MLK's legacy continues to inspire education in Memphis

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - While a student at Morehouse College, the future Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in an essay, "Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."

Fifty years after his assassination in the city where he died, Memphians from all walks of life are working help their fellow citizens in the classroom and the workplace, to grow their education.

They're building opportunities to even the playing field in communities that often need it most.

In January, the Cleveland Street Flea Market closed, giving vendors only three weeks to find another outlet. Some of the vendors had been there for 20 years.

Interior designer Annie Yates believed their departure left a hole in the community. She co-founded the new Cleveland Street Bazaar, a business incubator for start-ups in the area between Midtown and Downtown Memphis.

Yates came up with the idea for a business incubator after the closure of the Cleveland Street Flea Market in January.

"I think that the community itself really needed to have some small business," Yates said. "If your community is not doing well, you're not doing well."

Enter Vonesha Mitchell with the Memphis Medical District Collaborative.

The Collaborative is working with Yates to create retail incubation opportunities for first time entrepreneurs--even those with established businesses--among local, minority, and women-owned ventures.

"They're going to get business support where they are able to find out if they're doing their marketing appropriately, do they need to do some business planning, or is there a co-starter's course," Mitchell said.

"There's something about helping people be able to help themselves," she said

And the incubator is open to everyone in Memphis.

"We have no age barrier, no color barrier, no size barrier. It's whoever that chooses us. If they have a viable business that we feel that we can help and make grow, that's the requirement," Yates said.

Sandra Giles is part of the first group of 13 vendors in the new space. Giles is the founder of Creations Just for You, a greeting card and T-shirt company she started in the trunk of her car.

"I created everything myself. That's why I'm so excited. Now people can have my gift."

Giles said opportunities like this are game changers for communities.

"It'll be a legacy for my children and me."

Steve Nash is in the opportunity business in South Memphis. Nash is Executive Director of Advance Memphis, a non-profit agency serving adults in the neighborhoods of 38126 and 38106.

Through faith-based curriculum, the students here--who Nash calls neighbors and friends--learn interview and job skills, financial literacy, and entrepreneurial awareness.

The 24,000 sq. ft. warehouse provides work opportunities--everything from assembly and packaging to farm-to-table food services inside a commercial kitchen. There's even a class on forklift certification.

Photos of recent GED graduates on Nash's office wall shows people who worked hard to get an education.

"It represents an incredible amount of hard work and I think it represents a contrast to the narrative we get told a lot about South Memphis, and that's this is an environment, a place that you don't want to go, and yet these are some incredibly hard-working men and women," he said.

Cindy Chapple came through Advance Memphis almost a decade ago. She was a recovering addict when she started at the program and hadn't held a job in 20 years. Now she works alongside Nash.

"He's just been a great example to me. And he makes me want to aspire to be a good employee," she said.

Nash, who created Advance Memphis 18 years ago, gets emotional when talking about about the leap of faith he made in leaving behind a sales career to create careers for others with the help of dozens of volunteers and partners.

"It's humbling. The fact that people have listened. They've prayed. They've given money. They've given time. It's overwhelming," he said.

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Work-force development is part of Deidre Malone's mission as President of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP.

"I guess the older I get I realize one of my purposes is to help women and minorities learn what I know," she said.

According to the U.S. Census, African Americans make up 63 percent of the population in Memphis.

Yet, the last small business census shows minority-owned businesses make up less than 1 percent of its economic engine, even though more than half of small businesses in Memphis are owned by African Americans.

"Economic sustainability is important but you can't just go spend your money 100 percent of the time in other folks' communities. You have to support African American and minority owned businesses," Mitchell said.

Yate's incubator, the work Advance Memphis is doing in 38126, and the Memphis Medical District Collaborative all represent the kind of re-investment programs Malone has long championed.

"It starts with education. If we fix our school system and work with our parents to get them to understand that you have opportunities for growth--and your children are watching you--then I think that goes a long way," Malone said.

Dorsey Hopson is Superintendent of Shelby County Schools–Tennessee's largest school district, with more than 111,000 students.

He sees the link first-hand between education and long-term financial success.

"I think education is the great equalizer," he said. "There's a lot to be excited about but there's a lot of work we need to do particularly around economic equality and educational equality."

Though African American high school graduation rates and white collar jobs have risen in the five decades since King's assassination, wages for African Americans in Memphis have not.

"Just in our school system we have about 40,000 kids who live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year, and many of those kids' parents actually work for the district," he said. "If you work all day, you shouldn't be poor," Hopson said.

To chip away at those numbers, Shelby County Schools has submitted a plan to increase pay for full-time employees to at least $15 an hour. 

Shante Avant, chair of the Shelby County Schools Board of Education, said it's a step in the right direction.

"We may take for granted what it means to have a 30-cent increase or a $1 increase, or a $2 increase, but for folks that are living at or below the poverty line, it means a lot," she said. "When we support them, we're supporting the economic growth and development of our city."

Each approach is different, but the goal is the same as the one King was fighting for when he died 50 years ago: to even the playing field by increasing pay, strengthening financial literacy, creating new job opportunities, and helping your fellow man.

Fifty years later, the work toward King's education ideal continues.

"I hope 25 years from now we won't still be having this same conversation," Malone said.

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