Guest Post: Empowering Women Through Building Trailbridges

Author: Erin James, P.E.


Upon hearing of the opportunity to build a bridge in 2015, I was enthralled with the sheer wildness of the adventure. Not only would I be traveling to Africa with people I never met before, but I also would have the chance to be part of something completely unlike anything I’ve experienced. I would interact with people who have seen life through a different lens and have lacked basic privileges I have had the random fortune of having. I would be completely out of my element, solving problems during construction and working with new friends to deliver the community’s new mainstay – a trailbridge.

Prior to my first Bridges to Prosperity trip in Rwanda, I knew I wanted to build a bridge to give back to people who needed access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. I knew I would be sweating hard every day and living without familiar toilets or drinking water from the tap. I knew I would have to learn to communicate without speaking my native language. On top of it all, I raised my hand to be the Project Manager for the build, at the time having zero experience in this type of work. I fretted for weeks thinking about how I may be perceived and how I would plan to work extra hard to be accepted in my role on the team and by the community. It turned out that all my fears quickly faded away after spending two weeks living in country and working on site. Upon returning from that first build, I was hooked and forever changed.

Since 2015, I’ve been fortunate enough to build two additional bridges with university students in Panama and Bolivia. With each subsequent bridge build, my heart and my drive to make a real impact in the world, swells.

three women working on bridge fencing

The ASBI Women’s Build is of particular importance to me because I know that global empowerment of women can lead to increased opportunities for everyone.

I know some may doubt the effectiveness of sending nine women to Uganda to construct a bridge by hand, but I can assure you that is not all we are doing. Simply by being there and working alongside the community, we are participating in a sustainable technical and cultural exchange. This build team also acts as an example of women performing technical and physical tasks. While maintaining our respect of the community’s rich culture, we are hoping to empower local women to join us and learn new skills that will help them eventually earn their own income. That means this single bridge build could lead to greater gender representation in leadership and governance. By tapping into half of the population that is underutilized, this bridge could boost economies, help provide education opportunities for girls, and even lead to reduced violence and increased public health.

When we empower women and girls, we all win.

While I am a bit nervous to hop on a plane for this 25-hour globe trot, I am so excited to share this experience with a team of strong, intelligent women from the engineering and construction industry. This iconic bridge build may help re-shape traditional views of what can be accomplished when we empower one another. We will benefit from constructing safe and sustainable infrastructure for communities in need in Uganda, but we will also gain incredible networking and professional skills development.

I have no doubt that we will be better communicators and leaders after this trip, we will also have a better understanding of the needs of people around the world. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities I have been provided by Jacobs (formerly CH2M) to pursue this passion. It’s rare and lucky to be able to directly apply your educational and professional background to help others in need, and these experiences have molded me into a more patient, accepting, and compassionate person. Together, alongside women who will soon be my friends, we will bring Bridges to Prosperity’s vision of ending poverty caused by rural isolation one step closer to reality.