News & Opinion

She Built This City Launches Job-Training Home-Repair Program

A chat with executive director LaToya Faustin

LaToya Faustin stands in front of a She Built This City branded van with a branded t-shirt on
LaToya Faustin, executive director of She Built This City. (Photo courtesy of SBTC)

LaToya Faustin joined on with local workforce development organization She Built This City in 2019, and just months later in 2020, when founder Demi Knight Clark stepped down from her leadership position, Faustin found herself at the helm of the nonprofit in the midst of a pandemic.

The prospect may have been overwhelming for some, but Faustin has stepped up to launch a slate of innovative programming at She Built This City, which provides “industry disruptive programming” in skilled trades for youth, women and marginalized communities.

The pandemic helped emphasize the importance of her work. 

“It was definitely scary,” she told Queen City Nerve. “But as I was sitting in my home quarantined with my child, looking out my window seeing the roads still being built, it was one of those things like, I think there’s something here that is worthy of my time and attention.” 

In June 2020, Faustin launched She Built This City’s mobile programming for youth to help get them out and moving at a time when most of their days were spent in front of screens. By December, they had served 500 kids. 

Since then, Faustin has continued to innovate, this year launching a home-repair program in Pottstown, Huntersville’s oldest historically Black neighborhood, to help train women in construction trades while simultaneously curbing the risk of displacement for Pottstown residents who want to age in place. 

We caught up with Faustin in the lead-up to a celebratory mural unveiling that marked the end of the home-repair pilot to discuss her goals for She Built This City. 

Queen City Nerve: What were you up to before joining the team at She Built This City? 

LaToya Faustin: My background is in education. I was a teacher by trade and training through Teach for America, then took various avenues through nonprofit, upward-mobility work. I came to Charlotte for an organization called Citizen Schools. It’s an education-based nonprofit that was extending the learning day. My first placement school was Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. So I was there as a campus director and then also at Quail Hollow Middle School. 

From there I began to do more community development work. I left education and started focusing more on the economic mobility plight of Charlotte. I worked with a community development corporation on affordable housing efforts, and that’s where I crossed paths with She Built This City. And understanding that — and this is my personal opinion around affordable housing — it is a noble and worthy effort and Charlotte continues to focus on it as it should; however, I believe there’s only so much land available and opportunities to build these affordable units. Through workforce development, you can create economic mobility and empower communities with the tools they need to make a living wage so they can live wherever they want to. 

And so that’s sort of the spin that we take in knowing that construction is one of those spaces where you don’t need a four-year degree and you can have a very, very lucrative career in an area that does not stop. So there’s the new construction, there’s the rehabilitation work, there’s all kinds of things that make construction one of those spaces that is in high demand right now. 

A woman operates a buzz saw during workforce development training
She Built This City’s workforce development programming. (Photo courtesy of SBTC)

What was it like for you to come face to face with the disparities in construction and other similar trades as you began to work more closely with those industries?  

It was very humbling. I think any outsider could look and see, you don’t need much data to know that construction is typically seen as a male-dominated industry. And so I came to She Built This City understanding that the fight was for gender equity in the space. And Demi, who is the founder, she would invite me, and I would be in places and spaces that were more pro-women, more welcoming to women. But then I had the revelation as a woman of color, well, gender isn’t the only disparity that is here, there’s the racial disparity as well. And so realizing that not only have women been out of the conversation, really on a large scale, communities of color have been left out of the conversation too. 

And the reckoning, I guess you would say for me, with my background working with upward mobility efforts, I truly saw the trades as a change maker. Like, this is an opportunity for communities to build generational wealth, legacies for their family, and for a number of reasons, our community has been left out of that conversation. Trades were taken out of the high schools around the ’70s, so since then we have had multiple generations of individuals who have not learned a trade. And I’m talking about basic stuff to take care of your home and what that means. 

And then if you look at construction over the years, it’s been handed down through families. So even the women who were in construction are because of their husband or their brother. So, again, if you were a white family with that, passing it on, it has stayed predominantly white. So my reckoning was just looking at the history of, wow, this is a space that without a four-year degree, you can make six figures in the same time you would have been getting your college degree. But it’s often frowned upon and not given as an option to many people, and we need to change that. 

What do you think is the reason behind that? 

So there’s a few reasons. Speaking for myself, my experiences, if you look at the history of most Black wealth, you go several decades ago, many of Black town centers were built around the trades. Those were the electricians, the masons, and they were the ones who were the heart of those Black communities. They told their kids to go to college as the way out. And then what we’re seeing now, a few generations in, is those kids whose parents were trade men and women, they went the college route and they’re looking back saying, “But I can’t afford a house like Mama and Daddy did.” It’s like that generational reckoning. 

I think a generation of parents thought and we were told that college is a better path, it’s a more lucrative path. And we believed that until we’re looking at our debt right now and say, “Well, actually, no, because of this debt, I cannot buy a house. I cannot take a job of my passion to take a job that pays my bills.” And so I think a little bit of that is happening. 

She Built This City’s workforce development programming. (Photo courtesy of SBTC)

One of my pet peeves is people say that some of us go to college, and those of us who are good with our hands may go to the trades, as if using your hands is somehow disconnected from your brain and you don’t have to still think and process and problem solve with that work. And so it’s seen as if you can’t cut it here, this is your only option, whereas you can thrive in a space that does require a lot of critical thinking, on-the-spot thinking, problem solving. And so in some ways, people haven’t pursued it because it seems as if it’s like a lesser option if you can’t cut it elsewhere, which is by no means what it is, but that stigma is still there. 

I think we’re seeing that COVID opened people’s eyes about what is an essential worker, who is an essential worker? Where was the money still flowing when things that we thought were essential stopped? And so that has changed and opened the conversation a lot. 

How has your background in education shaped some of the youth programming you’ve introduced since taking over as executive director at She Built This City? 

So I would say the mission of the work, compelling and engaging disenfranchised communities whether they are women or marginalized communities into the trades speaks to me. But a lot of the foundational programming I was able to build, it was very much my education background, my nonprofit background. Education nonprofit in particular really played a role. What does it mean to build relationships? That was key to our early start as well.

She Built This City’s workforce development programming. (Photo courtesy of SBTC)

And so I’ve been fortunate to be able to help build most of the programming for She Built This City and then building relationships and bringing on staff along the way to continue to define and elevate what that work is. So youth programming being our first pillar, but then adult workforce training coming online in 2021 through pre apprenticeship and apprenticeship work with the state of North Carolina, we’ve been able to build those from scratch and so that is what we are extremely proud of. 

How did you become aware of Pottstown and begin to work in that community? 

I serve on a community board with Habitat [for Humanity] of the Greater Charlotte region. I’m on the Neighborhood Revitalization Committee. Pottstown [Heritage Group] has been one of the organizations that Habitat had worked with and had built homes in previous years in the space. And so I was individually introduced to them in that work. Organizationally as She Built This City, I was introduced to them by a symposium one of the members did around critical home repair. And so they invited Habitat, Rebuilding Together and She Built This City to a community listening session so that we could understand what the needs were. 

Learn more: One of Mecklenburg’s Oldest Black Communities Makes Itself Seen

Habitat in particular invited SBTC because of the scope of what we were doing with Critical Home Repair. Our initiative is very new and we are very centered in the fact that we are a workforce development organization. We’re not a critical home repair organization. We are a workforce development organization that trains women through critical home repair. So our timelines are different and our focus is different. It takes us a little bit longer because we’re training women, we’re teaching them onsite. And so we were invited into the conversation and introduced to Pottstown because there were needs in Pottstown that were very important to the community but smaller scope than what Habitat does. They do roofs and they do bigger projects. What if you just need your sink fixed? Where do you go for that? And so we were able to find a niche that we could actually fulfill the gap that was there in the current critical home repair space. 

And so we met the leaders of the Pottstown Heritage Group and let them know that the initiative was coming up, and they invited us in to do some home inspections. And from there, we’ve been able to work one by one with these neighbors with what their needs are, and it’s been an amazing experience. They’re our first community, but I think through this experience, we’ve developed a model of focusing on a community and then sealing that time of critical repair with a celebration, like, “We’ve done this together. Thank you for inviting us and helping us train our women through this, because this is now providing economic mobility by providing a basic need for the residents there.” So I think we’ve stumbled across something that I believe is going to be transformational for both the women that we train and the communities that we’re getting to serve through this initiative. 

Why did you put an emphasis on aging in place for this pilot program? 

When you are a senior potentially living on your own with lower resources and this is a familiar home, you’ve had this home for generations and you are overwhelmed by its upkeep, you have people calling you asking you to sell your house. It becomes one of those things where it may not be for its value and it may not be in your best interest in the long term, but because of that immediate need that you see you’re selling. And I think it’s a little predatory. 

Members of She Built This City’s critical home repair pilot program in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

I think there are things that we can do as a community, such as this aging-in-place initiative, to help people keep that asset in their family, because right now, with affordable housing, you may not find something else. It sounds good, like, “Yeah, I’m going to get $300,000 for this,” but then can you find somewhere else to live right now? And I think that’s what’s getting a lot of people stuck in a jam is that the deal may sound good, but is it really providing you with the best option for your future? And so I think initiatives such as these are helping seniors make the better choice, not the most immediate choice. It’s the better long-term choice for them and their families versus the immediate need being met by selling off. 

What role does the mural play in this community work and preserving the history of Pottstown? 

This story could be lost … these stories are being lost. And if you were to drive through there without signage, you don’t even know you’re riding through history. And so what may seem to be a small gesture is creating a monument of pride for a community that has been systematically overlooked and underappreciated. 

This is just one small step, but an important step to saying, “We have a name.” It lets your name be seen. And when you enter this community, you’re entering history. Treat it with respect. She Built This City is honored and proud to be a little piece of that for this community that has been generations in the making of their pride. We are just beyond thrilled that we could be a small piece of that by giving it the visibility for that one person that may jog by or drive by and say, “Wow.” This isn’t a new find, we’ve been here for years. 

You mentioned that you hope to have formed a model here out of what you’ve done with Pottstown. Do you have any plans or where you’ll continue this programming?

We’re going to continue to do our free job training in communities, and so we’ll have our next class coming out in January. We are starting our next community, Smithville, which is also in north Mecklenburg County, and we are looking to continue to bring these pockets of economic mobility. My dream is that She Built This City is offering free job training into a community, and in that community, Aunt Linda is in the job-training class, grandma Shirley is getting the critical home repair done, and little Johnny is in one of our summer build camps. And so it’s like a whole economic ecosystem of empowerment and upward mobility.

And so this work that we’re doing in Pottstown I believe has opened up my eyes as to like, this is what you call community-focused economic mobility, and you’re empowering the individuals of that community with the tools they need to truly be that change that they’ve been wanting to see for generations.

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