Building a Family, Building Chicago
Building the Obama Presidential Center isn’t just about bringing a new world class destination to the South Side—it’s about investing in the surrounding community. That’s why we’ve teamed up with We Can Build It Opens in a new tab to help us develop a pipeline of construction talent that looks like the community the Obama Presidential Center calls home. In the time we’ve been working together, we’ve already met remarkable Chicagoans Opens in a new tab who are invested in building their city’s future.
Chicagoans like Zahrah Hill.
We first met Zahrah through Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) Opens in a new tab , a local organization with an established history of training women to excel as tradespeople on construction projects across the city. CWIT is also one of the lead partners of We Can Build It.
Zahrah completed the CWIT training program just like her mom, Renee, did in 2001. Today, Zahrah works as a plumber, and her mom is an electrician and Turbine Generator Winder. We spent a day capturing a glimpse of Zahrah’s day-to-day life as a plumber, but also as a daughter carrying forward her mom’s living legacy.
Read on to meet Zahrah and her family, then explore the Obama Presidential Center.
Photos by Anjali Pinto
To Zahrah, getting involved in the trades was a natural fit, even if it wasn’t obvious at first.
“I guess you can say I’m a CWIT baby. My mom went through the program when I was really young, and my siblings and I were always there volunteering. She would be in her training class, and we would help out with whatever the team had going on, from repairing small things to preparing for a parade. I literally grew up there.
“We were cleaning out our family’s basement one day, and I came across her old welding equipment from Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT). I remember telling her ‘Ma, why don’t I just go to CWIT?’ And she casually responded, ‘Oh, right. Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Let me call and we’ll see about getting you in there for the next class.’ And the rest was history. (Laughter.)”
Upon entering Chicago Women in Trades, Zarah quickly became interested in the plumbing field.
“I went to Chicago Women in Trades certain that I wanted to be an electrician like my mom. I went to different classes on each trade, and when I got to the last class, which was plumbing, everything changed for me. I saw what went into the work and the strong women who were doing it, and I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, these ladies that are plumbers are bad ass! Wait a minute.’ They inspired me to change my path and throw my name in the hat to continue on the plumbing track. It was the best decision of my life.”
In addition to inspiring her to go to CWIT, Zahrah’s mom has also shaped the hopes Zahrah has for her sons, three-year-old Nasir and one-year-old Hashim, and her niece Nayarah.
“My mom is loving, strong, and dependable. She’s literally everything I aspire to be, and I hope I can pass on so many of the things she’s taught me to value in life. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a tough cookie. (Laughter.) She did not take any smack at all when I was younger. She did not. Growing up in her house, laziness or not having something to do was not an option. We were always doing something, working on something, reading something. It was never like, ‘Oh, well I’ll just have downtime and watch TV.’ I don’t think we got our first TV until I was 13 years old, and even then she called it ‘the idiot box.’ She instilled a strong work ethic in me and my siblings, and I can never thank her enough for that.
“I want to make sure Nasir and Hashim have that same work ethic, too. There’s always something out there that they can do. My mom also showed me just how important it is to find something that you love to do. I love plumbing. I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than plumbing. So, I want my boys to follow that same advice. If they like drawing, they can be artists. If they like dancing, they should be dancers. I will support whatever they want to do in their lives, just like my mom has done for me.”
“There’s no better feeling than being thought of as a damn good mother, a hard worker, and that I raised some good boys. I feel that way about my mom.”
“My mother was a single parent raising three small children. She bought a house, which was pretty much a hole in the wall. We rehabbed and renovated our entire house halfway through living there. She never gave up, and me and my family—we’re not ever going to give up either.
“Sometimes I just think I’m all over the place, but I want Nasir and Hashim to be great men; flexible, honorable men; men who embody their father and grandfather’s values and take care of their families. They are beautiful boys with bright futures ahead of them.”
To end our day together, Zahrah offered her thoughts on the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago.
“The Center is going to be a huge deal. It’s going to be such a great resource for the neighborhood. After President Obama was first elected, even though it was cold outside, everybody was out cheering and high fiving. It was like a mini parade every day — you would have thought it was 70 degrees out! (Laughter.)
“I know that people will flock to the Center. Not only because it has Obamas’ name on it, but because it’ll be a place where children will go after school; a place with resources for adults. It will be awesome. It’s something that the community has always been missing.”