Michael Woods stands on the sidewalk directly in front of an abandoned, burned-out duplex in North St. Louis’s Hyde Park neighborhood, giving his crew a pep-talk as if they are headed into a big game. His team – a group of five high-school aged kids dressed in jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers and matching orange and yellow construction vests – are indeed going into a physically and emotionally demanding situation where the stakes are not just high, but have the potential to change the course of these kids’ lives. He needs to make sure they understand what they are getting themselves into. Now, however, he’s focused on one young woman’s ill-fitting vest.
“These are supposed to be your brothers, and they’re going to let you go around looking like this?” Woods laughs as he adjusts the closures and untucks the back fabric from one of the armholes, getting her all straightened out. “There you go. Now you’re good.”
For Woods, making sure the kids that go through Dream Builders 4 Equity are prepared to go about their lives goes far beyond straightening up a work uniform. When he and his business partner, Neal Richardson, founded the organization in 2017, they recognized they had a chance to have a meaningful impact on at-risk youth by empowering them with the skills to set a course for their lives. Through a combination of mentorship, entrepreneurship, scholarship and leadership training, Dream Builders 4 Equity hopes to empower its participants to see the potential in themselves and in their neighborhoods, thereby effecting change both at the individual and community levels.
In retrospect, Richardson and Woods seemed destined for this work. Richardson, Vice-President & Director of Business Impact Group for U.S. Bank, has spent the past fifteen years in real estate, finance and community development, working to build up under-resourced communities. Coupled with Woods’ background in real estate, entrepreneurship, writing and mentoring, the longtime acquaintances realized they had the know-how to make meaningful change in their communities. They also had the drive to do so; both men acknowledged the difficult path they had to get to where they are in their careers and wanted to use what they’d learned to make things a little easier for those coming up today.
“We were feeling that our success was great, but how do we give that to younger people at an earlier age?” Woods says. “We had to bump our heads so many times to get to where we are today. How can we provide these services to a sixteen or seventeen-year-old youth? What we actually did is take our lived experiences and bottle it up into a program called Dream Builders 4 Equity.”
Dream Builders 4 Equity is a nonprofit that aims to give youth from underserved communities the tools they need to escape poverty in the form of job skills, personal development training and wealth accumulation. The organization does this through a three-prong approach that includes a summer youth academy, a real estate program and a book publishing program. The operation centers around skill-building through real estate development and construction wherein participants get on-the-job paid training in the industry from minority contractors through rehabbing homes in North St. Louis City.
However, the students do not simply walk away with the skills and a paycheck. Equity earned from the sales of these homes go back to students in the form of scholarships, which gives them a stake in the outcome. As Richardson explains, it’s a big-picture approach that builds both monetary and social investment in the people and the communities that need it.
“It’s really a holistic program that’s provided for our students to be ready for the jobs of the future, but also, it creates opportunities for them to impact the community,” Richardson says. “When we show up to a neighborhood, we don’t come from a place of, ‘this is what we want for this community.’ We really believe in economic and equitable development principles of centering the community’s voices and elevating those voices in order to achieve their desires and their dreams. We listen, we learn, we partner with the community organizations. We work with the youth that we’ve already trained and developed, and we go out into those communities to make a difference and make an impact.”
Both Richardson and Woods recognized that North City’s disinvestment problems are not just about property values; they’re about disinvestment in people and communities. By rehabilitating properties – and empowering the communities’ youth in the process – they hope to change the narrative about the area. If people see real investment happening, it builds momentum for more investment and generates excitement.
Hyde Park is their test case. The North City neighborhood, centered around the storefronts of Salisbury Street, is characterized by stunning, three-story brick buildings that rival in their splendor the manses of Benton Park and Lafayette Square. However, unlike those South City jewels, much of the area sits in disrepair, the product of decades of disinvestment that Richardson and Woods hope to turn around. Over the next five years, Dream Builders 4 Equity, in partnership with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, is executing a $5 million community development plan, investing in 25 homes that they will rehab for first-time home-buyers; 25 home renovations for seniors; a chess park; a daycare center and a 6,000 square-foot building they plan to turn into an educational hub and the center of their operations.
“It all ties into what the community wants and what they need,” Woods says. “Again, we’re hiring the young people from the community. We’re also engaging the contractors from the community. And then we’re also making sure that each community member has a say on what happens and how it happens, so we’re not doing a development to them, we’re doing a development with them.”
Richardson and Woods believe Dream Builders 4 Equity’s comprehensive and community-centered approach has the potential to not only change Hyde Park; it has the potential to transform similar communities throughout St. Louis and beyond. This is why they are being intentional about every facet of the organization – they feel a responsibility to get it exactly right so that they can build on what they create in Hyde Park as a model for the future of community development.
“It’s a ripple effect, ultimately, that we’re aiming to drive,” Richardson says. “We really believe that we’re building something very special because of the compounding impact that this program will have generation after generation. And it’s not just focused on St. Louis, but we want to have a great story about how St. Louis created the model that changed the world.”