My next few blog posts will focus on a corporation that single-handedly transformed an entire region suffering from economic depression.

The story behind this corporation celebrates the magnificent achievement of the human spirit seen in one man’s courage to rescue a community from the economic ruin brought on by a civil war. However, first allow me to share with you the journey that led up to the discovery of this story.

The journey starts with my family’s move to Memphis from the San Francisco Bay area.  St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s powerful mission drew us to the Memphis.  At the core of the hospital’s mission is a refusal to accept that death is the inevitable outcome of childhood cancer.  In 1962 that notion was grandly naïve – today it’s a reality.

What I least anticipated was encountering an insidious disease that lurked just outside the gates of the hospital campus. Childhood poverty.  Certainly, the disease qualifies for the patron Saint’s list of hopeless causes yet it remains largely a social orphan. Where we find great hope in St. Jude for children’s cancer, in poverty we find contempt, indifference and second class citizenship . Upon cycling to work, I am witness to the ravages of the disease:  boarded-up houses, dazed men searching for their next escape, children raising children, people staring at me wondering if I was lost or crazy.

The fact that almost half of Memphis’ African-American children are living below poverty is surreal.  What if half our children had cancer? Upon comparing the statistics from the great depression to Memphis’ unemployment numbers*, one would conclude that Memphis has been frozen in a multi-decade deep economic depression.

One drop at a time

Yet, I have been encouraged to discover numerous organizations that are making major advances towards tackling this disease or at least treating its symptoms.  To name a few:  Advance Memphis, SOS, Church Health Center, Binghampton Development Corporation, Hope House, Caritas Village, Streets Ministries, MAM, Youth Villages, MIFA, Golden Child Ministries, St. Patrick’s Learning Center and the Power Center CDC. Yet with all these organizations and billions of federal dollars, the poverty statistics refuse to go away.

Economic desert

Starved from decades of jobs which could have lead to permanent transfer of wealth as Martin Luther King envisioned, a toxic reality has crept in that can be described as a perception that the poor are lazy, dysfunctional, violent and beyond hope of becoming hardworking individuals.  Welfare and incarceration statistics further affirm this perception. The brutal reality is that given the fact that we have lost 7 million jobs in the past two years, from a business standpoint there is even less incentive to invest in disadvantaged communities. With zero investment, organizations and federal dollars are locked in a perpetual state of treating the symptoms.

This disease has left me overwhelmed, a victim of crime, angry at the seeming socio-economic impotency of my own personal belief system and determined to find precedence where someone’s personal convictions translated into a major socio-economic transformation of a region ravaged by war, prejudice and economic segregation.

Precedence found!

That precedence exists and now finds its residence as a corporation founded by an ill-equipped unconventional Spanish priest who equated spirituality with bringing meaningful jobs back to his townspeople.  In the next blog his story will be told to inspire us to rethink the impossible – finding a cure for poverty.

*Consider the 38126 zip code near the Fedex Forum:  70.7% of residents are unemployed or no longer in the labor force, 58.2% of households are without a car and 47.6% of residents have less than a high school degree.