Community activists affect change in Frayser and North Memphis

Community activism is as uniquely Memphis as the barbeque that pollutes the month of May. Residents have a history of protesting and petitioning against community development plans they believe are unsuitable within their community. 

In 1971, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park petitioned against the Secretary of Transportation, who sought to split the 347-acre Overton Park in two and continue Interstate-40 through Memphis to Arkansas. After hiring lawyers, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe favored with the community organizers, finding the Secretary acted outside the scope of his authority.

In Frayser and North Memphis, community organizers have taken those lessons in campaigning against projects they believe will damage their neighborhoods.

The “Don’t Dump on Frayser” campaign, spearheaded by leaders including Shelby County School board commissioner Stephanie Love and community activist Theodore King, is celebrating a victory.

On September 14, the Shelby County Land Use Control Board voted down the Memphis Wrecking Company’s proposal to expand its 24-acre landfill within 300 yards of Whitney Elementary.

“Our children shouldn't have to walk or go to school near a landfill. Not only does it not benefit the 80 percent of priority schools in Frayser, it could cause more harm with the many health issues we have in such a high-poverty community,” said Love, who rallied the Frayser community against the development.

Stephanie Love stands in front at Whitney Elementary in Frayser, which residents say is negatively affected by a nearby landfill.

In addition to community meetings, Love used her social media platform to inform and educate residents. Facebook posts regarding the landfill expansion reached almost 100 likes.

Additionally, Love sponsored a Shelby County Schools board resolution that opposed the landfill expansion. The board unanimously approved the resolution at its August 29 meeting.

According to the company’s website, Memphis Wrecking Company is “dedicated to helping develop and grow Frayser,” and the landfill expansion will “create jobs, increase revenue, and maintain lower City disposal costs, saving taxpayers money.”

The landfill is approved to hold construction waste, such as unusable concrete, so it does not pose significant health risks. Neighbors hold that the site is a negative influence, especially on the students next door.

Love and King said they would rather see economic investments in Frayser schools and small businesses.

“The landfill is not going to support the 80 percent of priority schools in Frayser and definitely not Whitney Elementary. Why would I want a landfill 50 feet away from where children attend school? That just adds more health issues to the one people in poverty already have here,” said Love.

Love said that some of her greatest challenges in the campaign were addressing community apathy and distrust of elected officials.

“I was going to community and school events before I became a board member. When you represent a community that feels like it has been underrepresented for years, you have to take the brunt of everybody who came before you,” said Love.

When addressing community apathy as an activist, building solid relationships is the key. Love worked alongside longtime Frayser resident and leader, Theodore King. King said he and his team worked car lines at school and passed out flyers at community centers and shopping centers to get the work out about the potential landfill expansion.

“We are still building how we communicate with each other on such issues,” said King. “ With over 4,500 residents, you have to get creative but remain consistent.”

King says the community’s activists and residents are seeing a tide change with the increase in advocacy and concern. More people are attending community meetings, especially those held at the Frayser Exchange Club. King says he hopes the community continues to grow in voter engagement as well.

“Lately, turnout has been in the teens, but we are starting earlier now with concrete demands and agendas for the people who wish to represent our district. We will no longer accept anyone else who wants to represent Frayser and not engage with us,” King said.

Memphis Wrecking Company is continuing to seek approval of the expansion at the Memphis City Council despite the hearing on September 14.

“We have to stop inviting people to write the narrative for us,” said King. “Frayser is more than just a place to place a landfill. We are real people with real issues that we are reconciling everyday, from unemployment to education. The residents of Frayser are paying attention.”

However, the perception of community apathy has been prominent for a long time. Community activists say they are fighting against outside rhetoric that states residents don’t care or are too undereducated to understand the issues. Also at play is a distrust of local officials that could undermine progress, said Janice Mondie, a community organizer in the North Memphis neighborhood of Hyde Park.

“I think people think we’re dumb,” says Mondie. “But we’re not. A lot of it is just getting the information which our leaders are supposed to do.”

CEO of MLGW, Jerry Collins, addresses a crowd at a public forum held at the Hollywood Community Center and organized by councilman Berlin Boyd.

Mondie raises her banner against an expansion of Memphis Light, Gas & Water’s North Service Center office at 1060 Tupelo Street. To support the expansion, MLGW seeks to acquire 130 parcels of residential properties, including 70 vacant lots and 19 abandoned homes.

Of the 130 properties, 121 have entered and closed an agreement with the utility company.

MLGW looks to close its operations at Central Shops at 703 Beale Street and sell the building. When all of the land is secured, MLGW will consolidate the electric distribution operations, engineering inventory and storeroom and the large vehicle maintenance facility to the North Memphis site.   

“This expansion moves a key support area to the users that need this support,” said Gale Jones Carson, director of communications for MLGW.

“It gets the key support areas out of an outdated, inefficient structure and puts them closer to the operations they serve which provide more efficient and effective service to MLGW customers.”

Mondie says MLGW’s expansion strips assets away from North Memphis.

“After speaking with residents, this was not something we wanted in our community,” she said. “My goal is to make sure that development does not go through.”

Mondie’s passion against the potential development is fueled by the years homeowners have built equity in an area where poverty dominates. In 2015, ZIP 38108 had a recorded poverty rate of 47.3 percent, according to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census.

Vacant land lines Dexter Street after houses were demolished to make way for MLGW's North Service Center expansion.

“Our homes are our assets,” said Janice. “For the average black person, it is your only asset because we don't own anything else like stocks, bonds or other investments.  It is the one and only asset available to leave to the next generation for a step or leg up.”

According to Carson, the utility company offered “fair appraised market value to all property owners and utilized eminent domain only at the request of the property owner.”

“The remaining property owners have title issues, disagreements about price value or closing schedule,” she added.

While MLGW has stated it is moving forward with the expansion, it did alter the plans in part based on feedback from the community. One of the homes purchased by MLGW has historic ties to the 1968 sanitation workers strike. Joe C. Warren, who coined the iconic protest phrase ‘I Am a Man’ held organizing meetings at his home at 968 Meagher Street. MLGW initially planned to demolish the home to make way for the expansion but has instead pivoted to preserving the location and adding a historic marker.

Mondie said she will continue to rally against the development backed by concens of her neighbors. 

“I know I’m loud. I have to because there are systems in place that want to make it difficult to advocate and be heard”

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Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.