By Joe Maniscalco, LaborPress
The last thing Evet Stephens’ (pictured above, right) parents wanted for their daughter back in 1987 was for her to become an operating engineer. But that’s exactly what the former National Guard member did, becoming IUOE Local 14-14B’s first African-American female member upon leaving the military and completing the union’s rigorous four-and-a-half year Apprenticeship Program. Just don’t call her a trailblazer or pioneer — the Local 14 Fund trustee and KIDS Committee Chair doesn’t think of herself that way.
“I just don’t think of myself in those terms,” Stephens says. “People will say that I am those things, but I just move ahead. I just say that I’m me.”
Whatever hard looks the Brooklyn resident may have initially gotten applying for a spot in the union when few other woman of color were doing that, or showing up later for her first job site running a compressor on West 54th Street, it never seemed to dissuade Stephens from her course in the slightest — even when the resistance was coming from her own parents.
“My father wouldn’t help me,” Stephens says. “He’s an old-fashion man and women shouldn’t be doing that kind of work, you know? Mom was very upset. She’d say, ‘I sent you to school to be in construction? Really?’”
Despite the protestations, it was Stephens’ dad Monroe who drove her to Local 14’s offices in Queens to start the initial application process, and it was her mother Vera who very quickly came to admire the love and admiration her daughter had elicited in her co-workers.
“People were helpful, if a little shy [in the beginning],” Stephens says. “It takes a little while to get used to. But everybody helped me. If you can prove you can do the job, they help you. And I didn’t ask for special privileges.”
In the beginning, Stephens would ride her bicycle from her home in Brooklyn, all the way to the local’s training area at JFK airport — in the dead of winter. And that time when she found herself hip-deep in muck after mistakenly exiting from the wrong side of her roller at the Staten Island dump, it was Stephens who somehow managed to haul herself out on her own.
“The ground was so soft, my whole body just went down, and nobody could see me,” Stephens laughs. “I had to grab onto the machine and pull myself up. I never did that again.”
For almost as long as she operated heavy construction equipment, Stevens has also used her union career as an opportunity to help children with special needs, planning Christmas parties and organizing extravagant carnivals as part of the KIDS Committee.
“I enjoy giving back,” Stephens says. “I know that I’m blessed, and I want to bless others. And it lets me understand when my mother would say, I prayed the whole time I was carrying you to make sure you had 10 fingers and 10 toes. You don’t understand what that means until you see other children that are less fortunate.”
As an only child, the one thing Stephens did not expect by becoming Local 14’s first-ever female African-American member, is the extended family she’s acquired among her union brethren.
“I never knew that I would have that,” Stephens says. “That’s what’s really surprised me. Now, I have more brothers than I know what to do with.”
Allen Wright, fellow Brooklynite and IUOE Local 14 political director, has known Stephens for two decades.
“She just does what she does,” Wright says. “And there’s no prize to be gotten at the end. I’ve known her for 20 years, and she’s always been this person.”
Stephens’ dad Monroe is 93-years-old now, but she still keeps the former laborer updated on all her union activities.
“It feels good knowing you helped build a building, or you helped build a road because I remember my dad saying, oh, I worked on the Verrazano Bridge,” Stephens says. “I really didn’t know what that meant, and now I do. I can drive all over this city and say, hey, I worked on that building, or I was on that highway.”
Reprinted with permission from LaborPress.