Effective leadership is about using data to tell stories.

That’s the opinion of Kip Bergstrom, former head of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council and economic development innovator.   “The right kind of story at the right time can make organizations – and cities – open to new ideas,” he said.  “Story-telling is one of the best ways to change a city.”

Memphis has its share of story-tellers, and if they are looking for data, there’s no place better to look than the 2010 Data Book by The Urban Child Institute.


The Data Book is 103 pages of provocative – and startling – statistics about the state of children in Memphis and Shelby County.  There are enough graphs and charts to keep policy wonks happy for weeks, but more to the point, the Data Book is a call to arms for Memphis to convert the rhetoric about children into real plans to improve their lives.

It’s taken The Urban Child Institute several years to package the data and refine its message in a compelling way, but the latest Data Book has impact with its talking points, arguments, and themes.  Best of all, the simple declarative sentences that highlight its pages are concrete and easy to remember: “The status of child health says a lot about the values of a community,” “Only half of Shelby County’s children are economically secure,” and “Kids fare better when their parents are educated.”

And yet, in a world with a 30-second attention spans, the Urban Child Institute has found it hard to get its ultimate message to reverberate in Memphis and Shelby County, a problem compounded by the fact that it’s about neuroscience, brain anatomy, neurons, and synapses.    Although Institute fellow, Dr. Hank Herrod, explains it in a way that never fails to connect with local organizations, it deserves a countywide audience.

Even the scientifically-challenged can grasp the dots that Dr. Herrod connects.  When babies are born, they have about all of neurons – nerve cells that form networks to process information in the brain – that they’ll ever have.  Messages are passed between neurons through synapses, which act as relay stations, and by the time children are two or three years old, their brains have up to twice as many synapses as when they are adults.

The problem is that the synapses are gradually pruned through childhood, and for children without proper nutrition, nurturing, and parenting, they are drastically pruned, affecting learning, memory, and thinking.  In other words, the first three years of life fundamentally shape the future choices of children, which underscores the relevance of the call by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell for as much attention to be given to interventions in the lives of young people as to locking them up for breaking the law.


It costs just under $34,000 a year to keep a person in the Shelby County Jail.  Intervention programs in other cities have shown proven results for about $4,500 a year per child.  The irony is that it’s next to impossible to get governments to fully fund interventions, but legislators can never seem to pour enough money into putting people in jail.

Luttrell said that the average inmate has a fifth grade comprehension.  According to the Urban Child Institute, a large reason for it takes place in the first three years of their lives.   The risk to a city where almost 40 percent of its children live in poverty, to a county where 61 percent of births are to single mothers,  and where more than 10% of babies born in Memphis are low birth rate is obvious.

According to the Urban Child Institute, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that:

  • Shelby County’s infant mortality rate dropped for the second year in a row
  • The rate of low-birth weight babies fell for the third year in a row
  • Following a steep three-year rise, the percentage of mothers received no prenatal care dropped this year

The bad news is that:

  • Births to teens and single mother continue to increase.
  • The continuing poverty of almost half of our children
  • The gap in infant mortality between black babies and white babies continued to rise

Like most things in Memphis, race has come into play with the Data Book, and there has been some push back to its research, findings, and recommendations.  Perhaps, all we need are better story-tellers.