IT'S not easy being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field. But for TT-born plumber Judaline Cassidy, it was not only about breaking barriers for herself but also inspiring young women and girls into trade careers.
The L'Oreal Paris 2023 Women of Worth honoree and "superhero in a hard hat" is a woman of many hats, including a history-making plumber, non-profit founder, and activist behind the trademarked phrase, "jobs don't have genders."
The gregarious tradeswoman chatted with Newsday last week from her plumbing shop in New York.
Originally from Carey Street, Diego Martin, she grew up very poor in a house of only women.
While attending the then Diego Martin Government Secondary (now Diego Martin Central Secondary) she recalled when the computer was introduced, she struggled with typing. She was placed in the technical drawing class and was the only girl there.
At school, she was "always with the guys" playing football, basketball, and cricket, though with the latter sport they knew she "sucked" and would put her far in the "outfield."
"Because I can't catch for nothing. But because I was part of the group, they would keep me but still on the outside. Way, way, way deep," she said laughing.
At secondary school, she chose subjects based on her initial plan of becoming a lawyer. But when her great-grandmother who took care of her passed away, she realised she would not have the money for the University of the West Indies.
She then decided the John Donaldson Technical Institute was her best option and signed up for the plumbing course. Cassidy explained the choice was because of her very strategic nature.
"And I wanted to increase my odds of getting into the school. So, I knew of a lot of women would be applying for the seamstress (course), the tailoring, the cooking, and all of those things. I figured hardly any women would think of the plumbing or the electrical.
"So, I figured that with plumbing I would get wet, electrical I would get shocked. So, I think wet was sounding so much better than shocked," she said, laughing again.
Her initial plan was to teach plumbing at secondary schools, and she had no idea it would become her career for more than 25 years.
At John Donaldson, Cassidy was one of three girls in the plumbing class but the other two eventually dropped out.
"From the minute I started doing it, I fell in love with it immediately."
She continued: "I think what attracted me to plumbing and still keeps me madly in love with it is (that it's) very problem-solving. And I love to solve problems. I never look at things and say, 'Oh my gosh, I can't do this.' I look at it and figure how can I fix it. And plumbing does that on a daily basis."
She pointed out she recently had to solve a problem for one of her clients after many other professionals had checked it and could not fix it. She said because she is dyslexic that challenge helps her with wanting to solve puzzles.
"That's why I love plumbing. I get to solve puzzles every day."
Little lady working in the Big Apple
Cassidy migrated from Trinidad to Staten Island, New York City around 1989 and has always worked in the "Big Apple." Her early jobs were as a housekeeper, nanny, and personal shopper. But then her next-door neighbour recalled she had gone to plumbing school in Trinidad and helped her land her first job with the company, Duo Plumbing and Heating.
She recalled her first day at the company.
"I pulled up on the job site and the guy didn't tell them it was a woman. So, I drive up in my jeep; I am very short. I am 4 ft-11 and seven-eights. And when I drive any of my cars, I seem to be rather tall until I push the button down. So, I push the button down, my seat is going down and I come out and see all the men on the job site just looking at me."
She went up to the foreman, the late Jimmy Nunzio, and told him she was the plumber. He was a bit skeptical and she used her "Trini magic" and told him to give her a chance.
"You have a worker for the day and if I don't work out you don't have to pay me."
He accepted her challenge and that same day the company kept her making her their sole female plumber.
She continued: "I always have this way that I want to prove them wrong. Because people look at you, they see an immigrant, they hear my accent, they think that we don't know something."
She said from her start in the business to this day people still treat her a certain way because she is a woman. She recalled that initially, no one at the company wanted to work with her except one man, her co-worker Neil Messina, who recently died.
"He is the only one who said, 'I will work with the girl.'"
On the use of the term "girl," Cassidy said it was about 20 years ago and that was a different time. Messina worked with her and taught her a lot.
"And because of him stepping up and being an ally and a 'mally' like I like to say, all the other men were (against it) he was like 'no, she's cool, she knows her stuff."
She said, "another amazing brother" Brian Tortora helped get her into the union and Cassidy described that as a "game changer for her." She explained that non-union workers did not have access to a 401(k) (employer-sponsored retirement savings plan) or medical. She added that as a union worker, she has a job with equal pay.
"So, a guy six-foot-two and myself we get the same salary. That is what is amazing about getting into the union."
She also received access to middle-class customers and above, and was able to start her own company. Cassidy was the first woman accepted into Plumbers Local 371 Staten Island, NY; the first woman elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local Union No 1 NYC; and ushered in the first Women's Committee within her union, becoming its first president.
As a tradeswoman activist, she founded Lean In: Women in Trades, helping give tradeswomen across the US supportive spaces in which to cultivate community, share advice, and lean on each other as they lean into their own careers.
"So, it is difficult. I'm not going to tell you that it's easy. It got a lot easier because I gained a lot of respect. But there are always people who are naysayers and doubters continuously."
Cassidy said she always walks into a room knowing that she is "100 per cent black woman immigrant with an accent and the rules are different for me."
Cassidy said her fight for equality is a priority.
"Whenever I get tired, and I want to step down there are black and brown people who come up to me a lot and say, 'seeing you up there gives me hope that one of us could be in leadership someday.'"
About Tools & Tiaras
Working in the trade industry, Cassidy noticed many women would come in and not stay. She also remembered as a little girl how empowered she felt.
"You can't tell them that they can't do something. What if they never lose that? And I know for a fact that the trades give you that empowerment."
She had a plan to start an organisation but did not get around to it.
At a speaking engagement, she told the audience, "You should give a girl a tool and a tiara which is giving her confidence, independence and power." She said God then spoke to her and said, "You know that thing you always wanted to do. Go and do it."
When she returned from the conference, she started the non-profit organisation with the name Tools & Tiaras.
Tools & Tiaras began operating in 2017 and focuses on girls (ages six-14) under the theme, Jobs Don’t Have Genders™ and hosts hands-on monthly workshops and summer camps centred on the skilled construction trades. All Tools & Tiaras programming is driven by tradeswomen leaders and field experts and designed to expose girls to the skilled construction trades like electrician, carpenter, plumber, auto mechanic, in addition to STEM and other fields in which women are underrepresented.
Cassidy said it was a lot of work running the organisation while having a full-time job as a plumber and with her other roles.
"Every time I struggle and I'm feeling overwhelmed I get these amazing e-mails and DMs (direct messages) from women and people all over the world, from Africa, even Trinidad, Spain or Poland, saying that 'because of seeing your video I became a plumber, or I joined the trades, or could you bring Tools & Tiaras to our country.'"
She said many women feel the only path in life is college or university, but the trades are a lucrative pathway.
"You will always have a skill, have a job."
She said Tools & Tiaras has been growing and growing (it added a second chapter in Boston along with its New York chapter) and her ultimate mission is to open a chapter in Trinidad and Tobago and eventually all over the world.
She said coincidentally Tools & Tiaras when shortened is T&T like her home country. The colours were also coincidentally the country's national colours of red, white and black.
Cassidy described herself as a "proud daughter of TT, the place of rhythm and calypso." In videos, she often wears her Trini bandana.
She has not returned home since the pandemic and said she misses it a lot. She expressed hope that she will return soon and may eventually settle back in Trinidad permanently.
She said when she speaks at schools in Brooklyn, she meets immigrant children including from Trinidad, and the parents are so happy to see her.
"It makes them feel like they can do it too. That's the whole goal."
During her speaking engagements, she frequently tells her audience that she sees herself as a superhero.
"Plumbers protect the health of the nation."
In February 2023, she was the featured superhero in a colouring book to celebrate women plumbers called My Mom Is a Plumbing Superhero which was created in collaboration with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.
"To me, it is very important for boys and girls to know that what a plumber looks like, is not just a guy."
She said the colouring book features women from different races and religions. The book is available in Spanish and is free to download. In August this year, she received another honour as global beauty brand L'Oréal Paris inducted her as one of ten Women of Worth which recognises ten extraordinary non-profit leaders working to address the nation's biggest issues.
Cassidy said someone had nominated her for the honour and she was chosen out of 2,500 women.
"When they called me to tell me I was crying. I said, 'you have no idea what this is going to mean for women in the trades like me and for people who are immigrants like me, to see someone like me in such a big platform."
Cassidy said she was the first tradeswoman to receive the award which she will be presented with at a red-carpet ceremony in Los Angeles in November.
She said despite all her honours, to her daughter, who has followed her into the trades and is a sheet metal worker, she is "just mom."
"She just likes all the free stuff I am able to get now."
And what would her advice be to a young woman considering entering the trades?
"If she really wants to do it just look at me and all the amazing other women that have achieved things that people tell them that they can't. I always say that you must conceive it, believe it and do it. And whatever you want to do, which is what I teach to girls, you can do it. I tell them to learn the most powerful words in the universe before any sentence is 'I am.' And if I believe that I am that I am, then I will be it."
She said if she listened to people, she would never have been a plumber.
"I got made fun of. People told me I was too short and I'm a woman."
She said even now when people tell her she is too short she replies with "They don't pay me short money."
She recalled when she started in plumbing, she did not have anyone in her field to look up to.
"But hopefully now I can be somebody who some young girl can look up to. She can say, 'Judaline is a plumber. She is an immigrant just like me. And she's doing it so I can do it.'"
She added: "Just go after it young lady. Don't stop believing in you."
Judaline Cassidy's honours include:
New Equity Leadership Award Honoree 2023,
CNN's Champions for Change 2020,
Regina V Polk Women Labor Leadership Alumna of the Year 2019,
Outstanding Women – Women Builders Council 2018,
The 92nd Street Y’s Extraordinary Women Rising Star Award 2018.
She has been featured by The Associated Press, CNN, BBC America, Good Day LA, No Barriers Podcast, and other media outlets.