Coalition aims to break cycle of poverty with sweeping ‘More For Memphis’ initiative – Tennessee Lookout

What would it take to break the multi-generational cycle of poverty in Memphis?

To reverse decades of race- and class-based discrimination and exploitation, disinvestment and neglect, dysfunction and despair?

To make Memphis a safer, healthier, more equitable and prosperous place with economic opportunity and justice for all for generations to come?

More.

More investment and commitment. More public and private cooperation and collaboration. More voices at the table. More confession. More vision. More time. More than what we’ve done. More than what we’re doing.

That’s the premise of More for Memphis, a well-funded coalition of dozens of local nonprofit, government, business, and neighborhood leaders who are preparing to unveil a $1.4 billion plan designed to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Memphis.

The 65-page plan, called More for Memphis, has been five years in the making. It’s the most ambitious local community development initiative since the 1979 Memphis Jobs Conference.

The plan would require an unprecedented level of public and private funding — up to $1.4 billion in the first five years, an amount double the city’s annual budget.

It would require an unprecedented level of cooperation, coordination, and collaboration among Memphis and Shelby County governments, the Memphis-Shelby County School System, local businesses, nonprofits, and neighborhoods.

It would require an unprecedented commitment to the social and economic development of the city’s most deeply distressed neighborhoods.

It also would require an unprecedented acknowledgment of how “systemic failures, biases, and a legacy of underinvestment have constricted opportunity even more for our communities of color,” as More for Memphis declares.

Systemic change, specific strategies

Economic mobility — people’s ability to improve their economic status over the course of their lifetimes — is nine times higher for white children than Black children in Memphis. Black children here are eight times more likely to live in poverty than white children.

Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, the local nonprofit overseeing the More for Memphis process.

“These racial disparities are significantly wider in Memphis than they are at the national level. The challenge to profoundly advance economic mobility for residents of Memphis and Shelby County demands ambitious changes – changes that both rectify past failure and meet demands of the future,” More for Memphis declares.

“This plan recognizes that meaningful change requires addressing not only the symptoms of economic immobility but also the systemic issues at their root. This plan sets forth a comprehensive strategy aimed at transforming the current socioeconomic conditions and breaking the cycle of racial and economic inequality in Memphis. It is a testament to the belief that the vibrant and resilient spirit of Memphis, combined with effective, equitable strategies, can usher in a future of shared prosperity.”

The More for Memphis plan contains 33 strategies — plan developers also call them interventions.

Initially, those interventions would be focused on 80,000 residents and 24,000 public school students in target neighborhoods “facing persistent poverty” in North Memphis and South Memphis. But planners say the interventions would impact the entire community.

The interventions would include adding 1,000 pre-K seats; establishing up to 50 “community schools” with school-based health centers to treat chronic trauma and other mental health issues; building 1,500 affordable housing units and repairing another 5,500; restricting predatory lenders; expanding re-entry programs and neighborhood-based violence intervention efforts; and bolstering indigent defense.

“The scale of our ambitions means More for Memphis will not wholly fulfill its mission after one year, or even five,” the plan states. “Building systems that advance liberation, sense of community, and wealth – particularly for the most marginalized – requires an integrated approach with intentional timing, coordination, and resourcing. This is generational work.”

In the coming weeks, More for Memphis leaders will be seeking formal resolutions of support for their “integrated approach” from the City Council, County Commission, and MSCS Board of Education.

They will be meeting with local businesses and philanthropies to raise $50 million in private funds to match the $50 million pledged by Blue Meridian, a national nonprofit that supports “high-performance nonprofits” that are helping people escape poverty.

They will be holding public meetings for residents of North and South Memphis.

Our government is so bifurcated now. We are program rich and systems poor. We have a lot of programs to help the poor, but our systems are designed to keep people in poverty.

– Mark Sturgis, Seedig Success

And they will be working to develop a charter, legal structure, and selection process for the More for Memphis Governance Committee, composed of elected officials, independent community leaders, and residents.

“The new governance structure will be its own intervention,” said Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, the nonprofit that has organized and overseen the More for Memphis planning process.

“Our government is so bifurcated now. We are program rich and systems poor. We have a lot of programs to help the poor, but our systems are designed to keep people in poverty. We need to dismantle those systems and build a new civic structure that is better coordinated, more efficient and equitable, more connected to the people who are living in poverty.”

A path to economic mobility for young people

The More for Memphis strategies, “aimed at transforming the current socioeconomic conditions and breaking the cycle of racial and economic inequality in Memphis,” have two primary goals over the next five years.

The first is to ensure that “10,000+ additional young people are on a path to economic mobility” over the next five years.

To reach that goal, More for Memphis has seven education initiatives that would require an estimated $500 million over the next five years. They include:

  • Improve childhood literacy rates by expanding home visitation programs, high-quality childcare centers and the number of pre-K seats, and investing in literacy coaches and tutoring services for K-3 and summer reading programs. The goal: 48% of children kindergarten-ready, and 34% of third graders reach grade-level reading in five years. Estimated cost: $173 million.
  • Adopt and expand the Community Schools model by establishing “up to 50 Community Schools” in North and South Memphis areas. “Community Schools” are neighborhood public schools that also provide services and support to families. Estimated cost: $49 million.
  • Address teacher shortages and high turnover rates by improving teacher compensation, offering relevant professional development, and providing and guaranteeing in-school time for teacher planning, collaboration, and community building. The goal: 15% increase in teacher retention across MSCS and at least 80% positive feedback from teacher satisfaction surveys. Estimated cost: $23 million.
  • Address racial disparities in school discipline by establishing non-punitive Re-Set rooms, and adding Re-Set room assistants and behavioral specialists in 50 schools. The goal: reduce out-of-school suspensions in those schools by 10% in five years. Estimated cost: $14 million.

Michelle McKissack. (Photo: MichelleForMemphis.com) Michelle McKissack. (Photo: MichelleForMemphis.com)

“More for Memphis is an investment in all of Shelby County,” said Michelle McKissack, MSCS school board member and one of several local elected officials who have been involved in the planning process. “It’s been rewarding to finally see us come together across our various entities and organizations to impact so many areas at the same time. We have to get out of our silos to improve the quality of life for all Memphians, and I believe More for Memphis will help us do it. This is of utmost importance for our youngest residents.”

The More for Memphis plan’s second goal is even bigger and broader:

“Foster a thriving community as measured by progress and reduction of disparities in economic development, arts and culture, community development, justice and safety, and health and well-being.”

The plan details a mix of 26 strategies that would require an estimated $700 million over the next five years.

Some of those strategies include:

  • Provide training and provide an investment pool to help neighborhood residents develop “missing” neighborhood businesses (for example, food stores in food deserts). Estimated cost: $23 million.
  • Reinvest in the Memphis Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build 300 affordable housing units a year for five years, complete 5,500 home repair or rehabilitation projects, demolish 500 vacant and hazardous units, and the create 400 full-time jobs in housing projects. Estimated cost: $155 million.
  • Establish “a multimodal transportation policy” that includes more frequent and efficient public transit as well as bicycle lanes, walking trails and greenways. “This aims to reform decades of discriminatory zoning and housing policies leading to patterns of white flight, disproportionate homeownership rates, and car-centric road development.” Estimated cost: $162 million.
  • Establish school-based health centers in 50 “Community Schools” with a plan to scale services to every school in MSCS, charter networks, and municipal school districts. The centers would provide health screenings, primary care physician access, maternal and infant care, mental health care, and lab work and pharmaceutical access to Medicaid- and Medicare-enrolled students and community members. Estimated cost: $71 million.
  • Pass a local ordinance that restricts the number of payday loan stores that can open and operate in specific neighborhoods and explore other non-predatory lending options such as microloans, cash assistance programs, community development (CDFI) loan services, and peer-to-peer lending. Estimated cost: $5 million.
  • Pass a local right-to-counsel ordinance for tenants who are in eviction court and provide legal representation and a rental housing counseling program. Estimated cost: $13 million.
  • Expand “credible messenger” programs such as Advance Peace to address individual trauma and its impact on neighborhood violence. The goal is to decrease gun homicides by 20 percent in Memphis in two years, and by 30 percent in five years. Estimated cost: $8 million–Establish and expand re-entry programs for wage reimbursements and housing assistance.

Phase 1 offers comprehensive in-jail programming, including job readiness and cognitive-behavioral training. Phase 2 provides up to 12 months of post-release support, addressing mental health, substance abuse, and life skills. The goal would be to reduce recidivism rates among program participants by 80%. Estimated cost: $19 million.

  • Increase funding for the Office of the Shelby County Public Defender that would include a 40 percent increase in pay for public defenders, a 25 percent decrease in public defender turnover, and a 30 percent decrease in caseloads. Estimated cost: $10 million.

“I believe this initiative has great potential to make some meaningful impact on many of our underserved communities,” said Shelby County Commissioner Charlie Caswell, a former nonprofit leader who represents the Raleigh area. “I believe they have worked in good faith to get stakeholders involved in this process. More work can be done to make sure that they are helping to work with and build the capacity of organizations who are on the ground doing the work.”

Jamilica Burke, chief strategy and impact officer for Seeding Success, will meet with North and South Memphis residents. Jamilica Burke, chief strategy and impact officer for Seeding Success, will meet with North and South Memphis residents.

The More for Memphis process began in October 2019.

Seeding Success, a local nonprofit that works to advance social and economic mobility in Memphis, was invited to join a national discussion on ending the cycle of poverty. The discussion was hosted by Blue Meridian Partners.

In early 2020, Blue Meridian met with more than 80 Memphis stakeholders including elected officials, including nonprofit and business leaders, students, parents, and philanthropists. Memphis was chosen as one of four cities to be part of Blue Meridian’s $200 million Place Matters initiative. The others are Dallas, San Antonio, and Spartanburg, S.C.

More for Memphis planning began in early 2021 with formation of a 33-member Design Committee representing various agencies, organizations, and individuals from across the community.

Over the past three years, more than 2,000 individuals and more than 300 local organizations have been involved in designing the More for Memphis strategic plan. The process was funded by a grant from the Kresge Foundation.

“We’ve gotten wiser, sharper, and a bit grayer in the process,” said Jamilica Burke, chief strategy and impact officer for Seeding Success. “But we wanted to be as inclusive and comprehensive as possible.”

The planning process was led by a 26-member governing body that included six youth and six adult community members, and the leaders of six “anchor collaboratives.”

  • Education & Youth led by Communities in Schools of Memphis.
  • Health & Well-Being led by Common Table Health Alliance.
  • Economic Development led by Collective Blueprint
  • Justice & Safety led by Stand for Children.
  • Community Development led by BLDG Memphis.
  • Culture led by Memphis Music Initiative.

Each “anchor” included several partner organizations. For example, Health & Well-Being included Legacy of Legends CDC, Shelby County Health Department, Church Health, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Baptist Memorial Health Care, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and Youth Villages.

Members of each “anchor” workgroup hosted public meetings, gathered data, and examined research to develop “targeted investment strategies that become the backbone of the community-wide improvement plan.”

“I’m most excited about the opportunity for numerous organizations, both in the public and private sector, to work toward a common and well-defined goal of economic and social mobility,” said Shelby County Commissioner Michael Whaley, who represents parts of East Memphis and Cordova. Like McKissack, Whaley was part of the planning process. “The challenges we face can only really be addressed if everyone is on the same page, and More for Memphis provides that opportunity to work together.”

City, county, and local school officials have been involved in the More for Memphis planning process.

Both mayors say they support the initiative.

“More for Memphis aligns with our vision for a safer, stronger Memphis,” said Memphis Mayor Paul Young, who was involved in the planning process when he was the city’s director of Housing and Community Development. “We are eager to work with initiatives and strategies that move our community forward.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris agrees.

“My hope is that More for Memphis will substantially elevate the economic mobility of Shelby County’s youth in the coming five years,” Harris said. “This initiative requires coordinating efforts across multiple sectors, including active participation from the public sector, non-profit organizations, and other leadership bodies. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that provides our high school graduates with the tools they need to succeed.”

In the coming weeks, Matthew McCaffrey, director of public policy for Seeding Success, will be working with local leaders to develop a charter, legal structure, and selection process for the More for Memphis Governance Committee, composed of elected officials, independent community leaders, and residents.

“The major decision-making authority of this body extends to approving the annual priorities, identifying areas for investment, and course correcting when things are not working across the plan’s focus areas,” the plan states.

The More for Memphis structure also would include an investment committee to provide financial oversight of the plan, a policy committee, a neighborhood and youth advisory board, a community data committee, and a grants office.

Full funding for the five-year plan will require ample and sustained revenue from public ($1.05 billion) and private ($420 million) sources.

Potential sources of federal funding include Head Start and Early Head Start, Full-service Community Schools, the Economic Development Administration, ARPA, HUD, and others.

Potential sources of state funding include Pre-K funding, TN All Corps, Families First (TANF), MMAG Complete Streets, and others.

Potential local sources of funding include increased property taxes or new taxes as well as a wide range of existing programs.

More for Memphis leaders acknowledge that the unprecedented and sweeping nature of the plan faces many challenges.

  • How much authority will local government leaders be willing or able to cede to a quasi-governmental entity such as the More for Memphis Governance Committee?
  • Will newly elected public officials remain committed to the plan in the years ahead, and what happens if they don’t?
  • How will new or existing programs (say Pre-K, tutoring, re-entry, home repairs) find enough qualified staff in a city already challenged to provide it?
  • What or who will provide independent analysis and verification of the plan’s efficacy and progress (especially the use of government funds)?
  • What happens if More for Memphis plans or programs conflict with local or state policies and procedures, or with local business or nonprofit programs?

“It’s complex and a bit daunting, and it’s taken us a bit longer than the other cities, but we are thinking bigger,” Sturgis said. “Our community has been struggling with economic mobility for generations. We want this to be right. We’ve got to stop trying to solve one problem at a time one organization at a time. We’ve got to stop competing for grants. We’ve got to address the root causes of economic and racial disparities and inequities in this community, and we’ve got to do it together.”


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