The Heights

Memphis neighbors win governor's award, plan for edible forest on Tillman Street

When Dana Merriweather founded the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association in 2015, she had no idea the improvements they'd make to their tiny slice of Memphis would land them at a luncheon with the state's governor. 

They still don't have an office or a website, but on August 1, members of MHNA carpooled to Franklin, Tennessee to meet Governor Bill Lee and accept the 2019 Tennessee Governor's Award for Environmental Stewardship in the land use category. 

The award recognizes organizations and companies who've made positive impacts on the state's natural resources.

MHNA President Sidney Johnson said they're just simple neighborhood folks who felt a bit out of place among the politicians and formalities, but they were proud to see their efforts recognized and hope it will bring attention to their community's ongoing needs. 

"The award and the attention we've gotten has almost been overwhelming," said Johnson. "I literally didn't see this coming. But I do see the value in what we're doing.”

MHNA was nominated by Vaughn Cassidy, environmental consultant for Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation. Cassidy said MHNA isn't the typical nominee, but he knew they had a real shot at winning.

“We often nominate companies, [more formalized] organizations and non-profits, but this was special because it was a group of individuals in the same neighborhood who agreed to reclaim their property," said Cassidy. 

“I wasn't the least bit surprised that they won," he continued. "It's so American to me that they took the initiative to improve the area themselves."

L to R: Dana Merriweather, Judy Conway and Sidney Johnson discuss plans for a their new greenhouse on the Mitchell Heights Gardens and Nursery site on Gracewood Street in The Heights. (Natalie Eddings)

Why They Won

Mitchell Heights is part of The Heights, a collection of smaller neighborhoods between Jackson and Summer Avenues, Tillman Street and Graham Road. 

Merriweather, Johnson and Secretary Judy Conway form MHNA's core team. With a small but dedicated team of resident volunteers, they've made profound contributions to Mitchell Heights.

MHNA has cleared lots and built a pocket park and community gardens. They've organized neighborhood cleanups and fought chronic problem properties in environmental court. They've hosted gardening and cooking classes and mentor children and young adults. Last year, they opened the Mitchell Heights Garden and Nursery, a licensed nursery that sells whole plants and flowers to help fund the gardens and teach young people entrepreneurial skills. 

Related: "In photos: The gardens of Mitchell Heights"

MHNA gives away the food they grow to residents, people experiencing homeless and anyone who's hungry.

“I feel like when I give back, blessings will come,” said Merriweather.

Merriweather said the MHNA members had a great time at the August 1 award luncheon.

“We exchanged a lot of good information," she said. "Everyone up there was sweet and nice to us and welcomed us. I was amazed.”
 

Getting Noticed

Merriweather also said the governor's award is an exception; MHNA's work is rarely noticed outside of Mitchell Heights. They need funding and support, but it's difficult to attract with low visibility. Still, she's maintained faith that the community would be rewarded as long as they kept doing the work. She said the award validates that they're on the right track.

“I knew something was going to happen because God showed me in a vision," she said. "He told me not to give up, and said he has something planned. I give him the glory.”

Cassidy learned about MHNA from a High Ground News article on their work. He reached out to High Ground's managing editor, Cole Bradley, to help tell MHNA's story in the nomination and application process using High Ground's photos and text from two related articles.

“It captured the individualism and drive of the individuals involved," said Cassidy of the article.

Related: "Small but mighty: Resident-led development improves Mitchell Heights"

High Ground's On the Ground sidewalk journalism team was embedded in The Heights from September through November 2018. During that time, they met and featured several of the area's grassroots leaders and organizations, including MHNA.

"The Mitchell Heights team are the epitome of the spirit of Memphis and what High Ground strives to elevate — individuals coming together to improve their community to the best of their abilities," said Bradley. "They deserve this award, and we were privileged to lift up their story."

Dana Merriweather and Sidney Johnson, vice president and president of the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association, chat at a luncheon for winners of the 2019 Tennessee Governor's Award for Environmental Stewardship. (TN Green Gov)

a dead end opportunity 

This year, MHNA has worked to clear a jungle of overgrowth and trash from a field at the end of Tillman Street as it dead-ends into Pershing Avenue. 

The land backs up to the nursery plot, and MHNA plans to build an edible urban forest with fruit trees, native shade trees, benches and a winding path connecting the two.

“The soil in Memphis is wind-deposited from Africa,” said Johnson. “God did the work for us. The soil is rich. We can grow anything.”

One of Johnson's young apprentices is learning how to crossbreed mangoes, and people of all ages have been dropping by to assist with the cleanup effort.

“People stop to help us. People just show up out of nowhere," said Merriweather. "People we don't even know."

The City of Memphis owns the land. Memphis City Beautiful is partnering with MHNA to lease it at an affordable rate.

“Engaging citizens and neighborhood groups to take action and responsibility for improving their community environment is the cornerstone of our work at Memphis City Beautiful," said Executive Director Eldra Tarpley White.

"We are so proud of the Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association, and we are delighted to support and provide resources to help them transform neglected spaces into vibrant areas in which people can connect and enjoy."

Kendrick Brown (L) and Sidney Johnson stand in the field they hope to transform into an edible urban forest. They and other community members already cleared substantial overgrowth and trash from the lot. (Cole Bradley)

the next crop

Passing his gardening knowledge to neighborhood youth is one of Johnson's biggest passions. He says growing food gives children a place to both learn and play at the same time.

“A lot of these young people hadn't seen a carrot," he said. 'They thought carrots were made in grocery stores. When we grew carrots out here, they couldn't believe the great taste!”

Johnson has a special affinity for the most at-risk young men in the neighborhood. Kendrick Brown, 22, is one of his most dedicated apprentices and is open about his past.

"I've spent time in juvie and at 201," said Brown, referencing Shelby County's youth and adult men's jail. 

But Brown's mistakes have also been a blessing for MHNA and the community.

According to Johnson and Brown, Brown was serving a community service sentence when he met the City of Memphis' head horticulturalist. Brown told her about MHNA, and she showed up at the nursery that afternoon to meet Johnson. The horticulturalist told them the city has a mandate to prioritize minority-owned businesses, but she had been unable to locate any other licensed Black-owned nurseries in Memphis.

Last fall the Mitchell Heights nursery secured a contract with the city to provide flowers and plants, which Johnson credits to Brown.

Brown said he's now staying out of trouble by dedicating his time to working the land with Johnson. He wants to manage the nursery and gardens in a few years, and Johnson hopes for the same. 

“The young people want to take it to the next level," said Johnson. "I want to give them the knowledge I have and see where they take it. Five years from now, I'd like to see the young guys like Kendrick running the business.”


MHNA welcomes new partners and supporters. Contact [email protected] for more info. 

Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)
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