Breaking bread: Applied anthropology meets local journalism

Confession time  — I am not a journalist. I romanticized writing, always loved English class and won a literary award in college, but I love applied anthropology more.

Anthropology is the study of humans and cultures. Applied anthropology is using what you’ve learned to address real world problems.

Luckily for me, High Ground’s On the Ground reporting is unique. My job as the section's editor is to craft a narrative through deep community engagement across four months of embedded journalism and to maintain relationships and coverage long after. We focus on neighborhoods where residents feel underrepresented or negatively reflected in traditional media. The process looks a lot like practicing anthropology - research and engage, listen and observe, record and report then hope what you share can live as a tool for community members and policymakers to affect positive change.

That said, I trained for six years with the University of Memphis’ Department of Anthropology and learned only two set-in-stone facts: if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen and there are very few things that are universally true of all people and cultures.

Food is one of those few things that spans our species.

All cultures have special or sacred foods and rituals that center food, and all cultures use food as a tool to nourish community bonds. Meals shared among allies, family and even strangers are so innate and crucial to our survival that the majority of primates share the behavior. Humans have taken it a step further with elaborate ritual feasting for at least 12,000 years, like the countless traditions that will be observed globally this winter holiday season.

On November 8, United Way of the Mid-South in partnership with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development held its own feast - the second annual Feast of Dreams. The partners hope bringing together community leaders from across the city to share a meal and a conversation on poverty reduction will help bridge gaps, build networks and inspire innovative solutions from newly-formed connections. The topic for the event was the economics of place and the intersections of poverty, housing and economic and community development. 

Last year’s event was invite-only, but this year it was open to the public for a wider range of voices and representation.

“If you have thousands of people having the same conversations and looking for solutions it can be infinitely more impactful,” than a handful of organizations and policymakers said Williams D. Brack, a community leader and commercial lender for First Tennessee Bank who served on the Feast of Dreams planning committee.

(L to R) Planning committee member Williams D. Brack, United Way's Chief Communications Officer Lori Spicer-Robinson, and director of the Division of Housing and Community Development, Paul Young, post for a photo at Feast of Dreams. (Demarcus Bowser)
“It’s really allowing folks to meet with other people they normally don’t talk to and talk about housing and economic development,” said Kirstin Cheers, communication specialist for United Way, of the event.

As an anthropologist-turned-anthro-journalist, I was intrigued for all the wrong reasons. While the breaking of bread is intrinsic to humanity, dining with total strangers is atypical for Americans and deep social bonds that inspire people to action aren’t usually formed in one night. I wondered if Feast of Dreams could do it - could organizers build genuine connection in just three hours? Could they turn my table into a community?

A Place at the Table

I arrived at the new Avon Acres event space at 4361 Summer Avenue and received my seating assignment - Table 9. There were around twenty tables in total, and their energetic roar of greetings and small talk filled the room. Youth from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis’ culinary training program prepared and served salad, chicken, fish and two types of vegetables and dessert.
A member of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis' culinary arts training program offers an hor d'oeuvre at the Feast of Dreams. (Demarcus Bowser)
I found my way to Table 9 and took my seat. My new community was impressively diverse in age and race with both lifelong Memphians and transplants. Collectively, we represented Urban Child Institute, Memphis Grizzlies, Shelby County Assessor of Property, Child Advocacy Center, High Ground News, Southwest Tennessee Community College and a neighborhood association and had lived or worked in more than a dozen communities across the city from Frayser to Collierville.

Cheers said organizers were intentional about the mix of ages, backgrounds and professional sectors.

“Hopefully what sparks out of this is the hearing of different perspectives and different stories," she said. "You never know who you’re sitting next to, but together we can all move Memphis to be a better place.”

The Problem Before Us

Each table was to answer three questions - how did we get here, where do we go from here, and what’s missing?

Before the event, guests were given several online resources to help frame the discussion of economics and place. The articles noted that the gap between rich and poor is increasing, poverty is increasingly concentrated by neighborhood, and growing up in a poor neighborhood comes with a host of lifelong obstacles that can take decades from a person’s life.  

Paul Young, director of the Division of Housing and Community Development, said many neighborhoods in the city can’t attract new home construction because the cost to build would be more than the appraisal value. Conversely, in those same neighborhoods, there is plenty of subpar housing available.

“We don’t have an affordable housing problem in Memphis, we have a quality affordable housing problem in Memphis,” said Young. “There are plenty of cheap places that you can live in this city, but the question is is it up to par?”

He also noted that since the 1960s, the City of Memphis has gone from roughly 125 square-miles and 515,000 people to approximately 325 square-miles but only 650,000 people.

It’s a result of years of white flight to the suburbs and overzealous annexation, and the result is Memphis has fewer taxpayers to support necessary city services for a significantly larger area. It also means less money for education, business development and housing which are key to poverty reduction.

You Can’t ‘Solve Poverty’

Ultimately, I don’t think Table 9 came up with any brilliant solutions to solve all of the city’s ills, and that was never United Way’s goal. The feast was meant to be the first conversation in an ongoing dialogue.

We discussed the need for an intentional and coordinated effort across all sectors including individual community members, government, education, business and healthcare. We considered community land banks to slow gentrification and incentive programs to sell or repair blighted properties that specifically target chronic problem properties and owners. Education was a top priority, especially educating residents on their rights and resources to help them lead their own community development, like how to work with code enforcement or form neighborhood associations.

At the end of the night, each table shared their conversation with the room, and it seemed that others also centered on many of the same themes like cross-sector cooperation and education, though there were unique solutions from each.

Participants share a laugh, a meal and a conversation on economics and placemaking at the United Way Feast of Dreams. (Demarcus Bowser)
And while it was certainly a delicious meal and good dialogue with people I genuinely liked, Table 9 was galvanized around a singular purpose - a meal and guided conversation to help improve our city. Once the plates were cleared and the speeches given, we went our separate ways.

The challenge now for United Way and guests is to keep the conversation going and strengthen the tentative bonds that could soon be gone.

United Way’s strategy is to first take notes from the table conversations and aggregate them to discover the most prevalent themes and innovative solutions. This year, like last, they asked guests to donate money or volunteer time or helping promote its mission and message, but this year they plan to group people based on their responses and put them in contact to extend the conversation started at the feast and pool efforts and resources towards solutions.

While I don't think every guest will suddenly become a powerhouse change agent for poverty and placemaking, I do think their strategy could see success. A few dedicated people will rise to the top and encourage others to do the same and more Memphians will be engaged in solutions than prior to the feast.

From Table 9, I’m certain Ross Williams will be one of those newcomers to the fight. Williams was raised in the Hickory Hill and Cordova areas, but moved away for college and work in campaign financing in Washington D.C. He moved back in June and now works for the county’s property assessor.

“I chose to intentionally come back because I love Memphis...I really do want to see us grow,” he said.

He’s young, motivated and exactly the type of person United Way wants as a leader in the community of change agents they’re hoping to foster.

“I see the major inequities in the city, especially from a minority perspective, so I want to be a change directly in that space and hopefully let that transfer over into other spaces,” said Williams. “Politics and urban development are kind of my passion, and I want to see how to branch that out into the communities.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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