said. “I like working in that diverse setting because … I’ve never worked in a setting like that. It’s not my first big project, but I’ve never seen as many people that look like me on the job site. So that makes it more comfortable to work.”

In 2021, the Obama Foundation committed $850,000 to a partnership with local workforce development organizations, including Hire 360, Chicago Women in Trades, IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, Revolution Workshop and St. Paul’s Community Development Ministries to train 400 new apprentices from the South and West sides. The foundation is using the model to recruit and train the presidential center workforce, who hopefully will later work on other city projects. According to the workforce report, 158 candidates have already been placed in jobs around the city.

Sharon Latson-Flemister, Chicago Women in Trades director of marketing and communications and program director of We Can Build It, a group of local workforce development organizations, said her group is sending out apprentices and journeywomen to share their stories in the trades to recruit more female workers, that includes going into high schools to talk to students before graduation. (Powers Baria mentioned hosting a summer event where site workers helped students put together picnic tables that will be used at the center, a hands-on opportunity that provided exposure to the trades.) Free trade classes, which can run 10 to 12 weeks, help potential workers prepare to get into apprenticeship programs, which can run anywhere from two to five years, Latson-Flemister said.

“During that apprenticeship training, remember you’re earning while you’re learning, and each year your pay is going up as you learn your craft until you complete your apprenticeship program,” she said.

The Obama Foundation’s partners have a barrier reduction fund to pay expenses like apprenticeship fees, late union dues and tools for potential workers. Groups like Chicago Women in Trades also provide supportive services like mental health workshops to eliminate more barriers for community residents to get into these types of careers.

“That was a commitment from the Obama Presidential Center,” Latson-Flemister said. “That we would assertively work with our community residents to make sure that we’re not just getting them on that site, which is absolutely wonderful, but we’re actually helping them to build a career in the trades because once this historic, incredible building is built, they’ve got to go out there and still work.”

Powers Baria said Lakeside has a six-member team working on diversity, equity and inclusion; she is co-leader. She said it’s someone’s responsibility to make sure when a contractor is getting ready to leave the site that they have another job opportunity to walk into and those entering the presidential center will stay on track as the project goes on.

“It’s not going to happen without intense focus,” she said.

“Folks in the community are, I think rightfully skeptical of large construction projects,” Strautmanis said. “One of the things that concerned me is that there’s a narrative out there: ‘You know that this ain’t for us.’ That narrative keeps people from showing up … now it’s 2022, we’re rolling. Contracts are out. And if you were on the sidelines then for some reason, we’re doing our own community a disservice. I want people to check our work, check our progress, talk to people who are working there to see what’s really going on. But approach this with a level of hope that will make people say, ’You know, maybe this time will be different.’ ”

Different is what the 74-year-old CEO and chair of Powers & Sons Construction has been about his entire career. By the time Powers was a preteen, he was working for his father, Mamon Powers Sr., who was building homes and churches in Mississippi in 1930s and ‘40s for his father. Junior’s income went from 50 cents a week to 50 cents a day sweeping for him and all the carpenters. By 13, Powers learned how to drive nails with a hammer. It was around this time that Powers Sr. showed his son how to lay the foundation of a garage. His father’s instructions on measuring and square corners were based on the Pythagorean theorem.

“I learned that in the eighth grade,” he said. “That was when construction really got interesting to me because I could relate it to school and relate it to what’s going on in the field. In the summers, I worked with other young men who worked with their fathers clearing land … they did the painting, concrete work. I saw this young man doing electrical work. I always saw Black men doing things and knew that I could do anything if I applied myself properly.”

He went to Purdue University to achieve that goal (his daughter Kelly followed in his footsteps). Real estate would become a mainstay in Mamon Powers Jr.’s life — from being a real estate broker to running a firm that constructs commercial and industrial buildings in Illinois and Indiana.

Now with his children, Kelly Powers Baria and Mamon Powers III, running the family business, Mamon Powers Jr. is just having fun seeing the success.

“It makes me feel good that we’re able to provide employment for you … we’re making those opportunities available for people who want to really do something,” he said.

Powers Baria said her grandfather had a saying: “Lift as you climb.” It’s a theme for her dad and the family business. “Lifting people, lifting businesses up as Powers & Sons grew and as you went through your career,” she said.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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