South City

Faith in Action: Mustard Seed believes a small start can bring big change in South Memphis

High Ground’s Faith in Action series explores faith-based groups from congregations to nonprofits making deep and innovative investments in our On the Ground neighborhoods. Beyond charity and acts of goodwill, the series spotlights organizations that walk alongside residents and other neighborhood stakeholders to address unique and underserved needs.

For 17 years, the nonprofit Mustard Seed, Inc. has served South Memphis with education support, job training, life skills development, and acts of service. 

It was founded by members of First Baptist Church, Lauderdale, which opened in 1865 as the first Black Baptist church in Memphis. It was originally located on Beale Street and moved to its current location at 682 South Lauderdale Street in 1939.

Mustard Seed's name and its tagline — "Making the Impossible, Possible" — are a reflection of the parable of the mustard seed in the Bible's Gospel of Matthew. The organization believes that, like the mustard seed in the parable, both faith and their work can start small but lead to big changes.

Dr. Shelly White-Means is a founding member and chairman of the Mustard Seed Board of Directors.

She and the other founding members wanted to be able to do more for the community than what could be done as a church. The group applied for 501(c)(3) status in 2002 to expand their reach in South Memphis, which is one of Memphis’ oldest historically-Black communities and one of its most heavily divested communities. 

Related: "Seeing Red I: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis"

“We thought that being in the neighborhood we were in, 38126, was not an accident. There was a purpose behind us being there, and therefore, we needed to be able to serve the community,” White-Means said.

What They Do 
To date, the organization has provided after-school tutoring, computer training, GED classes, free tax preparation, health screenings, community meetings, summer programs, and computer access for job searches.

They serve the South City area of South Memphis and southern Downtown, as well as the larger 38126 ZIP code, which includes a handful of distinct neighborhoods in South Memphis like Washington Heights and parts of Soulsville.

Mustard Seed is currently developing a Career Transition Center that will focus on teaching adults employment skills. Services will include resume writing and computer training for seniors. The program has been conceptualized, and they are now seeking partners for funding.

“We are less concerned with giving people a handout and more concerned with giving people a hand up,” White-Means said.

Mustard Seed’s flagship program is Project READY. The program serves students ages 14 to 16 who attend schools in ZIP codes 38126 and adjacent 38106 and teaches skills for post-secondary education, employment, health, and wellness. 

Dr. White-Means believes the soft-skills Project Ready teaches—such as critical thinking, professionalism, and communication—are essential to the successful future of these students.
“Those are the skills that nobody teaches you, but they can make a difference between whether your employer will be satisfied with your work and you’ll be maintained over the long term,” White-Means said. 
Teen graduates of Mustard Seed, Inc.'s READY Program pose with their diplomas in celebration of their success. (Mustard Seed)
Mustard Seed partners with many organizations to produce Project Ready. Region’s Bank meets with students to give tips on financial literacy, including saving and budgeting. University of Tennessee Health Sciences School provides instruction on health and wellness. Recently, representatives from Howard University in Washington, D.C. shared insights on the college experience and its benefits.

Shyla Jenious is a recent Project READY participant who said the program made her think about her future. She said it wasn’t something she’d spent a lot of time considering before. 

“I learned that if I push myself, I can actually accomplish anything I want,” Jenious said. “I realized that anything is possible if I set my mind to it and actually try.” 

Participant Jayda Williams appreciated the opportunity to meet new people and get out of the house during the pandemic. 

“I knew it would give me something to do besides watch TV and be cooped up in my room with the pandemic going on,” Williams said. 

Because of the pandemic, the program introduced a hybrid model of in-person instruction and virtual learning over a longer period of time than previous years. They expanded from six weeks to six months.

“This would ensure that we would be able to still effectively provide program deliverables despite the shorter summer,” Cole said, who also said it would allow for more personalized attention over time.  

Mustard Seed has received grant money from many Memphis organizations, including the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis, City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. 

Walking Alongside a New Community
Dr. Means said there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done in their community and plenty of opportunity for more partnerships. 

Mustard Seed Executive Director Nykesha Cole said one challenge the organization faces is the movement of families in and out of the neighborhood in their 13 year-history. 

Over the last decade, the surrounding community has been dubbed South City as part of a redevelopment effort that includes a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant and a number of government, nonprofit, and private entities.

Related: "South City: Housing a neighborhood in transition"

Since 2010, two of the city's largest low-income housing projects — Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes — have been full demolished and two affordable rental and mixed-income developments — Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing and Foote Park at South City — have replaced them. Construction is ongoing on the six-phased Foote Park. 

Related: "The last major vestige of segregation-era housing set for demolition"

Housing authorities displaced and relocated the public housing residents. Some have returned, some have not, and there are brand new residents in South City, as well.

Cole said the exodus left a lack of awareness of Mustard Seed’s programs. As more families move back to the area, Mustard Seed is focusing on rebuilding those relationships and recognition.   

“Now we’re in a place where we’re reacclimating people to the work we do in the community,” Cole said. “Of course, the challenge is just making people know you’re there and that they’re engaged.”

Along with the challenges are many successes. Cole has seen students come back to Mustard Seed to share their stories with the current students in the program. 

“We want to continue to evolve and include programming as the community changes and grows,” Cole said.
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