Build Urban Prosperity

April 1, 2020

From Ruben Morris, BuildUP Program Director

Build UP is short for Build Urban Prosperity and our goal is to help create a class where there isn’t one. The students at Build UP are the future leaders and social entrepreneurs who will make that happen.

We’re located in the neighborhood of Ensley, a community with a rich history on the west side of Birmingham. For a long time, Ensley was the industrial heart of the working class in Birmingham. It was also on the front of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

But in the decades that followed, Ensley went into decline. Many days, parts of Ensley look like a ghost town.

There is urban blight and abandoned homes. But at Build UP, we see opportunity and possibility.

Build UP is a unique high school. It is an early college workforce development program that gives kids the opportunity to earn their high school diploma, an associate’s degree and complete a paid apprenticeship to learn high-skilled, high-wage trades.

We wanted to create an educational option that gives kids a pathway to economic freedom, to end the cycle of poverty.

Build UP offers a six-year program. Most students come to us at age 14 and stay with us until they are 20 or 21.

These aren’t typical high school students. They are self-motivated, driven and interested in helping transform their community. They want to improve their own personal economic situation, but also see themselves playing a role in a larger community effort to create change.

Our students are interested in construction, both project development and management, as well as the process of actually building homes. We train them alongside industry experts, credential them and send them out into the communities.

They get hands on experience renovating homes – from top to bottom – and reviving this neighborhood.

Once they meet the core elements of our program, students become homeowners as well as graduates. They receive the deed to two properties they’ve renovated – an owner-occupied housing unit and a rental unit with a 0% interest mortgage.

I consider educational inequity to be the civil rights issue of our time. At Build UP, we’re creating equity through ownership.

A community is not about the buildings, it’s about the people. When people have an equity stake in a community, that community is transformed and good stewardship takes place.

As the Program Director, I’m what you would consider the principal, if this were a traditional school.

My job is to manage the academics and the construction side of our program, including the paid apprenticeships.

Our apprenticeship piece is woven into every single day. Students learn plumbing, HVAC, landscaping and roofing. They also learn how to design a home with an architect, sell a home with a realtor and manage a property with a property manager.

The apprenticeship gives the learning real-world value.

Our students come poised to step into leadership roles. Even at 14, 15, and 16 years old they have bold ideas and passions. Our responsibility is to just cultivate that talent.

They work hard. They’re with us most days from 7:30 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. But they always leave excited and what they do is incredible.

Just as an example, the building where Build UP was located last year was remodeled by our first cohort.

It had been abandoned for 10 years, used as a storage shed. Students gutted it, sat down with the architect and created a design plan so it could function both as a school, but could also be converted back into a rental property or a single-family home. This year, the school is located in a church that students are helping remodel. The funds from the Housing Affordability Trust allowed us to more than double our program and partner with a 100 year-old church to both renovate their amazing facility and house our program.

Build UP only works if it’s place based, so we ground every Build UP student in Ensley’s history and culture.

We want to see kids who are highly skilled social entrepreneurs who are poised to open businesses, start companies, build homes and thrive in this community for years to come.

I’m excited going to work because of our students. I get to see them grow, succeed and begin to imagine what’s possible in their lives.

Every time you get a chance to close an opportunity gap, empower a student or create an equitable environment, it’s incredibly rewarding.


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Since 2017, the Housing Affordability Trust has funded housing-related programs and projects in Metro Birmingham.