On finding 'ideas that work': How 300 Memphians came together to develop the More for Memphis plan

Over the next several months, the High Ground Team will be diving deep into the More for Memphis plan: What it is, why it is, and where it's taking us. This week, we begin our series with a look at the massive undertaking organizers and more than 300 community volunteers embraced in getting the ambitious plan off of the ground. It wasn't always easy, but it's always been worth it.
Consider how difficult it can be to get a group of friends or family members – say, three or four, even – to agree on what to eat for dinner. Or what to watch on TV. Or who’s going to wash the dishes.

Now consider how difficult it might be to get hundreds of Memphians to agree on what specific challenges the city and its residents face, and then turn around and identify actionable, scalable solutions to those challenges. What challenges do you face? Are they the same as your neighbors? Many of them likely are, but no doubt there are plenty more that are unique to each Memphian and their own lived experiences.

So tasked were the more than 300 individuals and organizations that participated in the More for Memphis planning process, a campaign that saw contributors meet week after week, month after month, from March 2022 to May 2023. That so many people were willing and able to volunteer their time, perspectives, and passions for so long a period is impressive in and of itself; that the More for Memphis Governing Body was able to organize it, to keep it moving and productive, is a feat on a whole ‘nother level.

Even the people who organized the program were moved by the community’s commitment to the process, and their continued interest and involvement today. That includes Jamilica Burke, chief strategy and impact officer of Seeding Success, the Memphis nonprofit responsible for coordinating the More for Memphis initiative.

“From the beginning, I was impressed and motivated by the size and scope of the planning process that was being developed and its potential to improve lives and outcomes for Memphians,” says Burke. “Memphis is not new to developing strategic plans, so it was important for us to be thoughtful of how this process would be different and actionable.”

While the More for Memphis plan itself will be published in its official form later this spring, the fundamentals of the initiative, the strategic plan overview, can now be accessed online via the More for Memphis website. It serves as a detailed introduction to the strategic plan itself, demonstrating that where you grow up predetermines the quality of life and future opportunities that become available to our youngest of Memphians. And all too often, it's Memphis' Black and Brown communities that get the short end of the stick, as it were, their neighborhoods lacking the resources necessary for improving residents' lives and those of the generations that follow.

It's a feedback loop worth breaking, and organizers are preparing to do just that.

It starts with community voices

Along each step of the way, the More for Memphis team has prioritized community input to ensure that this strategic plan succeeds where others have come up short. Preplanning was shaped by local nonprofits, representatives from the public sector, and community members themselves. Those discussions produced a nomination process for the design committee that emphasized a diverse group of individuals with a wide range of lived experiences and areas of expertise, resulting in a 32-member cohort that included leaders in the public and private sectors but also everyday yet sorely underrepresented Memphians, too.

“We didn’t want to get through an entire planning process to find that the developed solutions didn’t meet the community's needs or make a dent in the root problems,” Burke says. “There had to be multiple inputs and feedback loops the whole way through, and the design committee helped us look down the road to see what that needed to look like and what structures were necessary.”

Early on in the plan’s development, in the preplanning and then design phases that began in 2020, the design committee developed what would become the infrastructure of the plan, six pillars, or Anchor Collaboratives, that the planning teams would then build around. These six focus areas were identified as critical to the More for Memphis mission: enhancing economic mobility for Black and Brown communities throughout Memphis and Shelby County. Those focus areas include Community Development; Education & Youth; Economic Development; Health & Well-Being; Justice & Safety; and Culture.

Each Anchor Collaborative would identify challenges as they relate to their focus area, strategies to provide solutions to those challenges, and actionable five-year and long-term goals, as well as established benchmarks to measure success. There are 35 strategies spread across six focus areas, the sum of which adds up to improved opportunities for economic mobility. It serves as a road map of sorts; where are we going, how are we going to get there, and how will we know it once we are.

“At the end of the day, it’s about creating a plan that starts with community voices and then grows into some real, tangible action items that can be used as a launchpad to then demonstrate what's possible. It’s about the kind of support and improved outcomes that we can create with the strategies developed, and then being able to interweave all of those different focus areas together and overlap them where they do overlap, and see what we can do. Then we can leverage that to be able to gain additional resources to really scale up,” says Michael Phillips, executive director of Su Casa Family Ministries and a member of the Education & Youth anchor collaborative and its associated planning group.

“It’s about working together, being collaborative, and starting with community voices – and being deeply informed by community voices – and then being focused on outcomes and shared data. I'm excited to be a part of that work and see where we're succeeding.”

Ideas that work

Easier said than done, of course.

Retired in 2021 after 47 years in the banking industry – most recently as the Chief Human Resources Officer at First Horizon Bank – John Daniel stays busy as ever with speaking engagements, through his role as a Fellow at Harvard University, and community work. Daniel also serves on the boards of New Memphis, River City Capital, and Seeding Success, and the advisory boards for Green Circle Health and Facing History Memphis.

This is all to say that Daniel has experienced his fair share of meetings. As a member of the More for Memphis design committee and then the planning committee for its Health & Well-Being Anchor Collaborative, his experience in the corporate world prepared him for the long, sometimes frustrating process of getting a group of people to agree on something. Patience is paramount, and all the more so when you consider the deep-rooted challenges being addressed and the need for developing detailed and actionable solutions.

“I’ve been involved in meetings like this my whole life,” Daniel says of the planning process, which would regularly meet virtually over the course of 14 months. “I think there were some people that were in our meetings that were frustrated by – I mean, you just go around in circles sometimes, as is likely to happen.”

While it might be easy to get a room of people to agree that not having healthcare creates a cascade of very real problems for people, it’s exponentially more difficult to develop actionable strategies that stand to affect change. But More for Memphis balances the ideal with the pragmatic – though that’s not to say that its goals aren’t ambitious. They certainly are, but they were developed with actionable strategies to achieve those goals, and both five-year and long-term timelines with set criteria to measure just how things are going.

Still, this isn’t math. These are challenges that are loaded with personal experience, accounts that are ripe to be riddled with sadness, frustration, and grief. There were some tense and emotional moments, Daniel says, as members of the planning committee expressed their own frustrations with the health system at large, and the challenges built into it. Where someone may believe that everyone deserves free health care, for instance, that might not be something that this initiative is necessarily able to accomplish.

But that doesn’t make those conversations any less difficult.

Or important.

It’s kind of the whole idea.

“How do you say to that person who lives in the community, who's suffering without health care and who knows people that don’t have access to it, that (something they suggest is) not really a viable solution,” says Daniel. “So how do you transition that into something we can do? And that's where the skill comes: how do you take an idea that is probably not really a viable idea, that would just burn a lot of energy and get you nowhere, and try to get to the essence of what they are trying to solve.”

One strategy they came up with, for instance, is to implement School-based Health Centers at schools, starting in those areas with the highest needs and eventually scaling up to include every school in the region. A sliding fee scale would make it accessible for those without health insurance. In providing accessible health care to Memphians without it, the bank-busting bills of tomorrow’s hospital visit could be mitigated well before it even gets to that point.

“I thought that the facilitators did a good job of trying to capture what people cared about but also acknowledge that this process goes through a funnel. And right on the other end of the funnel, you get ideas that will actually work that you can implement.”

Over the next several months, the High Ground Team will be diving deep into the More for Memphis plan: What it is, why it is, and where it's taking us. Subscribe to High Ground News for the latest.
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