GRID Alternatives Internship: My Experience as a Woman of Color

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December 21, 2016

Guest Blogger Anandi Gandhi

GRID Alternatives is a non-profit organization dedicated to making solar energy accessible to disadvantaged communities and training people from diverse backgrounds enabling them to find work in the solar industry. I joined GRID as an intern, part of their solar installation/construction team at the Inland Empire office in Southern California. I find that it is important to mention that I am a woman of color since it directly ties into my experience of the world, and GRID's goals. GRID's mission is not just to provide solar energy, but also make solar jobs accessible to people from low income families and diverse racial backgrounds.

Before describing my experiences as an intern, I want to explain what I was doing before the internship. By the time I had applied for the position at GRID, I had been in the Inland Empire for almost 10 months. During that time, I had applied for over 100 jobs. As an environmental enthusiast from a “developing” country, I had a mental image of California as being paradise, filled with people who cared deeply about all things environmental.

Sadly, I was misinformed about California and the Inland Empire. Out of the 100 plus applications, I was offered two commissions based sales positions, two seasonal jobs, and one online position. Everything else was a rejection, including jobs at other for-profit solar companies. 

It is only fair to tell you a bit more about myself. I am from India, 5 feet 2 inches tall, weigh 104 lbs. and my skin color falls between brown and “exotic”. I also have a slight Indian accent. My education includes a Masters degree and over the last 5 years, I have trained myself through multiple certificate courses, internships, fellowships, and jobs to become an environmental professional. I am well-versed in growing organic gardens, creating permaculture landscape designs, and conducting several forms of environmental research. Unfortunately, after being in the IE for 10 months I realized that these qualifications and experiences did not hold much value to employers.

After going through ups and downs and learning a few harsh lessons along the way, I finally discovered GRID. Starting with the interview itself, I felt immediately valued and trusted for having diverse experiences and for being myself. Despite being a smaller woman (and as I would find out later the only paid woman on the installation team), and having no previous solar experience, the GRID IE team was open to giving me a chance. This chance was something I desperately wanted which then led to a wonderful turning point in my life. As it turns out, GRID Alternatives really believes in giving people an opportunity to thrive. Hats off to them for being an oasis in a desert!

On GRID’s work-site, knowledge is shared freely and patiently. Mistakes were not considered to be horrific, but rather as being fixable and a learning opportunity. What was striking to me as a woman was that the men, including supervisors trusted my physical and mental ability to complete all aspects of the installation. Perhaps it was just me who wasn't trusting myself? I was expecting to be told to do the “lighter work” and leave the seemingly more difficult tasks to the men. But that never happened and I felt so grateful because it taught me to try everything and realize that I could actually do almost anything! Truly I learned so much that by the end of just two months, I accomplished the roof Team Leader milestone.

Before concluding, I want to share a small story of my gender experience at the workplace.  Often I am in the position of being the only woman in jobs dominated by men doing physical labor. Most of my co-workers end up referring to me by a masculine name or seeing me as being “almost” male.

When working on farms in India I was referred to as “Anand Bhai” which is the male version of my name followed by 'Bhai' meaning brother. Similarly, when I started at GRID I gave my name as Andy (a mostly male name) to make it easier for everyone to pronounce. I remember some of my male colleagues also referred to me as 'one of us' during an installation which I imagined meant being male like them. But interestingly a transformation took place as the days passed. Slowly everyone started calling me by my actual name, Anandi. After two months I felt that I was being seen not as a 'masculine woman' but rather just a skilled and capable woman. Is it possible do a physically intensive job, but also be seen as a woman? At GRID IE it is possible!

My advice to GRID is to continue trusting and nurturing women in your installation teams, because it goes a long way for them and the community. And my advice for women in general, don't be afraid of physical work. You are not weak because you use two hands instead one, you are not weak if you ask a colleague for help, and you are not weak as you have the ability to grow stronger every day.

I feel grateful to GRID for providing me a short, yet highly impactful experience of standing on rooftops, laughing with friends, and sweating in the intense summer heat. GRID also gave me wonderful references which helped me secure a fantastic managerial position at a landscaping company in the San Francisco Bay area. I am thankful I found GRID in the desert, and feel excited about starting my new adventure in the Bay.