Building Up

Ensley kids are schooled in community development.   

By Max Rykov

There’s no more beautiful harbinger of hope for Birmingham’s revitalization than the sight of two dozen teenagers wielding power tools in Ensley. Those teenagers are a mighty force, the debut class of a first of its kind program in the United States that provides young people from low-income families with career-ready skills through paid apprenticeships, while simultaneously teaching corresponding schoolwork. At the end of a six-year high school program, those teenagers will be able to build, repair, maintain, and actually own previously dilapidated houses in Ensley, the very community where they live.

The school is called Build Up, the vision of its founder, Mark Martin, who’s spent the past 15 years educating children living in poverty. Martin has had an impressive career in education thus far, and recently graduated from Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership Program where he worked with Jobs for the Future and the Alabama State Department of Education on education-to-career transitions and workforce readiness.

The Build Up model is simple in its essence, but revolutionary in its application: take kids from a blighted community, teach them the construction arts (and financial literacy), provide a pathway for home ownership for houses that they themselves basically build, and watch as a community regenerates itself.

This past summer, I spent a few hours with Martin and his partner, Build Up’s program director, Ruben Morris, at their first-ever boot camp. Students were operating chainsaws, sledgehammers, and genuinely happy to be performing manual labor in June. They split their time between the house they were working on and their classroom—a model that Build Up has maintained in its first official year as a school.

The school’s headquarters are a pair of adjacent houses in Ensley,  a football field or so away from P.D. Jackson-Olin High School. I got a tour of their “campus” recently, starting with 1408 Avenue E,  a dilapidated, tax-delinquent property that Build Up had previously acquired. To its right is 1402 Avenue E, and the difference between the two houses is spectacular. 1402 is a modern home with a beautiful interior and serves as their hub for classroom work. What’s truly extraordinary about it is that it looked like the house to its left not long before, and the students themselves fixed it up. Eventually, one of the graduates of the program will own both 1402 and 1408: one for themselves and their family to live in, and the other as a rental property and a source of passive income, gaining wealth and bringing stability to their neighborhood. The way the ownership component of Build Up works is that over the course of six years the group of students who complete the program will take on a zero percent interest loan, and they will start making payments on their new home.

Martin and Morris are also in the process of solidifying paid internship programs for their students with some of the biggest companies in Birmingham, both in “blue collar” and “white collar” professions, to help them be able to make those early house payments.

Build Up’s proximity to Jackson-Olin has attracted both students and parents to this innovative program, as an alternative to the traditional schooling model that can seem disconnected from the tangible, real world they encounter every day. Honestly, if I had to do it all over again, I probably would have gone to trade school after high school, instead of college. And if I have children of my own one day, and I’m still living in Birmingham when they’re high-school aged, I’m going to try to convince Mark to let them in the program. Jews have a rich history of carpentry after all, and it would be nice to continue that tradition.

Martin and Morris have big plans for Build Up. Even in its first year, it’s easy to see the potential for growth around the city, and even the whole country. It’s a replicable model, and there is no shortage of blight to be addressed and community wealth to be built in Birmingham’s neighborhoods.

Martin’s clear and passionate manner of communicating about the program makes him a natural fundraiser. He recently returned from New York City, where he pitched Build Up to the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and other major national philanthropic organizations. Build Up has already received funding from the Walton Family Foundation (the WalMart family), and that sort of national funding is actually uncommon for organizations in Alabama.  Perhaps Martin can help change some preconceived notions, and help direct more national money to other innovative initiatives in Alabama by his example.

To find out more about Build Up, visit

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