Design Changemakers 2023: Shelley Halstead Combines Her Passions for Carpentry and Advocacy in West Baltimore
Who: Shelley Halstead, founder of Black Women Build – Baltimore
Where to follow: Instagram @blackwomenbuild
Shelley Halstead cites a cat named Boy as her agent of fortune. Boy’s passing in March 2015 inspired a fresh start in a new city for the carpenter-turned-corporate-attorney, who was then living in Washington. D.C. Since she was licensed to practice law in neighboring Maryland, Halstead checked out West Baltimore, located “just down the street.” In the city’s crumbling landscape of once-stately, early-1900s brick rowhouses, Halstead recognized a chance to blend her veteran expertise in carpentry (a vocation that, for more than 20 years, brought her around the globe — even to Antarctica, where she worked at a science station) with her passion for advocacy, particularly around reproductive rights.
In September 2017, Halstead moved to West Baltimore, and a month later, she launched Black Women Build – Baltimore (BWBB), a community development nonprofit. BWBB teaches Black women home maintenance skills like painting, setting tile, and installing windows on actual home renovation sites. The holistic program also provides financial education — topics include budgeting, debt management, and tax planning — so that BWBB participants can buy the homes they’ve helped to rebuild. By design, this win-win objective mirrors a core value of reproductive justice. “People should have choices and be able to make those choices without fear,” says Halstead. “In history, Black women were enslaved. So absolutely no one will tell me what I can and can’t do. That extends to everyone else. That’s where I’m coming from.”
BWBB purchases the ruins of old houses from the city for reconstructions. Since its inception, the organization has rehabbed and sold seven homes to program graduates whose mortgages average $600 to $800 per month. Eight more houses are currently under construction, and 17 additional tumbledowns are awaiting their glow-up. What’s more, through her side hustle, a private contracting business similarly called Black Women Build, Halstead is transforming two blighted buildings into social “third places” like a cafe and an art gallery.
“I want to bring people back to the neighborhood,” says Halstead, harking back to a bygone era when late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and legendary jazz musician Cab Calloway proudly called West Baltimore home. “I’m not being completely altruistic,” she adds. “I live in the community in which I’m working, and I want to help it thrive.” Aside from wrangling cats, Halstead admits, there’s nothing else she’d rather do.
Apartment Therapy: What makes you feel at home in your own space?
SH: My cats. I mean, I’m a cat lady, so I pick up a lot of cats, get them spayed or neutered, and find them homes. Right now I have three cats.
AT: What’s your current design inspiration?
SH: In some ways, it’s uniformity. Bringing these old rowhouses back, but better. Or restoration, but modern. I’m building these artists’ lofts and a cafe, so there are a lot of commercial spaces in these old buildings, and I will be really trying to bring out the best of what’s left.
AT: How would you describe your work or style?
SH: It’s intense and honest. I love old things, but I also love clean lines. So I try to apply some streamlined-ness to aging structures that have all of this action happening. Like the rosettes carved into the wooden cornices, which is the decorative part under the roof that people might just gloss over, but still showed a certain socioeconomic class. Plus, repairing and restoring these, I got to use our articulating boom lift, our first piece of machinery!
AT: What part of your work do you enjoy most?
SH: The sense of pride. I really love being able to step back and say, ‘I did that and it is beautiful.’ But really it’s when the participant buys the house. I bought my first house when I was 30 years old. I had been living in Seattle, but moved to Oregon, where I could afford to buy a house. That was the best decision. Learning how to take care of it has really allowed me to grow. I just want people to own their own homes because, in the U.S., that’s really how we enter the middle class.
AT: How do carpentry and law inform each other?
SH: I mean, they’re both about problem-solving — looking at a situation and figuring out how best to address it. So for me, going into law made sense. I don’t know if everybody would have thought to bring these two vocations together. People have told me, ‘You have to stick to one thing.’ But that’s not in the spirit of reproductive justice, which takes into account all the different ways of being. In my case, being a Black woman, a queer woman, a nonconventional working carpenter, and a lawyer. All those things act on how I move in the world. They say, ‘You’re doing too much.’ And I say, ‘But that’s what’s needed.’
AT: What do you think you’re doing to impact the field you’re in?
SH: Just showing that this work is possible. Whether it’s trade work, whether it’s development, whether it’s just having, I don’t know, a sense of purpose. If you can have a sense of purpose, then you can actualize it. The thing is, some people don’t see value in what we do because they can’t believe that people want to live in West Baltimore. They can’t imagine themselves living there. But people are living there and have been living there. I didn’t ‘discover’ West Baltimore. It just needed a little love and a little vision.
AT: What makes you feel successful?
SH: That’s difficult, because I’m not very celebratory. There’s always more to do, and I get things done. It’s not hype. I actually do what I say I’m going to do. Success is finishing a project and having it be used in the way it’s intended. So like building a house and having someone move into it. Taking these buildings that have been empty for decades and starting work on them. Honestly, that’s success because people say they should be scrapped. And I’m just like, ‘Nope, they don’t have to be.’ Success is saving these buildings.
Interview has been edited and condensed.