Words by Paige Townley
Photos by Caleb Chancey
EDUCATION CAN CHANGE LIVES, AND IT’S UNFORTUNATELY SOMETHING THAT KIDS IN DISADVANTAGED HOUSEHOLDS OFTEN DON’T GET MUCH OPPORTUNITY WITH.
But thanks to Build UP, that’s completely changing for students in Ensley, a small community in Birmingham, Alabama.
Build for Urban Prosperity (Build UP) is the country’s first—and only—workforce development program in which students acquire an education that’s career-focused while at the same time get hands-on experience through work paid apprenticeships. “Students are receiving both mentorship and guidance while also developing skills along the way,” explains Build UP Founder and CEO Mark Martin. “They also get paid, so they are learning financial literacy and budgeting at an earlier age. It exposes them to all kinds of responsibilities.”
Mark began his plans for Build UP after a long career in education. Though he started his own education planning toward a career in finance—hoping one day to be working on Wall Street—after a stint with Teach America he instead went into education, working specifically with inner city schools. As a first grade teacher in Atlanta, he spent years teaching in an extremely high poverty area. “I worked in Atlanta’s most heavily incarcerated zip code,” Mark explains. “Being an area of high poverty, there were a whole host of problems because of it, from housing issues and not enough access to healthy food to single parent households.”
One aspect of education Mark quickly learned was that in a high poverty area, the four walls of the classroom didn’t impact students enough—there needed to be more done to reach those students and positively impact their lives. With lots of frustration, Mark decided to take a step back and try to find answers to the problems. To do so, he decided to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership. “I went there thinking that I’d find all of the answers I was hoping for, but it turned out so many of my colleagues there were actually struggling with the same things,” he says.
That’s when Mark knew he had to look outside the borders of our country to find a solution, and that’s when he found it. A model some countries use for education actually relies on the private sector to help develop future workers in their fields. “It got me to see what we’re missing,” Mark adds. “We aren’t exposing young people to the world of work at an early age. There’s so much to learn beyond the four walls of a school building. The experts in the fields are best suited to prepare students for future jobs.”
With that philosophy, Mark started working on the details of Build UP, and he quickly knew where he wanted to start it—in his home state of Alabama. After being gone for 14 years, he knew this was his opportunity to come home and do something special that could make a difference. But not only did Mark settle on Alabama, he focused on Ensley, a community in Birmingham that at one time was a major player in the Magic City’s steel production. At its height, Ensley was a 40,000-resident strong, working class neighborhood, but over the years dropped to become one of the poorest, most economically challenged communities in the nation with a mere 4,500 residents. “I knew that if we could launch Build UP and be successful in a place as economically depressed as Ensley, then expanding to other cities would be easier,” Mark explains. “I knew we had to build up a community that didn’t make economic sense for anyone to be investing in.”
Mark hit the ground running, meeting with citizens in the community, not only to raise funds and create partnerships to start the program but also to listen to local citizens—“When you start by asking questions rather than coming in with answers, it opens peoples’ hearts to what you say when it’s time to speak,” he adds—and soon he had the community support and partnerships needed, especially construction companies like Brasfield & Gorrie, Hoar Construction, and a number of teams from the Greater Birmingham Association of Homebuilders. “A lot of people were willing to invest because it meets the needs of the community, not just Ensley, but the construction industry because they recognize the need for more young people in the industry,” Mark says.
With funding and partnerships in place, the program began. It all started one summer with many of the program’s soon-to-be students helping renovate an old shotgun-style 1,500-square foot house, which in the beginning served as the program’s headquarters, and by the end of that first summer, 20 students were officially enrolled into the program. Today, there are a total of 50 enrolled in the program, which students begin after they complete their 8th grade school year. In total, the year-round program lasts for six years and the goal is for the student to graduate high school with a diploma as well as an associate degree—which students can take on to a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree—and workforce training that can propel them well past an entry-level job. Students are in an academic setting approximately 30 hours per week and in a paid apprenticeship about 15 hours a week. Much of the work done through the apprenticeship is spent rebuilding homes within the community, which removes eyesores within the community and hopefully draws new residents, but Mark hopes the students will one day own the homes, whether it’s for themselves and their families to live in or to serve as rental properties as part of a business. “At the end of the day, we’re tackling the massive issues: poverty, urban flight, affordable housing, and home ownership,” Mark says. “We don’t shy away from it because it’s a pretty comprehensive program we’re putting into place to tackle it.”
To keep tackling it, Mark hopes to continue enrolling more students—the plan is to max out at 150 students—and expand into other communities. Plans are to launch a second site next year in Titusville, another Birmingham community. “What we have to do is interrupt the cycle of poverty, and if we do, not only will our kids’ lives be changed but so will their families’ lives,” Mark says. “That’s really exciting, because at the same time they are bettering their community and creating opportunities for others. That’s the coolest thing about Build UP is that it’s not about fixing anyone’s problems. It’s about empowering them and putting them into positions so they can lead.”