Published June 20, 2018
Men, take notice: Emoni White doesn’t think your knowledge of power tools is so special anymore.
“I learned how to use a chop saw. Guys don’t think girls could do it, but it’s not that hard,” White said while standing on a stage fashioned from a quarter of a house she helped build.
White was among the eight graduates of the spring term of the Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts (SACRA), an innovative vocational program begun by UB artist/architect Dennis Maher and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Innovation Lab. The spring group was SACRA’s second graduating class.
SACRA’s spring graduates gathered with their families, friends, SACRA instructors and dozens of others inside Assembly House 150 — a former church in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood that serves as the program’s headquarters — earlier this month to celebrate the completion of what has been a truly transformative journey for each participant.
“I came here knowing nothing,” White said moments after receiving her graduation certificate. “I learned how to work with a team, how to [use] all kinds of tools. I want to thank everybody who came to teach us something – it really helps.”
SACRA is a 15-week program that focuses on training under-employed participants from all walks of life highly sought after skills in construction arts and design. Lessons are taught by a team of instructors and a rotating cast of some of the region’s best artisans, including those affiliated with the Darwin Martin House restoration and the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora.
Students learn everything from basic safety, to house framing, wainscoting, stained glass and stairs. In addition, the Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York provides soft skills training to prepare students for job interviews and experiences they’re likely to encounter in the workplace.
In his keynote address, Buffalo developer Doug Swift, a 1993 graduate of UB’s master of architecture program, said he’s seen firsthand the challenges local construction firms are facing trying to fill positions. “There simply aren’t enough,” said Swift, whose portfolio includes Buffalo RiverWorks, the wildly popular entertainment complex along the Buffalo River.
“Progress is actually hampered by contractors who are too busy to handle all the work. With more skilled workers, they could take on more work,” he said.
“That’s why I love what’s happening in this building. You are being taught much more than how to hammer a nail, or how to measure twice. You are being given hope for a satisfying and rewarding future for yourselves and your city. You are giving me hope.”
There was a point early in the program when student Steven Pierce almost lost hope. But Maher and Alex Johnston, SACRA’s project coordinator, “hunted me down” and got him back on track, Pierce said. “I feel like for once in my life, somebody who I didn’t even know actually cared. Thanks is not enough for you guys.”
Pierce’s appreciation for the SACRA team and the program itself was echoed by each of the seven graduates who spoke; one graduate couldn’t attend the event.
Sean King, who at 38 was the oldest student in the class, thanked SACRA lead trainer Quincy Koczka, a former student of Maher’s at UB, calling Koczka “the best teacher I’ve ever had.” King also shared how Johnston accompanied him on a recent job interview and lobbied for a higher wage.
“She’s setting them up for the most possible success, and really helping them every step of the way in a very personal way that again is the reason why this program is different from everything else out there,” said Albright-Knox Innovation Lab Manager Russell Davidson.
During his remarks, Davidson noted that SACRA isn’t just impacting the lives of its students. It’s also contributing to the region’s economy — to the tune of more than $1 million in only its first year. Of the eight spring-term graduates, six have already found jobs and “we’re expecting the phone to ring any minute now” for the seventh, he said.
Reflecting on the spring term made Maher think of one of his favorite artworks, a series of frescoes called “The Legend of the True Cross” by 15th-century painter Piero della Francesca.
One of the paintings features a scene in which three laborers are moving a piece of wood from the cross on which Christ was crucified. A knothole in the wood creates what appears to be a halo around the lead worker’s head.
“A knothole is that thing in fairy tales that bestows a gift or opens a door, a world,” Maher said. “You can disappear into the world of fantasy through the knothole.”
Relating it back to SACRA and the work the students did this spring inside Assembly House 150, an emotional Maher said: “This is a place of magic, and I’m so thankful for all those people who’ve worked with us this term.”
I was in the refrigeration and air-conditioning trade here at UB. I am now the supervisor of the controls department on the South Campus.
I cannot stress enough how we are in great need of knowledgeable trades people. A skilled tradesman will never be out of work, and trades are awfully handy when you become a homeowner yourself.