Reclaiming an entire city block—house by restored house—is not easy work in West Baltimore, or anywhere else. But that’s exactly what Black Women Build – Baltimore has set out to do, using a combination of homeownership and construction skills-building as a platform for transformation that centers Black women. Working in neighborhoods that have suffered from a history of racial exclusion, the organization recruits Black women to rebuild homes that they then acquire as a literal foundation for financial success. At the same time, by restoring homes in clusters with cohorts of women who learn marketable construction trades, the project connects personal growth and urban-scale impact. “It’s construction with an ethos around community,” explained Shelley Halstead, the group’s founder and executive director. “You have that physical foundation of the house, and then you’re building the foundation of community with women who have worked together side-by-side.” In addition, the effort addresses a nationwide shortage of construction workers, making it ideal anywhere there are pockets of distressed housing and a dire need for jobs. The result is a multidimensional strategy that advances economic and social justice while giving Black women tools to thrive.
Black women own less property and have less ability to pass on wealth than almost any other group. Black Women Build – Baltimore understands that key factors for creating wealth are the ability to own and maintain a home and the ability to pass down wealth intergenerationally. In addition, by training women in trades-related work, our program not only provides a tangible set of skills to be used on other jobs and in the home, but allows women to make two to three times more in wages than traditionally female-centered jobs. Most important, we create homeownership opportunities by rehabilitating distressed properties and creating community in neighborhoods.
A moment that helped inspire my idea was the knowledge that I could never really work in a 9 to 5 office job and effect the change I wanted to make. Seeing blocks of Baltimore houses that were boarded up and abandoned cemented my desire to rebuild neighborhoods while helping Black women build wealth. I knew my particular skill set would allow me to make a difference in other Black women’s lives and so I went for it. I moved to Baltimore and haven’t looked back.
The biggest challenge is finding participants who are interested in training as well as homeownership. We can rebuild houses, one after the other, but we need participants who want to learn trades-related skills, or else we are just building houses for them. We have a lot of moving parts to this program and we are still fleshing out what works and what needs help. By taking a step back to focus on who our participants are, we hope to find those in line with our mission and build a stronger program by doing so.
Black feminist thought and action has always inspired and informed my work: Angela Davis, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Each has inspired how I think about community, system change, and action. While none are builders in a construction sense, they each exemplify what it takes to build a framework in which to challenge and dismantle the systems that hinder our ability to thrive. This dedication to Black lives, specifically Black women’s lives, has informed my work.
Our first participant was the first homeowner in her family—on both her mother’s and her father’s side. The ability to buy a house and maintain her asset will change the trajectory of what is possible for her own family, in addition to showing her siblings new possibilities in their own lives. While she learned many skills during the build, she became an excellent painter. When her job slowed down due to COVID, she was able to pick up work as an independent interior painter. She credits the program for teaching her how to paint.
Every Campus A Refuge
North Carolina (Operating nationwide)
Every Campus A Refuge leverages the sizable resources of colleges and universities to provide a stronger, more dignified landing for refugees.
New York (Operating globally)
Wikitongues safeguards threatened heritage languages by giving people resources to document, teach, and promote culture-sustaining mother tongues.
District of Columbia (Operating nationwide)
Cambium Carbon upcycles fallen urban trees, growing green jobs while building equitable cities and mitigating climate change at scale.
HEARD’s trauma-informed reentry program provides healing, empathy, and justice for deaf/disabled people who have been harmed by the carceral system.
Co-op Dayton builds community- and worker-owned cooperatives that center Black workers, expand democratic participation, and renew long-neglected neighborhoods.
Respond Crisis Translation
California (Operating globally)
Respond provides trauma-informed, life-critical translation and interpretation services to asylum seekers and anyone needing language support in contexts of crisis.
Nuns & Nones
Wisconsin (Operating nationwide)
Driven by a reparations ethic, Nuns & Nones collaborates with Catholic sisters to invest their land and assets in regenerative land stewardship.
Freedom Community Center
The Black-led Freedom Community Center holistically integrates restorative justice with personal healing and broad-based advocacy to transform communities.
Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program
A promising California model builds a pipeline of needed wildland firefighters by forging career pathways for individuals formerly incarcerated in “Fire Camps.”