Like most black women, Shelley Halstead has faced race and sex discrimination, and this was no different when she entered the construction field in her twenties. After signing up for a carpentry class at a community college, she joined the carpenters union in Seattle, where she cultivated the skills that she now wants to share with other black women. Halstead has renovated numerous houses. She has bought, sold, and built houses in Seattle, Portland, and Baltimore. Halstead recognizes homeownership as the gateway to wealth.
“Home ownership is how you enter the middle class. It’s how you gain wealth and pass on wealth,” she says. “I know people conflate wealth with being rich and that’s not what I’m saying. It’s a way that you have security. It’s a way that you have community.”
Halstead moved to Baltimore three years ago specifically to help black women gain skills to renovate and maintain homes. With her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Halstead will launch her initiative through her organization Black Women Build – Baltimore, which trains black women in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. Program participants restore vacant and deteriorated homes in West Baltimore and, if they complete the program, will eventually own one of the houses they work on. At the same time, participants develop skills to enter the construction sector—a field in which a woman can make two or three times the average salary for women in other fields.
Black Women Build – Baltimore plans to buy or receive donations of West Baltimore vacant homes that will then be rehabbed by women vetted and trained in construction skills by Halstead and the Black Women Build – Baltimore team. Halstead has already interviewed several women who are interested in her program. But she knows that life can get in the way of dreams and goals.
“People get frustrated learning a new skill, feeling like they’re not doing it right,” says Halstead. “We work side-by-side with participants and make sure each one succeeds.” Halstead is determined to help people do well by offering wrap-around services, including financial literacy training, counseling, and nutritional awareness. And each apprentice will receive close mentorship from experts, making her more likely to complete the program.
Before settling in Baltimore, Halstead graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a law degree. She lived on a commune in Belgium and an ashram in India. She fought forest fires out of Portland, Oregon, and did electrical work at a science station in Antarctica. Halstead believes Baltimore and the neighborhoods of Upton/Druid Heights, where she lives, are perfect for the project due to the large number of vacant homes. According to the Baltimore City Health Department’s 2017 neighborhood health profile, the vacant building rate in Upton/Druid Heights is double the city average, 60% of families live in poverty, and 94% of children live in single-parent households – likely women-headed homes. Combine that with 2017 research that found single black women’s median wealth was $0, and it is easy to see why this is the perfect area to begin the project of building wealth through home ownership.
“I grew up in a home that was very supportive and it’s something that not everyone has,” says Halstead, who believes that either foundational support or an intervention is key for an individual to succeed. “I understand that all people didn’t grow up like that.” Black Women Build – Baltimore wants to be that intervention that allows black women to thrive.