Orange Mound

The Unreachables: Memphis nonprofit meets its no-tech neighbors at their doorsteps (Quick Read)

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet is a crucial tool for finding accurate information and aid. But U.S. Census data shows less than half of all households in some of Memphis' lowest-income neighborhoods have internet access. 

"What does it take to really connect with people who are disengaged and disconnected in disinvested communities?," asked Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound.

JUICE is a resident-led, nonprofit organization serving people currently living in Orange Mound. Orange Mound is one of Memphis' chronically under-resourced neighborhoods. 

JUICE is reaching their no-tech and low-tech neighbors during the pandemic with a two-fold strategy: bump up the start date for their Orange Mound Street Assembly and use assembly members to distribute care packages to neighbors in a series of Orange Mound CAREavans. 

“We just felt it was most appropriate to act now," said Thornton.

Street assembly members talked to neighbors and fliered 500 houses. JUICE set up a text message survey system to ask neighbors their needs. They packed boxes and bags and rode through Orange Mound distributing personalized care packages direct to doorsteps. 

To date, JUICE has completed two CAREvans with a third this week and a final on May 23. They anticipate serving a total of 400 households, mostly seniors.

Current Orange Mound residents can text "OMSA" to 901-460-3001 to request a care package. Others can support the effort with donations or volunteer to assemble or distribute care packages. For information, donations, and volunteering, visit JUICE's website or Facebook

“We had to move forward with this idea to be able to reach people who can’t reach us," said Thornton. 
Justin George, a member of the Orange Mound Millennials, volunteers with the JUICE Orange Mound CAREavan. He walks to a neighbor's house with a personalized care package wearing a custom JUICE Orange Mound face mask for safety. (Cole Bradley)

The Gaps Even Texting Can't Solve

Even with a low-tech communication tool like texting, JUICE still saw gaps they hadn't anticipated. They received over 60 calls from people who weren't able to text. Issues include limited data, no text capability, vision problems, and low-literacy. 

“We know that these people are not on social media, they’re not checking websites, reading emails. That’s usually how [everyone] sends out communications now," she said.

For distribution, volunteers took extra bags with basic staples for people who hadn't signed up.

Thornton said their mission includes serving those who are extremely disconnected and vulnerable like the homeless and squatters, sex workers, or people in active addiction.

"People always talk about the seniors, but we know Orange Mound has as very solid population under the age of 55 who are just completely unspoken to in most cases," she said.

JUICE has also fielded texts and calls from people outside of Orange Mound. It showed the team that the need for low-tech contacts and campaigns aren't exclusive to Orange Mound. Wherever possible, JUICE tried to connect those individual with help in their neighborhoods. 
JUICE Orange Mound uses a zoned approach to grassroots communications. It has divided the neighborhood into seven zones with zone captains and street captains for each. (JUICE Orange Mound)

The Orange Mound Street Assembly

JUICE has been working on its plan for the Orange Mound Street Assembly for over a year. When the pandemic hit Memphis, they stepped up the scheduled start date and got to work.

The assembly connects Orange Mound neighbors including those with low tech access who aren't plugged into other communications channels like aid organizations.

To handle the labor-intensive work, JUICE has divided the neighborhood into seven zones. There are two co-captains per zone and street captains on each street within those zone. Together, they communicate information and listen to residents' needs. JUICE is still recruiting the 117 street captains needed to cover all of Orange Mound and welcomes volunteers. 

"Block captains, that’s not a new concept. We’ve heard our elders speak confidently about this type of organizing," said Thornton.

Thornton said people may not know anyone living three streets over, but they're likely to know and trust immediate neighbors. Word-of-mouth has been their most effective connector.

Thornton said Orange Mound is in a pre-development phase and the community knows there will be a lot of conversations soon about how it grows and who participates in and benefits from that growth. It's important to have a system that gives every resident the option to participate in those conversation. 

“We need to be organized. Disorganized communities are taken advantage of ...," she said. “This isn’t just about care packages. It’s about us creating an organized system to be able to unite current residents and bring power back to the current resident experience in Orange Mound.”

Find more resources and ways to help in English and Spanish in our Memphis Area COVID-19 Resource Guide.

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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.