Shelley Halstead, Founder of Black Women Build (Photo Credit/ Black Women Build website)

By Nadine Matthews

Shelley Halstead told the AFRO some sobering statistics. “Black women have the least amount of wealth of anyone, zero to $100, which is pretty abysmal. If Black women have children, it’s even less. It’s negative.” It’s a reality that pushed the Iowa (yes, Iowa) born and raised, self-described carpenter, to found the non-profit Black Women Build-Baltimore.

According to their website, Black Women Build-Baltimore aims to, “bring home ownership to Black women in Baltimore, train women in trades-related skills through home renovation, and create wealth and build community by the barriers that work against our ability to thrive.”

Women who want a chance to own one of the homes can fill out an application. If chosen, they’re expected to assist in the rehab of the house, which they will move into once the work is done.

In addition to homeownership, the organization provides education in finance and nutrition. Halstead said that the focus should be on what it takes for a Black woman to thrive. “It’s about stopping that cycle where no one in your family was able to get a mortgage or have enough money, or whatever the reasons are, for not owning a home. We want to stop that cycle.  I want to help Black women build not only houses  but wealth.”

The organization work is garnering a lot of positive attention and support. Recently, Black Women Build-Baltimore was given $50,000 from the Kelly Clarkson Show, and Comcast Xfinity awarded one of the women who recently moved into a home rehabbed by Black Women Build-Baltimore, $25,000 for furnishings and a year’s worth of Xfinity TV and internet service.

Though Halstead passed the bar exam, she opted not to work as a lawyer, finding the prospect ultimately unappealing. Even working at a Washington D.C. non-profit after moving there from Seattle, was unfulfilling in the end. “It didn’t work for me,” I wasn’t used to office life,” she stated drily. “I decided to do something where I could help people and use my skill set as a carpenter and general contractor, which I’d done over the years.”

Given her penchant for action, novelty and adventure, Halstead spent a good chunk of her adult life traveling around the world.  This adventure was spurred by a  promise she and her high school best friend made to each other. She’s lived in Belgium, India, Spain and Antarctica (yes, Antarctica), where she worked as an electrician’s assistant. “At first they weren’t going to hire me,” she shared, “But after they found out I had fought fires at Mt. Hood, they figured I could handle it.”

Beyond building houses, Halstead has a logistical vision for building a community, which dovetails with her goal of increasing wealth for Black women. “We’re rehabbing the houses in clusters. It protects the building itself, to have the house next to you be occupied-ideally by a homeowner,” she explained. 

Ideally applicants would be interested in more than simply buying a house. Halstead explains that they are looking for people interested in being “good neighbors and building community” in addition to owning a home.

She chose Baltimore not only for its proximity to Washington, D.C., where she was living when she got the idea for the non-profit, but because of what the city symbolized for her.

“Baltimore is like ground zero for redlining. The playbook is written in Baltimore, and to rehab these houses in West Baltimore where we had the Mitchell’s and Thurgood Marshall,” she recalled. The gravity of history was felt, though unsaid.

Baltimore also held a more personal metaphorical meaning for Halstead, who grew up, as she said, “Queer and Black in a small town in Iowa in the early 90s.” She grew up in what could be considered the heart of America’s so-called heartland. “There’s a T-shirt that says ‘Baltimore vs everyone.’ I saw that and that’s how I felt in some ways: like an underdog. Growing up I romanticized Baltimore as this hardscrabble, working class Black town.”

Living here, she has only grown to appreciate Baltimore more. “It’s just so beautiful here. The rowhouses and Baltimore has so much potential for the neighborhood, the community, the city. Not only for the rehabbing of the houses, but also for the people who are already here. I just want to shed light on that.”

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