Rosie’s Descendants

Rosie the Riveter is the inspiration of the many programs of this nonprofit, whose aim is to train, encourage and support women in nontraditional careers

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

As executive director of Northern New England Tradeswomen, a statewide organization with offices in Essex Junction, Tiffany Bluemle brings a background rich in ministry, politics and education to make a difference in the lives of women wishing to raise their career potential.

Rosie’s spirit lives on in Vermont in the form of programs designed to encourage and support women and girls exploring nontraditional careers through an organization called Northern New England Tradeswomen. This time, it’s not a war effort, but their own futures that excite and inspire those who participate in these programs.

Although based in Essex Junction, the organization’s influence is statewide. Its roots were planted 20 years ago in a program called Step Up, which offered training for women interested in the building trades. Today, the list of programs has moved beyond the building trades to other professions not typically linked to women.

For example, there are now programs that train women for careers in highway construction, law enforcement and painting. Six years ago, the organization piloted a program with the Vermont Department of Corrections to train women interested in a fresh start for a career after having been incarcerated. It involves not only training them through building a home that will be sold to a first-time home-buyer, but also working with women emerging from prison to obtain employment, housing, even photo IDs, things important to daily life.

Left, Katherine Stamper, employment advocate; Teri Gerbode,office coordinator; Jennie Date, girls’ program coordinator

Rosie’s Girls, a series of summer-camp and school-year programs launched in 2000, works with middle-school girls to build self-esteem, perseverance and leadership through learning and applying basic skills in the trades.

The dynamo behind this lively agenda is Tiffany Bluemle, NNET’s executive director of eight years. Bluemle leads a staff of 11 employees, serving in any given year about 600 beneficiaries of various programs.

It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the job than Bluemle. Her background and personality seem to have been tailor-made for this work.

Bluemle was born in Arizona. At the age of 13, following her parents’ divorce, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother, an actress. “I joke that Betty Crocker helped put my sister and me through school,” she says. “My mother did a Betty Crocker commercial that was long-running. She was also on a lot of television shows, on Lou Grant, Sanford and Son, Eight is Enough.”

Bluemle had an interest in religion and wanted to head east for college to enter the seminary. “The plan was to enter Union Theological Seminary, then get a joint degree from Harvard Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government, because I got a scholarship.”

To give herself a base beyond “just studying religion,” she decided instead to do her undergraduate work in history at Princeton, graduating in 1983. She had the good fortune to serve on the university’s board of trustees while she was there.

“I felt at times that I was a witness to the Continental Congress,” she says, recalling those days. “There were people like Nick Katzenbach, Hodding Carter, Malcolm Forbes, and other people not so well-known but thoughtful and smart. I didn’t say a lot my first two years, but listened. It was a pretty heady experience.”

After graduation, she headed to Washington, D.C., to volunteer on the Mondale presidential campaign, “and just as money was running out, they gave me a job and sent me to my home state of California to do field work.”

Four months into that effort, her mother became ill. Bluemle stopped work and stayed home for the next year and a half to care for her. “I did, however, get to attend the convention and hear Geraldine Ferraro get up and say, ‘I am Geraldine Ferraro,’” she recalls, grinning.

During that time nursing her mother, Bluemle took a part-time job with the state attorney general’s office, writing a history of the office. Also during that time, she made a discovery about herself that changed the direction of her life.

“I got involved in a church,” she says. “I would volunteer, and they would ask me to lead a prayer, and I would freeze up.” Bluemle realized that, while public speaking of other kinds was easy for her, praying was such a private, personal part of her life, she could not do it in public.

She headed east again, and two years later, with her master of public administration from the Kennedy School of Government, she went to New York City. “I worked briefly for a nonprofit there,” she says, “then I read John McPhee’s book The Headmaster and knew immediately I wanted to be a teacher.” She began applying for teaching positions.

Bluemle says that although New York City is a tough place to start a teaching career, “especially if you don’t have a teaching degree, it turned out to be an incredibly wonderful place for me to begin teaching.”

She taught at the Spence School, a private K-12 school in Manhattan, gravitated to middle school and later became an administrator to the upper school. “I fell in love with teaching and had six amazing years as both teacher and administrator.”

She also fell in love with another teacher and administrator, Liz Shayne, who is now her partner. They live in Burlington with their two sons.

After six years at Spence, wishing to broaden her experience to include knowledge of how organizations work, Bluemle took a position as development director of the New York City Outward Bound Center.

“It was really eye-opening,” she says. “I think it’s what attracted me so much to the organization I now run, because just as those kids in the South Bronx felt they had very few options in life, so do a lot of women and girls.”

During World War II, Rosie the Riveter became an image of inspiration to Americans everywhere. Rosie symbolized the women, many of them housewives, who went to work in factories and shipyards, railroads and taxicabs to support the war effort.

She and Shayne had known for some time that they didn’t want to live in Manhattan forever. Bluemle’s sister had moved to Vermont and opened Flying Pig Children’s Books in Charlotte, and asked Bluemle to help organize the nonfiction section. She began spending three-day weekends in Vermont. “The more we came here, the more I liked it,” she says.

She and Shayne bought a house and were planning their move when Bluemle’s sister-in-law told her about work she had done with Northern New England Tradeswomen. Bluemle met with the executive director, who hired her to write grants even before she made the move north. It was 1997.

Up until then, the organization was funded solely through public financing, says Bluemle. “We were lucky and received several grants that made a big difference in that fiscal year.”

That September, the organization found itself short a staff member, while it was setting up to launch a Step Up program in Rutland. “Because Liz and I had both been teachers, we were asked if either one of us would be interested in filling in down there. It was a long hike,” says Bluemle, “and I thought, ‘We’ll learn the ropes, but Liz and I are a package deal.’ ” They accepted pay for one person, but they performed the work as a team.

It was a very quick immersion into the organization, Bluemle says, which gave her a clear sense of the economic challenges that face women in the state. Four months later, when the executive director decided to take a leave of absence to run a political campaign, the board asked Bluemle to apply to be the interim director. When the director opted not to return, Bluemle agreed to stay on.

These days, funding comes from various sources, “depending on what we do,” says Bluemle. Public funding accounts for about 26 percent of the annual budget, a significant drop from the former 90 percent. About 30 percent of the income is generated by fees for service, and the rest is a combination of support from private foundations, individual contributors and corporate sponsors.

Much of Bluemle’s day is spent creating partnerships, “trying to draw upon the expertise and resources of others so we’re not trying to do what we’re trying to do alone.”

Steve Gold, deputy secretary of human services, has known Bluemle since she came to Vermont. “He accused me at one time of being a capitalist in nonprofit clothing,” she quips.

Gold, whose past positions in state government include deputy secretary of administration and commissioner of corrections under Gov. James Douglas, and commissioner of employment and training in the last four years of the Dean administration, says he has “tremendous respect” for Bluemle.

“When I met her, I was the Welfare-to-Work Program director in what was then the Department of Social Welfare and had been working with Northern New England Tradeswomen,” says Gold.

“She’s tremendously patient and is completely committed to the mission of her organization. She also has a tremendous amount of what I would call ‘positive persistence.’ She doesn’t give up and doesn’t let go, but she is always constructive in her persistence.” Gold has become an “enthusiastic supporter” of the Rosie’s Girls summer camps.

Rosie’s Girls was something Bluemle and Shayne had imagined some years before they came to Vermont, a program Bluemle believed would fit well with the organization’s goals. They had believewd for a long time there was a need to educate girls about the wide range of life choices available to them, she says.

They developed the Women Can Do conference, which attracts as many as 400 girls from around the state to spend the day welding, doing computer engineering, hydraulic engineering, forensics. “The list of workshops is amazing,” says Bluemle. “It spans from heavy equipment operation to Internet engineering or website design to auto body repair.

“Whether that leads them to become engineers or carpenters or professors or journalists, I don’t care,” she adds. “The most important thing for all of us is to feel we’re contributing something, and that our work feeds some part of our soul.

“I know this sounds kind of starry-eyed, but we’re not just about making a paycheck. We’re also about the pride and the confidence and the joy that comes from doing something that really means something to you.”