When local aldermen arrived at a South Shore Drive construction site October 11 to protest the lack of African-American crew members, they met with the unexpected. The site on 53rd Street and Cornell Avenue was staffed almost entirely by African-American workers.
“[The contractors] might have borrowed people for the day,” said Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston. “That’s why we went to the 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue construction site where we found an all white crew.”
The Department of Transportation shut down the 47th Street construction site the next day and asked E.A. Cox and Walsh Construction to hire at least six people from the fourth and fifth ward neighborhoods and to increase sub-contracting with African-American companies.
Although the site reopened on October 16 with more diverse crews, members of the community, such as Reverend R. Andrew Tolbert, executive director of Black Contractors United, want to see larger scale changes.
“I would like to see all of the things in black neighborhoods being done by black contractors,” Tolbert said.
Local aldermen also want the problem to be addressed on a systemic level.
“I wish the bar were higher,” said Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who believes that state and federal funded projects should make an effort to increase their diversity.
While the city currently imposes a regulation that requires 25 percent minority participation and five percent female participation on government funded projects, the state and federal government impose less restrictive standards. The South Lake Shore Drive project, which is primarily funded by the federal government, demands that 16.9 percent of crew members are minorities.
“These are minimum requirements, not a ceiling,” Hairston said.
However, according to Patrick Donley, vice president of business development for Walsh Construction, both contractors share the community’s goal of diversifying work sites.
“We try very hard to promote general diversity and diversity from the community that we’re working in,” Donley said. “Both contracts, ours and E.A. Cox’s have been working hard to represent the community, but E.A. Cox has not had as much experience as Walsh, so they’re just not used to all the community issues that arise.”
According to Tolbert, who once served on the Rainbow Push Coalition, it is time for E.A. Cox and the rest of the contracting world to make use of the many jobless African-American contractors.
“White contractors are coming into our neighborhoods with a sense of arrogance we have not seen since slavery,” Tolbert said. “If we can’t work on the street being done in our neighborhood, then we don’t want it done. Period.”
Through the Black Contractors Union, Tolbert is heading what he calls a “three-pronged effort” to get jobs for African-Americans. He is uniting elected officials, churches, and African-American contractors around the issue in hopes that he will create opportunities that “translate all the way down to the people in our community who stand on the corner.”
One of these projects underway includes work on the University of Chicago campus. “Once the doors have been opened, a little goes a long way,” Tolbert said.