‘It’s about information’: Community-driven questionnaires sent to Shelby County candidates

The Shelby County general election and state and federal primaries will be held on Thursday, Aug. 4. Information about the candidates, absentee ballot requests, and polling times and locations can be found on the Shelby County Election Commission website, which is available online here.

It’s election season. For all the tv ads and radio spots, lawn signs and social media campaigns, there’s a lot of information out there. But for many voters, the information that’s presented isn’t necessarily the information that they seek. That’s why a coalition of Memphis community development corporations (CDCs) has produced a questionnaire that seeks answers to some very specific questions, questions and concerns that are shared among the different neighborhoods and communities that they serve.

The BLDG Memphis 2022 Municipal & State Election Candidate Questionnaire has been sent to the candidates for the offices of County Mayor, Assessor, Trustee, Environmental Court Judge, and all County Commission positions throughout Shelby County. Within, candidates are asked their positions on addressing issues of neighborhood equity and social justice, housing, mobility and public safety, blight, public transit, and solid waste.

Rather than hope candidates announce their positions on their own volition, BLDG’s questionnaire proactively seeks answers to a number of Memphis neighborhoods’ most pressing questions.

“A lot of our work centers around making investments in neighborhoods that we support, which are mostly distressed neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested and under-resourced,” says Deveney Perry, executive director of BLDG Memphis. “So our questionnaire is really wanting to understand those who are running for public office: How will you prioritize and support neighborhood issues? And our questionnaire is categorized around some of the key neighborhood issues that we seek to address through the community building industry.”

Deveney Perry, BLDG Memphis Executive Director

Shared concerns

There are 25 nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) that make up much of the BLDG Memphis coalition, a coalition that also includes community partners in the economic development and financial sectors. The CDCs asked their respective residents what questions they’d like to see answered, what issues they’d like to see addressed; BLDG Memphis then used that information to build the questionnaire. 

The questionnaire is sponsored by the 25 CDC members of BLDG Memphis and the organization’s special partners, which include Frayser CDC, LISC Memphis, MICAH Memphis, and NAACP Memphis. 

While no doubt a task to build a questionnaire that is succinct yet thorough, Christina Crutchfield, community coordinator for The Heights CDC, says that many neighborhoods and communities throughout Memphis share the same concerns.

“What we have found is that a lot of the questions that we have here in the Highland Heights neighborhood are the same questions that our neighbors over in Klondike are asking; they’re the same questions that our neighbors in Orange Mound are asking,” Crutchfield says.

Those questions in the survey include:
  • What does equitable neighborhood investment mean to you?
  • Will you support and advocate for innovative strategies to increase resources to non-profit developers and Community Development Corporations for acquisition, development, and maintenance of quality affordable housing units across Shelby County?
  • In lieu of this ranking (referencing Memphis’ high pedestrian mortality rate), as well as recent high-profile auto collisions involving pedestrians walking and biking in and around the city, what will you do to decrease the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths within Shelby County?
  • How will you collaborate with CDCs, and neighborhood organizations in the design and delivery of programs to address issues of blight and illegal dumping in the city?
  • Would you support efforts to find new and increased funding sources to implement the Transit Vision network and serve Shelby County neighborhoods more effectively?
  • The first step to advancing to a cleaner Shelby County is to understand the waste that we are producing. Are you committed to supporting funding for a waste characterization study and other resources to reduce waste and pollution in our county?

Deveney Perry with BLDG Memphis says that while elected officials receive calls and emails about specific concerns every day — say, a complaint about a certain bus route or an issue with an especially dangerous vacant lot — it may lead to politicians not being able to see the forest through the trees, as it were. These questions, as presented by 25 different CDCs representing neighborhoods all over the city, should give officials a more complete picture of concerns shared by Memphians as a whole.

“I think that officials hearing residents’ specific issues, and treating each of them as one-off situations, may not get us as far,” Perry says. “Memphis might not think of policy solutions to address these issues all of the time. But there are ways for us to think through policy issues at scale and in ways that really allow us to address these issues holistically and across the county.”

It’s about information

It’s up to the candidates whether they respond to the questionnaire, but the survey’s organizers are optimistic that contenders will recognize the value in doing so. BLDG Memphis is encouraging candidates to respond before Friday, July 8, well before their public community forum scheduled for Tuesday, July 19, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Benjamin Hooks Library. The nonpartisan forum invites all candidates to attend and address the community.

As answers filter in, BLDG Memphis will begin posting candidates’ positions on their website, at the forum itself, and through community partners and media channels. The information received won’t be used for official endorsements, but rather presented as just that: Information for voters to use and inform their own opinions regarding what candidate best appeals to their own — and their community’s — needs.

“The vast majority of our community development corporations are 501(c)(3)s, meaning we can’t tell a single person who to vote for and we can’t endorse anyone. The only thing that we can do is get the information out there,” Crutchfield says.

“It's easier for people if we just have the information on a sheet of paper, where candidates can say, ‘This is what I actually stand for.’ And a lot of times, candidates don’t actually have to make a stand for anything. They can be wishy-washy. So this will bring accountability to people running for office.

“We’re not trying to take this information and make it work for this person or for that person. Honestly, what we want is to get this information to our community members, to our nonprofits, to the people who will actually be the decision-makers — who are the voters.

“It’s that easy.”

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