It’s always good to get out of Memphis.

There’s nothing like some distance to help with an accurate perspective of our hometown.

We’ve been working out of town this week, and when this happens, times, it’s always surprising to us – not to mention, satisfying – how often we bring up a Memphis program or organization as an example of how cities do things right.

Talking to several African-Americans in a city about half the size of Memphis, we listen as they vent their frustration about leaders who jealously guard their turf, how they want to have a more direct voice in public and community decisions and how they want inspire a new conversation on issues that’s free from the old divisions and hostilities. We tell them about New Path and the determined, young people who, although spurned by many entrenched interests, remained undeterred by early defeats and is now exercising growing influence in local campaigns.

Poor Kids And Poor Teachers

In another meeting, the subject turns to the way that the school district assigns the most poorly qualified teachers to the poorest schools, embedding low performance as an inevitability. We tell them about The New Teacher Project – which is proving that the most highly qualified teachers can be recruited to challenging urban schools.

Using better marketing, improving HR processes and leveraging its experience in other cities, The New Teacher Project has recruited applicants whose GPA is 10 percent higher, quadrupled the number of applicants with master’s degrees and dramatically increased the number of experienced teachers. (There is rumbling within Memphis City Schools that the Johnson Administration intends to bring The New Teacher Project to an end, and if that is done, it would be a serious error in judgment.)

In a conversation about engaging bright, young students into the life of the city, we tell about the CODA program at Rhodes College. In an economy where creativity is the currency for success, these kinds of students should not only be targets for recruitment here, but their work using arts and culture as the vehicle for addressing problems enriches the fabric of our city, whether we ultimately succeed in keeping them here or not.

To a group concerned about the impact of health on children’s abilities to learn and the working poor’s ability to succeed, we tell about the Church Health Center, its impressive cadre of doctors volunteering their time and the unique safety net provided to thousands and the balance on curing and caring.

Innovation Teflon

Some other people are concerned that the school district isn’t accountable and is innovation-resistant. We suggest that they investigate the creation of a LEF (local education fund) like PIPE to serve as the independent third party that can trigger change, give parents information they can use and create indicators for success. We tell about the Report Card for Parents, the EASEE website that is becoming a national model and the definitive reports on issues like dropouts.

Talking about the need for new thinking on civic problems and the need to challenge conventional wisdom, we tell about the retooled Leadership Memphis and the scenarios for Memphis that are being written by its classes. The scenarios aren’t as much about predicting the future as imagining a future possibilities in imaginative ways. Culminating a year of exploration about great cities and how Memphis can become one, the scenarios produce unexpected strategies and a new understanding of how Memphis fits into the global competitive environment.

In a discussion about ways to create a green ethos, we tell about the way that Greening Greater Memphis is trying to start a movement and how its plans to create a network of parks, greenways, biking and hiking paths, and canoeing means that Memphis gets something that’s much more than the sum of its parts.

Home Run

Faced with the opportunity to build an amateur ballpark in their downtown, people are concerned about squandering the opportunity for an investment of this size. We tell them about Autozone Park and about the nonprofit foundation that owns the stadium and the team. It’s a story that never fails to make listeners shake their heads in disbelief.

But the story doesn’t end there. We tell how the philosophy for the ballfield wasn’t just about project building but placemaking, explaining how it was located in a thoughtful way so that it created a connective tissue for the area, a tissue further strengthened by the surgical siting of the FedEx Forum so it creates a texture for the downtown entertainment district unimaginable only a few years ago.

In a meeting where people were looking for ways to improve public spaces, we tell about the UrbanArt Commission and its success in installing artwork in places ranging from police precincts and schools to Tom Lee Park and the Cannon Center. On other occasions, we tell about, and how it dynamites the recording industry’s plantation mentality and connects artists directly with their audiences. We tell about Lantana Projects and its work to enliven the Memphis scene with provocative arts exhibitions and events. We tell about religious leaders who fight the anti-intellectualism and the exclusionary rhetoric and work to health the city.


We tell about so much more, and while we also point out events and actions in other cities that are triggers for progress and economic growth, some with which we were involved and others spotlighted in Smart City broadcasts, it occurs to us that more than half of our examples originate in our own hometown. It’s not just a point of civic pride, but an example of our ability to persevere, to act as social entrepreneurs and to respond to our addiction to this place, warts and all.

Most of all, the conversations remind us that while we often talk in terms of programs, projects and organizations, the backbone of Memphis are some remarkable people who champion breakthrough approaches that are indeed national models. In our stories, we weave in their names and describe their gifts – Cardell Orren, Eric Robertson, Darrell Cobbins, Pitt Hyde, Frank Ricks, Ethele Hilliard, Dean Jernigan, Victoria Van Cleef, Teresa Sloyan, Kristi Jernigan, Tim Sharp, Carissa Hussong, Joe Royer, Micah Greenstein, Elizabeth Lemmonds, Steve Montgomery, Frank McRae, Benny Lendermon, Laura Adams, Keith Kirkland, Bob Schreiber and Christopher Reyes.

So, we return home proud and hopeful that our city can shake the civic lethargy that so often grips us and the obsession with best practices that limits our possibilities. But, we think, on balance, we must be doing something right, because it seems like so many of our conversations about how cities are addressing their problems center on Memphis.

So, we shake feelings that lead us on some days to question why we remain here and we drive down Belvedere. Its flowering trees hug the car in a tent of color and the yards are filled with colorful flourishes from dogwoods and flowers. We smile to ourselves, reminded once again why we love this city so much. We also realize that if you don’t love Memphis in the spring, you just need to pack up and move.