Black Women Build-Baltimore is a home ownership and wealth building initiative that trains Black women in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing by restoring vacant and deteriorated houses in West Baltimore.
Their goal is to create opportunities for Black women, and their communities, to thrive. Black Women Build-Baltimore was founded in 2017 by Shelley Halstead who believes that for Black women to build intergenerational wealth, with the inherent security and prosperity it can generate, they must also learn the skills necessary to maintain that wealth. Home ownership and the ability to maintain that asset is one way this can be achieved.
In 2021, Black Women Build-Baltimore received the Zumtobel Group award for “Innovations for Sustainability and Humanity in the Built Environment”.
Read our interview with Shelley below:
What was your personal impulse to start this project?
I began Black Women Build because as a Black woman, I wanted to help other Black women thrive and this is what I had to offer. I saw so much potential in Baltimore – the houses, neighborhoods, the people – it was a very pragmatic decision to put my particular skillset to use here. Underlying it all is a desire to be useful.
You are a carpenter and a lawyer? Not an everyday combination?
I am a carpenter by trade but decided to go to law school later in my career. I wanted to “affect change” and at that time, becoming a lawyer was what I landed on. After law school, I got an office job but realized it was incompatible for who I was. While it may seem strange to some, it was the logical next step for me to begin this non-profit. Being a lawyer helped me navigate the bureaucracy and better articulate my vision. Ultimately, it was combining the two that allowed me to be successful.
When I see the pictures of the completely dilapidated houses, I can hardly believe what great things you are doing with them. What do you think when you stand in front of such a "ruin" at the beginning?
When I first arrived in Baltimore and saw the many vacant and boarded rowhouses, I dreamt of rehabilitating them all. But once I saw the interiors, it was hard to wrap my head around how to do it; I had never worked on anything so degraded. It took a couple of years before I started to be able to understand the process, which was very important to me since I would be self-performing. I see what used to be, what people built for their families, and I want to reclaim that. I see nothing but potential.
How did you get in touch with the first women for a housing reconstruction? Did you know them before?
I had to find someone who could complete the program and buy the house. It was very important to have proof of concept so I was looking for women who were interested in learning. I didn’t care if they were interested in the trades so much as they had a curiosity about things. This was even before we had houses or funding or anything really…just the idea. I met a young woman and took her to the block and shared my vision; she saw it, and once we acquired the houses, she became the first one and paved the way.
Do the women, already living in the new houses, share opinions/new ideas with you? And what, for example?
The women who have moved into the houses are beginning to feel what it is like to be a part of a neighbourhood community. We have monthly gatherings where we exchange what is happening in each other’s lives or participate in a neighbourhood clean-up. They want to create garden space in the empty lot on the block. One woman is now taking mechanics classes, and another is interested in pursuing more carpentry training. Because the houses are affordable it allows these women to explore new ways of being.
How is/or was there any public echo on the example of Whole Block Outcomes?
Throughout the years, people have tried to rebuild blocks in Baltimore but usually they are larger developers. These developments are not very affordable nor are they looking for residents to who are already living in the neighborhood to buy the houses. There are other groups who are talking about rebuilding blocks and should start soon. They go about it differently – but their idea is still around home ownership. While our model is unique, it can be tweaked so others may succeed in similar work.
What’s coming next?
We have more houses to complete and are looking for more blocks on which to work. We will likely expand to other areas of Baltimore as the houses where we work have become too expensive due to speculative buying. We will continue to work with six women a year but will also build market rate housing to ensure the neighborhoods are mixed and diverse. I am creating third spaces in the community – a café; artist lofts and gallery; and a food hall – all within a short walking distance from our houses.
How do you think the Zumtobel Group Award can contribute to your (future) project/work?
It is an honor to be awarded the Zumtobel Group Award in Urban Initiatives. We will use the award to further our work building community, wealth, and knowledge in our city. It is heartening to have the Zumtobel Group appreciate our innovation and recognize BWBB’s model is uniquely able to ameliorate historical harms perpetrated by the U.S. against its Black population. The award propels our work from a national to an international audience where others can learn from our model: using a nonprofit to provide access to capital where access has been historically denied.