Empowering Communities: A Conversation With Thibault Manekin

by Aidan Kennelley

Thibault Manekin is an ardent believer in building affordable housing for citizens who support their own community. Whether that be teachers, social workers, or front line health care workers, these individuals are entitled to affordable living in the neighborhoods they serve.

Mr. Manekin got his start in philanthropy with PeacePlayers, a nonprofit organization that uses sports as a unifying force in underdeveloped countries. In his early 20s, Manekin reconnected with an old college friend over lunch, where a casual meet-up quickly turned into a passionate conversation about the notion of playing sports to bring people together. Soon after, Manekin was in post-Apartheid South Africa, organizing pickup basketball games with citizens who never would’ve spent time together prior. 

Manekin described his time in South Africa as transformative and inspiring, a period in which he realized the far-reaching effects of big ideas; what had started as an ambitious conversation over lunch had grown into a large philanthropic project. Manekin also saw firsthand the resiliency and resolve of people who had suffered from years of cultural infighting. All they needed was an excuse to start a conversation (i.e. basketball), and they could find common ground. Success lay with the people themselves.

After returning home from years of work with PeacePlayers, Manekin found himself uncertain about what his next steps would be. During a walk through inner-city Baltimore one night, Manekin had two big revelations. First, that our country is more divided than any underdeveloped or war-torn country he had worked in. Why? Because we are unable to have difficult conversations with each other. 

Second, he realized that the real estate industry plays a role in this, since it is incentivized to divide us, not bring us together. For example, practices such as redlining or the marketing of subprime mortgages have served to segregate communities and to prioritize profits over people. That night, Manekin went to dinner with his father, who had worked in real estate for many years, and proposed starting a real estate company that would work to empower regular folks and the communities they work in, rather than exploit them. 

Thus, Seawall Development was born, and Manekin set out to invest in real estate that could help transform communities. They ended up scoring a deal at an old tin can factory in Baltimore, a building that was run down and abandoned, and got right to work. From the beginning, Seawall involved those who would be living there in the design of the building — in this case, that meant local teachers, and each tenant was able to select the exact layouts and designs they wanted. 

Beyond the design itself, the very option of affordable housing meant that these teachers could live and participate in the communities where they taught. All of this was possible — it just required starting with the needs of the community, rather than the needs of investors. Success lay with the people themselves.

Seawall has since been asked to expand their work to other cities. While the group has done consulting work for similar projects in other big cities, Manekin emphasized they want to keep their work close to home, in Baltimore. The group’s most recent undertaking is reviving the Lexington Market, one of the oldest food markets in the United States. In working on this project, Manekin and Seawall have taken great care to listen to the local community about what they want their market to look like. The goal is to ensure it reflects the beautiful diversity of Baltimore when Seawall’s work is done. This project, like any part of Manekin’s life work, reflects his desire to listen to the voices in communities and to empower the players who work tirelessly to improve those communities. 

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