Memphis matters.

It’s a simple, emphatic sentence that sums up the city’s ethos these days.  Memphis matters not just because we live and work here, but because it has the opportunity to be a national laboratory on urban issues.

That’s because we have some of the tough problems that confront much larger cities – gritty issues that defy simple solutions in deindustrializing cities.

But here, we have a size that is small enough to test and scale solutions and measure results more quickly, and if they succeed, they can be adapted and implemented in other cities.  While it’s always useful to see what other cities are doing, best practice information should be to inform our own unique strategies and plans rather than looking for something to copy and transplant here.

In other words, as a national laboratory, Memphis has the power to define its own best practices and be the city that other cities look to for smart answers.


These days, Memphis has a different attitude, and there’s an emerging determination to make this the city that other places want to emulate.  We wrote about this can-do attitude in a blog post last week and while media coverage often spotlights its impact in arts and culture, cuisine, and entrepreneurship, it’s worth remembering that this new spirit is also being used in neighborhoods all over Memphis to improve schools and neighborhoods and reduce poverty and improve the lives of people trapped in it.

As the first majority African-American MSA with more than a million people, there is no more appropriate goal for Memphis than to be the place where race and poverty are finally uncoupled.  No city has more motivation to create a culture of opportunity for every citizen, and no city has more seriousness, more purpose, more energy, and more promise than Memphis in its pursuit of its collective action for dramatic progress in this area.

It’s hard to think of a time in the recent history of Memphis when city government, nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, and the business community are as aligned as they are today in the belief that new answers to the city’s most intransigent problems are within reach.

The goal now is to create linkages in a “building from assets” approach in order to activate a cohesive and broad strategic agenda that results in more than incremental gains, but instead, leap frogs Memphis ahead in key economic and livability indicators.

New Ways of Doing Things

The work is well under way.

Already, Memphis has an unprecedented number of initiatives, programs, and projects that are working to improve the lives of low-income families, revitalize neighborhoods, create new pathways to college graduation, eliminate health disparities, and most of all, support, nurture, and activate grassroots leaders driving change.

In fact, these days, it’s awfully hard to think of a problem that doesn’t have multiple initiatives trying to solve it.

It’s being done by leveraging undervalued assets, emphasizing citizen engagement, and adapting, rather than copying, best practices.  It’s about engaging in calculated risk-taking to change the lives of low-income and underserved people.

It is a unique moment in time for Memphis, and by linking and leveraging these initiatives, we can change the trajectory of the city, and we do it by focusing on actions and answers.

It Can Be Done

The call to arms: Memphis is worth fighting for.

From where we sit, if we are to become a national laboratory for urban solutions, we have to fight concentrated poverty that grips one out of every three Memphians and to address the economic segregation that disconnects them from opportunity and hope.

Here’s the thing: where someone is born in Memphis largely determines the options for their future.  The number of Memphians living in this distinct geography of poverty create a “city within a city,” a geography racked by the epidemic of foreclosures, joblessness, crime, blight and a multi-generational poverty that is a birthright for two out of every five children born in Memphis today.

We know we have the power to change things for the better, because we already see promising results in other areas.  The dramatic reductions in teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and youth gun crimes prove that we can move the needle.  The community-wide commitment to testing and prototyping new concepts through tactical urbanism has gained national attention.

Diversity As Competitive Advantage

When these approaches converge with a collective push to “connect the dots” with sustainability, connectivity, livability, imagination, and civic pride, Memphis has an unrivaled opportunity for long-term impact.

Attacking these urban issues with renewed purpose and innovation, focusing on action, taking risks, and finding new solutions, Memphis can see challenges and opportunities with new eyes, keeping in mind that changing the trajectory of the lives of low-income Memphians is indeed the key to transforming the future of our city.

The U.S. will become majority minority in about 2042.  The Memphis MSA got there early.

While there are populations in many cities today that are majority minority, the Memphis metro is now an anomaly.  Things will change in the coming decades, as more metros join Memphis, but the question is how do we take advantage of our early arrival at the destination that the nation will not reach for 27 years and what can we be doing now to position ourselves as the laboratory for the American that is to come.

We’ve always known that our diversity is what makes us special.  We have a chance to prove it.


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