The Equity Factor

How City Leaders Aim to Break the Poverty Cycle in South Memphis

This is what happens when disparate influencers start talking and working together on a unified plan to change a community.

Photo of Marlon Foster

Rev. Marlon Foster started Green Leaf Learning Farm in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

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In South Memphis, two land tillers plant seeds just yards from an abandoned building. There’s blood in the soil where the seeds are laid. Or there used to be. The rectangle lot is just big enough for maybe a fast-food restaurant and parking lot. It used to host a few houses occupied by drug dealers, and one home where a family resided for decades. Gangs frequently had shootouts on the block, while neighborhood dealers held dogfights in the yards, pitbulls tearing each other apart for entertainment.

Rev. Marlon Foster grew up in the neighborhood, going to the church he now leads. “There were all, what we used to refer to as shotgun houses, all but one on the end, and families lived in those,” Foster said about the lots he would walk past on Sunday mornings. Shotguns are the South’s answer to the railroad apartment, narrow, with rooms leading into one another and doors on either end. As the small houses aged, families left, moving on to bigger houses in newer neighborhoods, leaving the one-room shotguns to become crowded rentals for families with few other options.

Then, in 2010, one of the drug dealer’s houses was burned down, and later in the year, the city demolished the other dealer houses. Eventually the one family sold their place to Foster. He feared that after all the drugs and blood and ashes, compassion had been closed off in the neighborhood, boarded-up like the windows of the last home standing.

Despair is not a word that Foster uses lightly. He speaks with the tact needed of a community organizer, and the steady clarity needed of a man who works with children. “I grew up with [my best friend] in this church, as choir boys. Played football, he was quarterback, I was the wide receiver.” He decided to dedicate his life to community service after another young man he had grown up with was killed in a neighborhood fight.

“ … Kid had a gun, killed him. I came out of the experience, as a 17, 18 year old beginning to value life, down to the blade of grass.”

Foster went to college in the neighborhood, at LeMoyne Owen College, a small, historically black school on a campus dotted with century-old shade trees. After graduating he returned to his childhood church with a vision to stop the bloodletting.

He started working with residents to clean up the neighborhood in 1999. But soon enough he started working with a passionate vegan who had been in the neighborhood for decades, gardening and thinking about how farming could empower the neighborhood children. Within a few months, she had sold Foster on the idea, and Green Leaf Learning Farm was born.

Gradually, a plan took shape. Young adults would work at the farm and build entrepreneurial skills by learning how to brand, market and sell the garden’s veggies to local stores and restaurants. The farm would help these young people and at the same time, put South Memphis on the map as a place for fresh food, hopefully attracting more businesses to the area.

“It started with a simple task — we said we have to do something about these overgrown lots, then we took control,” Foster said. “What you see now is really a more pro-active community, people coming along asking, ‘How can we look at our neighborhood as a whole, from an asset-minded approach?‘”

Foster’s organization is independent, connected only to his church. But its efforts are part of a larger movement reshaping Memphis in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Just 10 blocks from Green Leaf Farm sits Aretha Franklin’s childhood home. South Memphis, after all, is also known as Soulsville. The name is a nod to the record company — Stax Records — that defined southern R&B at a recording studio in the neighborhood. There, it put onto wax classics from Isaac Hayes, Booker T and MGs, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and many others. These days, community leaders like Eric Robertson, president of a local community development corporation, Community LIFT, are working to restore historic gems — and ensure leaders like Foster are part of the process.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., showcases the planting of sunflowers in a vacant lot across from street from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in the Soulsville community. The flower garden is a pilot project conceived by Memphis City Beautiful to illustrate alternatives for the use of blighted and vacant properties. (Lance Murphey)

This movement is as much about Foster on his South Memphis farm as it is about business leaders and police chiefs downtown and most crucially, it’s about all three of these disparate influencers in conversation together.

“We Couldn’t Arrest Away Crime”

Memphis has one of the highest rates of youth homicide in the nation. In the city of 655,000, murder is the second most common way to die for people between the ages of 10 and 24. Half of all murders are committed by young men under the age of 25, and half of all victims are under the age of 35, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lost lives exacerbate a sense of hopelessness rooted in the very real, very bleak fact that it is difficult to break out of your circumstances in the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

A recent landmark study of economic mobility done by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley named Memphis as one of the toughest cities in the U.S. for people born into poverty to climb the income ladder. Their Equality of Opportunity Project found that a poor child in Memphis has only a 3 percent chance of ascending the economic ladder, compared to a 35 percent chance of remaining in poverty, or a 39 percent chance of rising just a notch above. By comparison, a child growing up poor in Salt Lake City has a 12 percent chance of becoming a top earner, and in Perrytown, Texas, a 19 percent chance.

The reasons for the limited mobility are complex, having to do with legacies of slavery and racial division — and the simple (related) fact that the last major economic driver Memphis had was the mule market in the 1950s. (Prior to that, lumber and cotton drove the local economy.) Without the 20th-century industrial economies that powered the middle-class in other cities in the Rust Belt, the North and even in other parts of the South such as Birmingham, concentrations of poverty grew alongside old fortunes amassed from the city’s extractive and exploitative histories.

“Memphis’ very high poverty is not just high poverty, but is high poverty amidst a political economy where a significant group of local citizens is very much better off,” said Phyllis Betts, director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA) at the University of Memphis.

For generations, that cycle has perpetuated itself with few powerful people motivated enough to disrupt it.

In 2005, a new group of local leaders came together under the moniker Memphis Tomorrow and began talking solutions. They began chipping away at the walls between government, the business community and grassroots leaders like Foster.

That year the group created a large-scale plan first aimed at solving the region’s scarily ascendant crime problem. The action plan — Operation Safe Community — represented the first mainstream acknowledgement that the city had to rethink its approach to criminal justice. It was another collaboration that made this happen, this time with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Justice gave the University of Memphis a half-million dollars to study gang activity, work with at-risk youth and help evaluate the action plan as it developed. For a city used to treating crime as a numbers game that could be solved through traditional policing, this was a watershed moment.

“I think as we began to peel the onion, to look at how we could have a greater impact on reducing crime, we had to acknowledge that prevention strategies were the key for this next level of work,” said Memphis Shelby Crime Commissioner Michelle Fowlkes. “We really needed to start looking at the root causes. We couldn’t arrest away crime.”

The plan is a motherboard of sorts for the collaboration that’s happening across sectors, outlining different crime prevention tactics, and tapping outside agencies to assist with implementation to ensure the tactics endure longer than the plan itself.

The silo-breaking approach is a clear breakaway from the methods of the past — and a sign of a shifting culture in a tradition-bound city.

Money attracts money and by the end of 2011, the city had scored a $4.8 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The grant paid for “innovation teams” working inside the mayor’s office on targeted initiatives to reduce violence, fight blight and create jobs in three neighborhoods, including South Memphis. The next year, Memphis became one of six pilot cities for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, another program aimed at helping local governments develop better systems for combating poverty and improving public health.

In 2012, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission renewed Operation Safe Community and expanded it to 26 points.

And in 2013, the city began working with the Brookings Institution and other local stakeholders on an updated plan for economic growth. Foster too recently began working with Robertson’s community development group — Community LIFT on the citywide vision for economic development. So far, he likes it. The main benefit? Building new networks across the city.

Jessica Gossett, right, of Green Leaf Learning Farms sells locally grown produce to Tiny Gee at the South Memphis Farmer’s Market. Green Leaf is part of Knowledge Quest, a non-profit organization which offers after-school programs and a learning farm to area youth. (Lance Murphey)

It’s this kind of connectivity that many in Memphis and around the country believe could hold the key to unlocking deadly cycles of poverty.

A Smart Place

Nautyca Wilkinson has no idea that the afterschool program where she raises butterflies and plants flowers is part of a much larger strategy to transform the city where she is growing up. A brainy, articulate 12-year-old who reports that gardening is her all-time favorite activity, Wilkinson was brought to Foster’s afterschool program by her mother. “My mom said this place is really smart,” she said. “She wanted me to go somewhere really educational.”

Wilkinson’s mother was right. The Knowledge Quest wildlife club raises butterflies and swaps plants after timing how long it would take caterpillars to eat them. The math club surveys the farm and tabulates yield predictions. Picking the best crops for the soil lends for earth science lessons. It’s farming, but it’s also a STEM education curriculum. Even the flowers have educational purposes. Mums get planted to “draw the bees close.”

(Sunflowers attract bees too, and Nautyca adores them in particular. Foster says they’ve made a space for the bees, and the farm now has an apiary.)

Foster decides which crops to plant based on which will maintain and replenish the quality of the soil, but they still have their staples — greens, okra, onions, tomatoes, peppers and purple hull peas, a southern pea that Foster remembers picking as a child on his great-grandfather’s land in Mississippi, which he describes as “40 acres and a mule probably somewhere.”

After students pick the crops, they sell them at South Memphis Farmers Market, itself the work of collaboration between the Works CDC, the University of Memphis and Community LIFT, the Operation Safe Community partner whose board includes Foster.

Memphis residents visit the once-a-week South Memphis Farmer’s Market, which was created as a short term solution for food security and access for residents in the area. Many of the farmers accept food vouchers from area residents. (Lance Murphey)

The invisible line connecting Wilkinson and her beloved garden to Operation Safe Community can be understood through maps that sit on the shelf at Community LIFT’s office. The maps reflect the data gathered by the University of Memphis in its study of gang activity.

Robertson, LIFT’s president, lays a map of blighted properties over a workforce density map to show an almost perfect complement between the dark areas in the former and the light areas in the latter. He pulls up a third map, where the dark areas indicate crime density. It’s identical to the blight map. The story is told in those three maps: The areas with the least jobs are the areas with the most blight, which happen to be the areas with the most crime. Foster’s farm is reducing blight while creating jobs. If trend lines prevail, it will indirectly reduce crime.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.

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Tags: povertycrimememphisfarmers marketsbloomberg philanthropies

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