IronWoman: Welding Dreams to Reality
Karina Roca is a young adult working as a blacksmith apprentice in New Orleans. In her current role, she studies restoration and preserves ironwork that is sometimes centuries old. She is also a youth advocate, connecting youth in the city to mentors, programs, and jobs in green infrastructure. She graduated from Pace University in New York City in 2019, double majoring in Peace and Justice Studies and Political Science, minoring in African and African American History and Anthropology, however, her true passions lead her to switch careers during the pandemic and start to train to become a blacksmith. Building bridges between youth, elders, and our history are at the center – she believes that we all have something special to bring to the table, and so much magic can happen when we connect and share our skills.
Karina is optimistic that we, as a collective, will take the lessons learned from the pandemic and use them to forge a future that honors work/life balance, caring for each other, and connecting with our inner dreams and passions.
What were you doing before the COVID-19 pandemic?
I was living in Brooklyn, New York with five roommates. I had recently graduated from college. After resigning from a fellowship for ethical concerns, I was managing a bar and attending Farm School NYC, an organization that provides students with the tools they need to become effective and empowered grassroots leaders in the food justice movement. I was learning hands-on how to grow food and cultivate food justice in urban spaces, which I really enjoyed. However, when Covid hit and the learning went virtual, it was very difficult to remain engaged and connected.
How did the pandemic influence your career path?
When we slowed down our lifestyles in quarantine, nature’s positive and healing responses only proved how unnatural our pace was prior to the pandemic. The quarantine chapter of the pandemic showed many of us the disharmony we live in with nature and ourselves. For me, this was a moment of pause, rebalancing and reconnecting to myself. This was a moment to redefine my relationship to the collective, as we all have something special to bring to the table. I used this time and space to meditate and take inventory on my goals, interests and dreams. Connecting with the dreams of my inner child, ironwork came up frequently in my reflection. Iron work is working with precious metals – either welded together or melted down– to create just about anything. I felt an urgency to make a shift in my life, to push myself closer to a lifestyle with my passions and dreams at the center.
The uncertainty of the pandemic heightened my need to learn and create. I knew that the time off of work and the unemployment checks would not last forever so I immediately leveraged the money into a move across the country. I bought a one-way ticket to New Orleans and mailed my belongings to myself. I was feeling courageous and excited, but also quite nervous, making such a big move at a risky time. I immediately enrolled in the Louisiana Green Corps, a program that offers careers training in green infrastructure for individuals 18 and up who are not engaged in school or work and looking to grow their career. When I joined, I could barely read a measuring tape. LA Green Corps walked me through the basics of a wide array of trades that really prepared me for ironwork. I am now involved with the non-profit on an alumni level, recruiting youth to join and connecting mentors to the project.
What inspired you to pursue a career in iron work?
A few years previous, I had watched a program on a man named Darryl Reeves in the historic 7th Ward of New Orleans. He is a third-generation Creole blacksmith, preserving and restoring ironwork in the city. I remember seeing this program in astonishment – a Black ironworker, restoring the artwork of the ancestors we may never know the names of. This gave my inner child hope and encouragement, of which I never forgot. Fast forward to December 2020, I walked into Mr. Reeves’ shop with my resume in hand and begged him to take me on as an apprentice. He agreed. Masked up with my books, I took two buses to work everyday from my apartment, and two buses back. I got burned, cut and bruised countless times from being unaware and eager to learn. My devotion to learning this craft kept me grounded through the financial and physical struggle. I stuck to it, and almost two years later, I am now a lead welder at the shop and I have a very blessed relationship with my work family.
What is your experience like as a young black woman working in iron work?
To not know anyone else like you in your field is a bit lonely at times. I try diligently to turn my frustration about the racial disparities of this trade into power to organize, recruit and teach what I learn to folks in my community. I am, however, held by the long-standing traditions of the craft. Blacksmithing and metalwork are ancient, Afro-Indigenous crafts that have survived circumstances unimaginable. To do the work of my ancestors is an honor and a privilege. I affirm my identity in that way.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to switch careers?
If you ask yourself, “is my job in alignment with my truest passions?” and the answer is no, maybe it is time for a switch. Comfort has to be sacrificed for growth sometimes, and learning something completely new is challenging. That challenge can be exciting if we humble ourselves and remain curious and engaged. What helped me to know where I needed the change, I channeled the dreams of my inner child for guidance. Even just for a moment, I took seriously the dreams I once found unrealistic, to now know that anything is possible with persistence, patience and making the right connections. It is a bold act to make sacrifices for new knowledge and experiences, but as they say, “Fortune favors the bold.”