* This story was updated March 8, 2021
Ha joined his father’s painting business, but soon found it difficult to find work for the firm because of his few connections as a recent immigrant.
“I had no access, no friends (in the industry). So when I would visit the field with construction going on everybody said they had already hired. I never knew when the projects were starting,” he says.
It wasn’t until Ha learned about organizations like the Professional Business Development Group (PBDG) and National Association of Minority Contractors Oregon (NAMC) that he was able to build relationships and land the commercial projects necessary to provide his family’s business year-round work.
Lee Fleming, the Supplier Diversity Officer for Multnomah County Purchasing, says Ha’s experience is not uncommon for BIPOC-owned businesses and remembers also facing additional barriers as a Black entrepreneur in financial services.
Fleming breaks these additional obstacles into three categories: access to capital, access to information, and access to Whiteness.
“If you’re Black and Brown many times you just get shut down. If you’re White you’re alright,” he says. “That’s really unfortunate.”
Driven by stories like Ha’s, Multnomah County has worked diligently in recent years to increase opportunities for minority-owned firms.
On the County’s recently completed $334 million Central Courthouse Project, 34% of firms were COBID certified-- those designated by the state as being minority-owned, women-owned, service-disabled veteran-owned, or emerging small businesses. With help from contractor Hoffman Construction, a firm leading the way in diversity and inclusion practices, a plethora of these subcontractors were included, like Ha’s Painting, now owned by Chi Minh.
For many of these firms, the Courthouse project allowed them to “get their foot in the door,” something that has been traditionally difficult in a predominantly White and male dominated field. The project provided an opportunity for firms to build relationships and showcase their work on a broad scale.
But the County’s work didn’t stop at just hiring minority and women-owned businesses. They also provided groundbreaking support to ensure an inclusive working environment and opportunities for business and career expansion of all involved.
“They didn’t just sit back and let it run, they were a part of the whole process,” says James Faison, whose firm Faison Construction was responsible for much of the concrete slabbing on the Courthouse. “They just seemed to get it.”
Many people who worked on the Central Courthouse project noted the importance of Hoffman Construction’s decision to use the Green Dot diversity and inclusion training program on the project. The program emphasizes empowering co-workers to intervene and create a welcoming workplace culture that does not tolerate bullying. The Central Courthouse project was the first construction project in the nation to use Green Dot.
Justin Paterson, a project manager at Hoffman Construction, says that the firm worked diligently to tailor the program, which had been previously used on high school and college campuses and on military bases, to construction.
“They had a lot of ideas that probably work great on a college campus but needed to be adapted for a construction environment,” he says.
“We spent time with them (designing) the schedule for it, the practical applications, and what construction workers would relate to.”
Maurice Rahming, president of O’Neill Electric, credits the Green Dot training for creating a work environment different from anything else he experienced in the industry. Rahming says he was impressed by the effectiveness of the training in transforming the mindsets of those around him.
“It’s always hard to have diversity and inclusion training with people that don’t necessarily see the problem and it just becomes another training or another ‘thing’ that they have to do. What I thought was so interesting with this training was watching people who had their biases have these ‘AHA’ moments,” he says.
“I’ve seen people change their views, but usually it changes over a ten year period of time. For me just watching in a three or four day period, going from just sipping on their coffee thinking ‘When is this thing over?’ to really starting to participate and becoming the champions, saying ‘We need to change this, my daughter is going to be in this industry,’ I think that was a fun part of the project and a great takeaway.”
The outcomes of the Green Dot training manifested on the ground-level. When people would ask Rahming what made the County Courthouse project so special, he would simply tell them to take a tour of the Courthouse construction site and compare it to other construction environments. Several contractors, like Rahming and Faison, who worked on the project support a network of COBID-certified firms by serving on the PBDG board.
“You’re going to see different body language, you’re going to see a different experience. It’s night and day. (The training) totally changed the way people were treated,” he says.
“You might not believe in all the equity components and all of that stuff, but if you believe that people should be able to go to work and enjoy the space that they’re in, then you’re for this.”
The Courthouse project also allowed Rahming’s firm the ability to gain Commscope Uniprise certification to do certain types of low voltage electrical work, something O’Neill Electric had been shut out from for over a decade.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t have the capabilities of doing the work or that we didn’t have the qualifications, it was literally just because they had a (select) set of contractors,” Rahming says.
“We were always a little bit on the outside of the fence looking in.”
Rahming says that advocacy from Multnomah County and Fleming in particular were crucial in O’Neill Electric becoming the first African American-owned firm to receive the certification.
“That was a catalyst for our business,” Rahming says. “We can now look at other projects that have the same certifications and not worry that we’re going to get denied a bid.”
Since gaining that certification, O’Neill Electric has been able to expand both the breadth and depth of their work. Currently, Rahming’s firm is doing electrical work at the Portland airport, something they would not have been able to do without the certification.
For some, working on the Courthouse project even allowed for an entirely new career opportunity.
Mauni Stiffler was a foreman for O’Neill Electric on the Courthouse project, where she worked for two years installing wiring for low voltage data and security systems.
Stiffler says she had no intentions initially of working for Multnomah County. But when a job in Multnomah County Facilities emerged to continue work on the Courthouse after its construction, Stiffler took the opportunity.
Having been involved with much of the low voltage installation, Stiffler knew the Courthouse like the back of her hand. Her interest was heightened after developing good working relationships with many of the County employees working on the project.
“It was sort of a two year working job interview,” she says.
Stiffler says working at Multnomah County has been a great experience and that the variation in work on a daily basis keeps her on her toes.
“There’s something different every five minutes sometimes,” she says.
Regarding her work on the construction of the Courthouse, Stiffler is most proud of what she describes as the “nerdy-inner workings” of the building.
“I didn’t have much to do with finishes, I didn’t put up the stonework or woodwork, but how the systems work together, that’s the part that I like the best. When I scan this badge, (a certain) camera looks at me, all of that kind of stuff,” Stiffler says.
“My kids think I’m a dork, but I'm like ‘Mommy built that building.’”
For more information on the Central Courthouse project’s efforts to support diversity in contracting and its workforce, visit the project webpage’s Diversity and Equity web page.