How Do We Change Memphis? 

10 Memphians have ideas about how the city can fix its problems and prepare for the future.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen, and Superintendent of Memphis City Schools Kriner Cash

Justin Fox Burks

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen, and Superintendent of Memphis City Schools Kriner Cash

If given the opportunity to permanently change some of the things that negatively impact Memphis, what would you do and why?

We asked 10 influential Memphians to share their thoughts with the Flyer on that subject. Each highlighted problems they believed took away from Memphis' prosperity and prospects for the future and what they would do to help rectify them.

The Memphis City Schools system, Delta flight fares, limited facilities and opportunities for youth, poverty, and the perception that the city is an undesirable place to live were among the issues pinpointed.

Some responses were similar, but all centered on making the city better for current residents and building opportunities for those who will live here in the future.

Memphis mayor A C Wharton Jr.
One thing I would change centers around a subject that essentially influences and impacts the issues of schools, crime, and economic development. This issue is early childhood education. My wish would be that every child receives a quality pre-K education. Over and over again, studies have confirmed how truly invaluable an investment it is in the short term and long term.

I would also add resources that allow us to more fully provide training to citizens for the jobs and career opportunities of today and tomorrow. This training can be as innovative as preparing workers to operate new technology at local businesses or as traditional as giving teachers the tools they need in the classroom. I am definitely of the mindset that if we build it, they will come. By this, I mean if we build a better, more educated, more technologically savvy workforce, then the jobs will come.

Lastly, Memphis is a great city with an amazing legacy. The world has been made brighter through the gifts of our music, our innovation, our compassion, and our soul. I have heard any number of compliments from visitors to our city who are amazed by our world-class attractions and the richness of our story.

What pains me, however, is to hear those who overlook the totality of our history, our progress, and our people and define Memphis solely based on the challenges that we face. We are no less great a city because of our challenges. In fact, part of what makes us great are the legions of individuals and organizations united in the purpose of working to improve the conditions of our community.

Ninth District congressman Steve Cohen
I think consolidation of government would be an important tool for planning and attracting industry — to have one voice. It would also provide simplicity for businesses dealing with local government.

I think making the city more friendly to young African-Americans is very important. There should be some office in the city — maybe a part of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau — that focuses on, improves, and publicizes opportunities for people — particularly African-Americans — to have an outlet for entertainment and culture. I think we've done some of that through the Brooks [Museum of Art] and Hattiloo Theatre, but we need more of it, so people will feel good about Memphis, rather than Atlanta [or other areas], as a place to live.

It's important that the University of Memphis gets its own regency or some self-rule without losing funding from Nashville. Its funding has been tied up in rules and a lot of decision-making by the board of regents statewide. The university should have its own local board in charge of hiring, employment decisions, and planning. This would improve the university's ability to raise funds.

It would be great if we could have another domestic carrier come in and give some lower airfares to Memphis, so local residents wouldn't have to go to Little Rock or Nashville to get cheaper fares. Delta's fares are outrageously high. [Through doing this], businesses and conventions would more likely be attracted to the city.

Superintendent of Memphis City Schools Kriner Cash
Although Memphis consistently ranks as one of the most generous cities in the United States, thousands of people in Memphis seem unconcerned that we have neighbors living in poverty, without educational opportunities, or really much hope for a future that is different from their current situation. One of my actionable leadership mantras is that "Teamwork makes the dream work." The only way a dream of justice in our community can work is for all of us to work as a team to provide all children the very best educational opportunities.

Reversing the path to corrections: Like many jurisdictions, Memphis is quick to condemn juvenile offenders to a life of criminal behavior with a hair-trigger approach toward what I call "arrest and suppress." Working together with Judge [Curtis] Person, we have made great strides to change the corrections culture, but much more work remains to be done before jail cells are rejected as an appropriate place for young people, especially young African-American males.

A permanent change that would totally transform Memphis into a city of choice would be to instill the love of reading into every member of the community. It simultaneously broke and warmed my heart to see juvenile offenders locked up as a direct result of their illiteracy, imploring me to do more to help them learn how to read. Literacy excellence breaks down barriers and opens unlimited worlds of opportunities.

Finally, I would permanently change our community's approach to health and wellness. The health-care claims we see in Memphis City Schools for employees dealing with the resulting impacts of diabetes and high blood pressure boggle the mind and strain our budgets. Memphis food is delicious, but it is a recipe for the health problems that choke our hospitals and clinics. For each minute we spend on the cell phone each day, we should commit equal time to walking, riding bicycles, exercising, and spending quality face time with our children, family, and friends.

University of Memphis president Shirley Raines
First, I would permanently change the opportunities for Memphis students to attend college. College and other educational opportunities exist when there are resources from families, communities, or employers providing sufficient scholarships for every capable person desiring to go to college, whether beginning freshmen, transfers from Southwest Tennessee Community College, nontraditional or mid-career individuals. In addition, the students would have the educational backgrounds, motivation, and persistence to achieve a college degree. [By doing this], we could change the future of thousands of families, our economy, and our society. 

Second, I would permanently change people's perceptions of the abilities of Memphis students, including those at the University of Memphis. While we have the largest honors program in the state of Tennessee, the city and the university are not perceived as having this caliber of student, yet the perceptions of us from outside of Memphis, and even globally, are very strong. 

Third, I would permanently change people's knowledge and attitudes about Memphis as a place to live and enjoy life. From the wide variety of music to the athletics, from the best barbecue to the finest dining, from the local theaters to the next touring troupe of Broadway plays, from the local artists' festivals to the world-class art exhibits in our museums, there is much to enjoy about Memphis.

Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting, a firm that focuses on public policy and communications
Pay now rather than pay later. There's always the political will to pay more for jails and cells. There is no resistance to spending $24,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, but there's never been the political coalition willing to spend one-fourth of that for the interventions that give at-risk children fair starts in life and better options for their futures.

Balanced budgets: It's not about balancing revenues and expenditures but about taking a balanced approach to Memphis services. Collecting every dollar of property taxes and sales taxes still leaves the city about $8 million short when it comes to funding the budgets of police and fire. The same attention given to public safety is needed when it comes to the conditions and quality of libraries, community centers, and parks and to quality-of-life investments that create neighborhoods of choice.

If I could, I would wage an all-out war on Memphis' most malignant problem: poverty. Memphis has more people living in poverty than the population of Knoxville, and 65,000 of them are children. Poverty erodes our competitiveness, takes money out of our cash registers, and reduces the most important capital a city can have in today's economy — human capital.

I would also fix the crisis at Memphis International Airport. At a time when cities' success comes from easy connectivity to the global economy, our businesses have to clear the hurdle of the nation's highest airfares, draining about $1 billion a year out of our community, when compared to our peer cities.

Memphis city councilman Lee Harris
If I had omnipotent powers, I would transport every Memphian to another big city, where they can witness the potholes, persistent crime, high fees, bad traffic, and political bickering. They would come back changed, and we might put an end to some of the bad-mouthing that goes on. They would know that Memphis is a great city, our streets are fine, taxes are coming down, and our politicians are (in most cases) good folks trying to move the city forward.

 I'd like to see city government get serious about Memphians. We need to figure out a way to spend our tax dollars and our time on things that make a difference in the lives of Memphians. Our community centers, senior centers, parks, and pools should be open and ready for business. These are things that people will notice, but sometimes these issues barely rate in the government and media.

Finally, the in-fighting between Memphis and its sister cities is short-sighted. Right now, we're trying to out-maneuver some of the suburban municipalities on the sales tax, and we're suing them to try to stop the inevitable formation of suburban school districts. The litigation between the Memphis City Council (a body that, mind you, has no formal role in schools whatsoever), the Shelby County Commission, and the suburban municipalities involves more than 20 lawyers and will easily cost more than $2 million. If I had my druthers, I'd put a stop to that.

Richard Thompson, founder of the online media publication
If I could change anything, I would change our worldview on poverty. It is a significant and sizable issue here, considering that 25.7 percent [of residents] live at or below the poverty level. However, we tend to forget that we enabled the degradation of some communities when we didn't fill the gaps left by businesses and other institutions that abandoned these markets over time. We wrongly assume that the impoverished are inherent criminals and have no morals. We tend to argue that the impoverished exist because of their own desire to live on government entitlements and so forth. We also tend to assign blame to them when we inanely refer to ourselves as the "poorest city in America." In many instances, the poor work. They just don't earn enough. They fall prey to the criminal justice system and don't have the resources to break its cycle.

The dominant media narratives are crime, government, sports, and education. Yes, each is important, but their dominance skews what's real about Memphis. If I could change anything, it would be allocation of resources to provide more in-depth and nuanced coverage of the daily lives of Memphians. 

Lastly, there are a number of programs that exist to incorporate youths into the lifeblood of the city. If I could change anything, I would give these groups more exposure so we can take a greater communal responsibility in the development of [our] future generation of leaders.

Mike Conley, starting point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies
One thing I would like to change is crime, because I know it's heavy in this city.

I also think trying to get better education throughout the city of Memphis and all of the schools and ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity [is important].

Homelessness would be the third thing I would change. People not having jobs, people not having the opportunity to support their families and support themselves, however we can do that, I would like to see that changed.

Skewby, a Memphis-based hip-hop artist and producer
One thing I would like to see change in Memphis is the amount of segregation. Growing up as a mixed kid, it was very clear to me that invisible lines were drawn in the city. No matter your race, you can still walk into sections of Memphis and feel uncomfortable based on the color of your skin. You can walk into churches, schools, malls, and events and literally see the divide.

I want to see more things for young people to do in Memphis. Places like Liberty Land, Celebration Station, and Discovery Zone are long gone. Guns, gangs, sex, and violence are already a reality for most kids. Throw mass boredom into the equation and it definitely doesn't help.

The school system: I served my 12 years in the prison also known as Memphis City Schools. Okay, maybe I'm going overboard, but it was definitely not a pleasant experience. I mention prisons because of the amount of security, the fear that the administration had of us, and the lack of care that was shown. I can count on one hand every teacher that cared about my future, had patience with me, and were sincerely concerned about my education. I know that the school system's troubles are deeper than bad teachers, financial woes, and bad programs. I'm just speaking from a student's standpoint and also as a person who wants to raise a child in Memphis.

When someone hears the word "Memphis," they automatically think of good food and good music. I would love to see more of a music industry in Memphis. There aren't many record labels, blogs, or magazines covering what's happening in our music scene. There's so much talent here, and it amazes me that there still isn't anything that connects it all. You have people who play instruments, singers, rappers, engineers, promoters, and it's all just scattered around. People have always complained about the amount of talent that leaves. It's up to us to keep it here.

Brad Watkins, organizing director for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center
I would really like to see some serious reforms of our local criminal justice system. This would start with ending our morally dubious practice of allowing bank-hired process servers to perform home evictions due to foreclosure. Currently, the Shelby County Sheriff's Department only performs about one-third of the home evictions in our community. Bank-hired security agents arrive at people's homes, dressed in garb that can be confused for law enforcement uniforms, and remove people and their property from their homes with little accountability or community oversight for their behavior or conduct during these proceedings.

We also need to establish local minimum standards of staff training, professional ethics, and living conditions, including a timetable for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in our homeless shelters, and stricter standards of professional conduct of the many private nonprofit residential detention centers for juvenile offenders. Neither of these industries has anything in the way of real community oversight or accountability in instances of abuse and sexual harassment of residents.

Creating a jobs-growth fund and mandating that a set percentage of all publicly funded construction and demolition contracts have set-aside jobs for those experiencing homelessness, graduates of the Shelby County Drug Court, and ex-offenders. This would be paired with counseling and life-skill training to help these individuals set up bank accounts, find housing, and reconnect them with their families to handle contentious child-support issues in a process of mediation.

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