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Shelley Halstead was a corporate attorney, but didn't feel like the job was her calling. It wasn't until the 52-year-old got the idea to help women renovate crumbling row houses in Baltimore that she felt she'd found her true work.
Halstead, who is the founder and executive director of Black Women Build-Baltimore didn't come to the project unprepared. She had experience as a carpenter as well as a passion for helping communities. In her own words, Halstead shares how her career has evolved.
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Shelley Halstead: Near my home in West Baltimore, I saw a garden on a block that was slated for demolition. Someone was living there and tending the garden, even though everything else was boarded up. And I thought, I’m going to fight for this garden.
This was in 2018. After 13 years as a union carpenter, I had gone to law school and had been working as an attorney but had realized that corporate life didn’t suit me. In Baltimore I had seen blocks of abandoned row houses in Black neighborhoods that had long been subject to redlining. The city was just tearing down the houses. I got the idea of helping women restore the properties and buy them to live in, and I founded a nonprofit to do that. Baltimore is a place where you can dream big, because the need is so big.
City housing officials originally told me it was too late to save the cluster of houses. They said, “It’s part of the plan.” And I told them, “Well, now I’m part of the plan.” At literally the eleventh hour, the officials came around, and I was able to acquire the four vacant houses for $5,000, total.
The women in our program work with me for four months, rehabilitating these structures. Along the way, they learn carpentry, electrical skills and plumbing, as well as personal finance. The average sale is between $80,000 and $95,000. We’ve completed seven houses since 2019.
Now I know who was tending that garden. Her name is Miss Poinsetta, and she has lived on the block since 1945, when she was 2 years old. These are real lives, not just statistics. My father was a minister, and I come from a tradition of empowering people to have dominion over their life. I’ve had that opportunity myself and want other women to have it as well.
—As told to Jennifer E. Mabry
Jennifer E. Mabry is a contributing writer who covers the arts and culture, lifestyle, and home design. Her work has been published in USA Today and The New York Times.