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A former public housing resident is now helping women in trade unions become ‘fit for the fight’

The handiwork of painter/taper Denise Jones, who used to live in Cabrini Green, can be seen all over the city.

Denise Jones’ handiwork can be seen across the city and suburbs, on airport runaways, major intersections and at many new housing developments.

Jones, 46, started off as a taper, a worker who seals joints between plasterboard and other wall boards to set up wall surfaces for painting or papering. Six years ago, she added painting to her repertoire.

“Wherever there’s construction, I’ve done taping,” Jones said.

She’s been at it for nearly 20 years as a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades’ Painters District Council 14.

During her career, she’s done taping for commercial businesses; O’Hare, Midway, and DuPage and Chicago Executive airports; and apartment buildings and strip malls all over the city and suburbs.

While many longtime Chicago residents — particularly those who grew up in public housing like she did — view gentrification with suspicion, Jones saw the long game when she signed up for a trades training program in the mid-1990s while living in Cabrini-Green.

Cabrini-Green was being torn down at the time, and Holsten Management placed her in Step-Up, a program that taught residents construction skills.

“I wanted to be a carpenter, but they were only hiring for taping, so they stuck me there,” Jones said. “My career started with gentrification.”

But she now notes: “A building is a building. Things change.”

Denise Jones. a taper/drywall finisher.
Denise Jones is a taper/drywall finisher for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades’ Painters District Council 14.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

From the start, Jones has had to prove her worth on every construction site she’s ever worked on due to her double-minority status — she was the only woman at the suburban construction firm when she started working in 2000.

She remembers her tools and food were stolen.

“In the beginning, I had a lot of that,” Jones said. “They didn’t say it out of their mouths, but it was implied. I didn’t let that get to me.

“I’m here to make this money. And I kept coming back.”

Over time, she changed the minds of the men who were fearful of working with a woman. She says the pushback she received was about her gender, not her being a black woman.

“I had to show them I wasn’t going anywhere,” Jones said. Attitudes toward her started to change.

“Over time, we became friends. Some of them would help me out. They would say, ‘Don’t quit. Stay with it.’ They would pull me to the side and encourage me. When you’re a woman in the trades, you always have to prove yourself.”

In 2016, Jones joined the District Council 14 Women’s Committee on Organizing. She wanted to make sure women who pursue careers in the trades don’t have to deal with the issues she’s faced.

The committee not only seeks to get jobs for women in the trades, it also provides a support system for members through mentoring and networking.

“We want women in the trades to know each other,” Jones said. “When new women come in, we share our stories and we have a goal to get more women to look at trade work.”

Jones says the women she mentors have to be ready for any challenges that come up.

“We want women to be fit for the fight,’’ Jones said. “You have to show yourself and prove, because they are going to look at you.

“You have to be willing and do extra in order [to] show who you are. You have to work harder than the men.”

Helen Chung, a community organizer with Painters District Council 14, describes Jones as “outgoing” and “inspiring” to listen to when she helps out with Chicago Women in Trades’ Technical Opportunities Program, an informational program for women interested in construction careers.

“She’s hands-on. She likes to work with our students on wall covering and painting. She’s always in line for that,” Chung said. “She loves to help to educate.”

Daughters work in trades, too

Creating spaces for women to thrive in the trades is personal for Jones.

Her daughters, Cierra and Tierra Jones-Bryant, are union members. Cierra, 28, is a taper, while Tierra, 27, is a painter.

When Jones speaks to women about establishing themselves in the trade unions, she has poignant advice for them.

“Don’t let anyone turn you away from your future,” she said. “If someone says something disrespectful, say something back to get them up off of you.”