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When Judaline Cassidy first tried to join the plumbing union in Staten Island, she was laughed out of line.

“You better go home and do the dishes,” she was told.

She had already been working as a plumber on residential and commercial construction sites throughout New York City. She was the only woman — a black woman who stood at 4 feet 11 inches and had immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago at that — in her apprentice class. That day, she was the only one who left without union membership.

She got in her car and cried, but the next morning, she showed up to work alongside a class of men who were now reaping the benefits of the union.

And then she kept showing up. Day after day.

(Photo courtesy of Judaline Cassidy)
(Photo courtesy of Judaline Cassidy)

“I have this thing inside of me,” she says. “I just want to show people they are wrong about me.”

A year later, with the help of a male colleague who advocated for her, she became the first woman admitted to her local union.

“I know that as a black woman I have to work twice as hard,” says Cassidy. I know that I am always under a microscope. It’s just reality.”

She says she still encounters wary looks and skepticism when she starts on a new project.

“The first day I have to prove myself all over again,” she says.

More than two decades after she first tried to join the union, Cassidy is on a mission to make sure young women entering trade professions don’t have the same experiences she did. It’s why she launched Tools and Tiaras, a nonprofit dedicated to exposing young women and girls to trade professions.

The idea came about earlier this year when Cassidy was asked to speak at a conference held by Makers, a storytelling platform that focuses on women. She was there to talk about her role in turning a former prison for women in New York into a resource space for women and girls interested in activism and social justice.

“When we hand girls a tool and a tiara, you are handing her confidence, independence and most of all, power,” she said at the time.

Her organization grew from there. She says she wants to show a side of trade professions outside the stereotypical perception of a male plumber or electrician, and let girls know that they don’t have to give up their feminine side if they enter this line of work.

“Everyone says ‘let’s teach girls to code,’ but the women who are going to code, they need buildings to work in and when they feel cold they need heat,” she says. “I can go anywhere in the world and find work.”

Cassidy first learned plumbing in Trinidad and Tobago. She didn’t have the money to go to law school, which was her first choice, and the country offered free training in the trades.

She had two options: “Plumbing, I can get wet. Electrical, I can get shocked. So I went with plumbing,” she says.

She says the main goal of Tools and Tiaras is to help girls gain these skills. Even if they don’t end up pursuing a trade profession, she wants them to know it’s like any other industry — work hard and you can have a rewarding career.

“I spent a long time keeping my head down, but I decided it was time for me to speak up,” continues Cassidy. “Being a black woman, people want to relegate us. I want women to know this is a choice.”

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