Listen to the audio version of this story aired on XRAY.fm and in XRAY’s daily podcast The Local.
When a noose was found at a downtown Portland building site in May, it wasn’t the first time a symbol of hate slunk its way onto a construction site. Now, nearly two months later, the hateful incident is under third-party investigation.
Local building trade and workforce equity organizations hope that it, amid the nationwide resurgence in demands for racial justice, will compel construction companies here to take meaningful action to change a job site culture that’s historically racist and sexist.
There’s a long way to go.
Racism and sexism are “huge problems” in construction, said Kelly Haines , senior project manager at Worksystems, a non-profit that aims to improve the quality of the workforce in the Portland region. “It’s like one of the main, like one of the number one reasons people of color leave the industry: the level of hostility, graffiti, even microaggressions.”
“It’s like one of the main, like one of the number one reasons people of color leave the industry: the level of hostility, graffiti, even microaggressions.”
– Kelly Haines, Worksystems
A 2018 study commissioned by Portland area regional government Metro and the City of Portland found that of the 23,000 nonresidential construction workers in the region only 20 percent were minorities and just four percent women.
It is against that backdrop that a female construction apprentice of color found a noose early the morning of May 20 while at work. When she found the noose, it was hanging on the wall of an elevator called a hoist which transports people and equipment up and down the spine of the building where she works at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Montgomery Street in downtown Portland.
Despite her vulnerable position as an apprentice and a female of color, she immediately notified her foreman, an employee of a subcontractor, TCM. According to a letter sent in June by Oregon Tradeswomen and Constructing Hope to the project’s lead contractor, Andersen Construction, the foreman told her the noose was “probably a joke.”
So, she told an Andersen foreman. He told her he would address the noose discovery at a foreman’s meeting that day. Later, according to the letter, he said he’d “forgotten about it.”
It wasn’t until June eighth nearly three weeks later when executives from Andersen found out about the noose. The next day, the building’s steering committee, a collective including the City of Portland, Portland Community College, Portland State University and Oregon Health and Sciences University, were notified.
To many, a noose is a death threat. A noose is a symbol evoking the practice of lynching. African-Americans were terrorized by this brutal practice between 1882 and 1968, when, according to the NAACP, there were 4,743 people lynched in the US, nearly three-quarters of whom were Black.
A Call for Suspension “In the Least”
The foremen who ignored the incident “in the least” should have been suspended or required to partake in professional development training, said Haines. She added, “Being terminated should be definitely on the table.”
For now, neither of the foremen has been disciplined. When XRAY spoke with Andersen President Travis Baker in June about the incident, he said, “We don’t believe that their presence poses any risk to the individuals [who found or knew about the noose early on] or anybody else. Their mistake was the dismissiveness or the lack of prioritization. We are waiting until our third party investigation is complete. At that point we will stand back and decide what response is appropriate for them, whether that’s discipline, training or both.”
More than 130 people had been scheduled to be interviewed starting July 13 as part of an ongoing investigation conducted by an outside party hired by Andersen.
Since the noose was discovered in May, Andersen has met virtually with the project’s owners, labor equity and diversity groups, unions and experts in workplace harassment prevention to discuss what happened and how it might be prevented in the future. It’s not clear at this stage what concrete actions will emerge.
Andersen Did not Endorse Local Diversity and Anti-harassment Program
Meanwhile, local advocates for positive construction workplace culture hope the incident sparks meaningful change.
“We need to be creating an environment where these kinds of incidents aren’t happening in the first place, where someone doesn’t feel emboldened enough where they can put up a noose in the first place,” said Tiffany Thompson, project manager of the Construction Careers Pathways Program, an initiative launched in 2019 to advance racial and gender diversity and end worksite harassment in the region’s construction industry.
“But then, if that happens,” she continued, “where somebody else on that worksite, where somebody would actually feel empowered to actually take the action to take it down.”
“We need to be creating an environment where someone doesn’t feel emboldened enough where they can put up a noose in the first place.”
– Tiffany Thompson, Construction Careers Pathways Program
The program is overseen by Portland area regional government agency Metro. It has been formally adopted by five government agencies or “public owners” — the City of Portland, Metro, Multnomah County, Portland Public Schools and Prosper Portland. It has also been endorsed by partners including local trade groups, community groups and construction companies.
Known as “C2P2,” the Construction Careers Pathways Program is intended to foster diversity and inclusion in construction projects overseen by public capital project owners.
Andersen construction was contacted directly last year by members of the program’s workgroup in the hopes they would endorse the program. Andersen did not endorse it. Baker said he and other company executives were never aware that they had been asked to endorse it.
Around 50 contractors and contractor associations were asked to sign on. By endorsing, partners indicated support for the program’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. A Metro spokesperson said the requests to endorse the program were intended to encourage public agency adoption, rather than to hold contractors accountable for issues on their job sites. Endorsement by Andersen or other construction firms would cost no money.
Only 14 of the 50 construction firms and contractor associations asked last year to endorse the Construction Careers Pathways Program did so.
Still, only 14 of the 50 construction firms and contractor associations asked last year to endorse the C2P2 program did so. Many of those that did endorse are minority-owned or -operated shops.
“When a public agency adopts this, they’re essentially saying if you are a primary contractor, and we have adopted this framework, then these are going to be our expectations for you as a contractor whenever you’re working on our project – and that’s where compliance comes in,” said Thompson.
“A Lot of White Men”
Now, Baker said Andersen expects to endorse the C2P2 program. And the company is developing additional diversity and anti-harassment initiatives to supplement efforts it already had in place.
“We also recognize that we’re just not a very diverse industry, and we’re not a very diverse company. And, really the whole industry is the same way. It’s a lot of white men.”
“The whole industry is the same way. It’s a lot of white men.”
– Travis Baker, Andersen Construction
Thompson said rather than simply responding to a singular, although important, incident, the industry must not lose sight of the big picture.
“If we got down to the specificity of, ‘Oh, we’re only going to address a noose,’ then we’re going to miss all of these other things that also create a hostile work environment,” Thompson told XRAY. “We need to have broad definitions and broad understanding of the variety of racist behaviors that can happen on a site that generally threaten the safety of folks, and make them feel unsafe – unsafe enough that they want to leave the industry.”
Correction: This story originally stated incorrectly that more than 100 interviews about the noose incident have already been conducted as part of Andersen’s investigation; however, interviews of over 130 people have been scheduled and began July 13.
Correction: The story originally stated incorrectly that 16 Portland government agencies or “public owners” have adopted the C2P2 program; however five have formally adopted it. Sixteen agencies formed the workgroup that developed the program.