There are three “H’s” for the kids that come to Eugene “Coach Green Gene” Mason’s trade mentoring program: the head, the hands and the heart.
The head is knowledge and education; the hands are the capacity to make things and make them well; and the heart is the connection with the community and their mentors.
A project superintendent at Power Construction and an architect by training, Eugene is the co-founder of nonprofit educational and community organization Harmonic Connections Plus (HC+), which he runs with his wife, Dr. Andrea Mason, on the South Side of Chicago. The organization’s mission is to create environments where people that need information can find people in the community willing to share it.
The Masons have fashioned their lives around this mission. Andrea, an educator and a doula, works with new and expecting mothers in the community; Eugene works with kids between the ages of 12 and 17 on pre-apprenticeship trade education.
It was a natural development for Eugene to combine his professional work with mentoring young people. “I’ve come from a family of mentors,” said Eugene, who started HC+ in 2008. “My father and uncles—they kind of set the tone for me as an adult, and then as a father of four, to want to always provide some sort of training and mentorship for young people.”
Learning for work and life
Eugene’s work as a mentor goes back to the 1990s.
From the beginning, Eugene’s goals were to demonstrate the “dignity of labor” for young people and to give them the opportunity to try out working and learning before choosing a trade as a career.
Eugene said he always recommends that young people try out the trades in a safe environment first. “You could actually become a hazard to yourself and those around you, so make sure that this is something you really want to do,” Eugene said.
The program has two main focuses. One is restoring the dignity of labor; the other is providing sustainable pathways for the next generation.
Eugene’s penchant for mentorship began informally. “I would take a friend’s child to work with me and kind of show him or her the ropes of the construction industry from the basic knowledge that I had,” Eugene said.
It wasn’t long, however, before Eugene developed a small curriculum on the components of a house and how to work with tools.
Initially, this drew a few young people from Eugene’s neighborhood learning in his garage. Over the next five years, it would grow into a well-regarded community institution.
Today, instead of operating out of his garage, Eugene has taken the program to new heights thanks to local community college Prairie State.
Chicago-based Power Construction has also donated many of the tools the students use in Eugene’s workshops. What’s more, some of Eugene’s colleagues have taken an interest in the program as volunteer instructors. This way, Eugene said, “the kids could see first-hand some of the knowledge at work.”
Eugene said his colleagues’ participation has gone a long way toward crystalizing in his students the overarching message of the program—that working in the construction trades can be more than just a “backup plan,” but a fulfilling career.
Educating with construction technology
Part of the tools donated by Power Construction included computers so Eugene could include teachings on the emerging technologies transforming the construction industry. Chief among the tech tools: Bluebeam Revu.
To help students learn the technology aspects of construction design and project management, Eugene enlisted his colleague Matt Walsh, Power Construction’s operations and technology manager, to lead students through a session of Revu. Bluebeam chipped in as well, donating four licenses for Walsh to use for the occasion.
Walsh helped students learn Revu basics, starting with the North arrow, how to set scales and start grids. Eugene and Walsh developed lessons on measuring and replacing flooring, right down to “how much would it cost to do this specific type of wood at what unit cost” and into measuring hours for day rates.
“Honestly, I loved doing this because it’s such a breath of fresh air to see kids with actual excitement about it,” Walsh said.
Walsh also shared with the students the job he was currently working on. “I showed them my drawing set and what an actual real-life high-rise building in Chicago looks like on a real drawing set,” Walsh said.
Building a legacy
Some of Eugene’s students have gone on to turn their foundational learning into a career.
“One of the kids who started out in the garage graduated from Homewood Flossmoor High School and he chose to go into the trades, pipe fitting, and he came over to the house and showed me his diploma,” Eugene said.
As Eugene reflects on how far the program has come, he said that the students’ work is only part of the satisfaction. “One of the things that’s even more rewarding is just seeing how the parents really take to the class,” Eugene said.
Now, there’s a wait list for Eugene’s classes. “We tried to work with 12 or 14 participants but had to dial that down to make sure kids got individualized help and everyone stayed safe,” Eugene said. “Now we work with nine students per session on one Saturday and we do a 4-5 hour session per class.”
Despite the rise in popularity and demand, Eugene said he’s not looking to expand the program. “We have a lot of interest from the neighborhood schools,” Eugene said, “and we have the tools to accommodate and generous donors such as Power Construction and other companies, but we’re not looking to scale.”
Eugene said he’s eternally grateful for how far his mentoring effort has come. “I’m grateful to Power, people like Matt Walsh, and I’m really grateful to Bluebeam,” Eugene said. “I mean, of course, when you have these lofty dreams and visions and goals, you can’t pull stuff off like this by yourself.”