North Memphis

Dispatches from North Memphis: Meet Michele Simmons

Michele Simmons is a South Memphis native who now lives in North Memphis.

In two weeks, the self-proclaimed foodie and youth basketball coach will graduate from the High Ground News North Memphis Community Correspondents program.

"I've always kept a journal since I was a little girl, like elementary school, but I've never had any formal training in writing," said the 38-year-old Simmons.

Correspondents are average Memphians who live in low- to moderate-income, majority-minority neighborhoods. Over six weeks, they train in the basics of community-based reporting in the hopes they can begin to fill gaps in both neighborhood narratives and newsrooms.

The program is a response to a lack of diverse representation in newsrooms and a lack of balanced reporting on neighborhoods of color, especially lower-income communities.
 
Nationwide, over 75% of newsroom staff are white. Most reporters are college-educated and 30-55 years old. When reporting on low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods, traditional media is far more likely to focus on crime, blight, and failing schools than the people, businesses, educators, and organizations working towards solutions. 

Correspondents come from diverse walks of life. They've include college students, librarians, teachers, frontline workers, community organizers, and small business owners. They range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. 

To-date, High Ground has trained 22 correspondents from Frayser, The Heights, North Memphis, Orange Mound, and South Memphis.

Each correspondents is paid for their class time, paid for their first High Ground News story, and given a laptop for their continued work. Several correspondents have continued writing for High Ground after their training.

High Ground partnered with The Time is Now Douglass Redevelopment Corporation to facilitate the fall 2020 class, which was funded by a grant from the Hyde Family Foundation. Previous classes were funded by grants from the Thomas W. Briggs Foundation and Facebook.

Meet Michele Simmons
Simmons' passions are youth and youth development. She started working with youth while still in high school by volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis. 

For the last 12-plus years, she's served as a basketball coach and mentor to her players. 

"I coach at my alma mater back, Booker T. Washington High School. Girls' basketball. It's just something I do to give back to the community, so to speak," said Simmons, who also coaches a boy's team with the American Athletic Union.

She said that growing up, her piece of South Memphis felt like a tight-knit community, but there were also drugs, poverty, and other social ills. She sees coaching as a way to pay forward the help she had in coping with those challenges.

"I can remember my mom babysitting people in the neighborhood while their parents went to work and vice versa. It was community oriented. Everybody knew one another," she said.
 
Simmons considers New Orleans a second home. She graduated from the University of New Orleans as a political science major.
 
"Honestly, I didn't have any plans on coming back to Memphis. Ever. Until Hurricane Katrina kind of forced me back," she said. 

Prior to the pandemic, she visited New Orleans regularly. Her son's father lives there so there are frequent road trips for holidays and summers with dad. She also loves the big events.

"I normally never miss Mardi Gras and Essence [Music Festival]," she said. "I'm a huge Saints fan as well, so I go to games every now and then."

A Quick Q & A
HGN: How did you find out about the correspondents course?

I saw it online scrolling Facebook. I used to like writing all the time, I've always kept a journal since I was like a little girl, like elementary school, but I've never had any formal training in writing. I could really see myself talking about a lot of things that ordinarily wouldn't get highlighted in the community. 

HGN: What are some of the things you'd like to highlight?
For me, it would be maybe a little restaurant, like [Roxie's Grocery]. They've been known to have some of the best burgers in the city, but you never really hear about it. If you're not from that neighborhood or you work over there, you wouldn't necessarily hear about a place like that. Platforms like [High Ground], give little small businesses like that a big boost where everybody can know about it. 

HGN: Are there any bigger, higher-level things you'd like to write about?
For me it would be the housing situation and gentrification. That's a big thing. You see it in a lot of cities. But to see it happening in your own city, it resonates more with me because I see it from here and in New Orleans. A lot of people that were there before Katrina can't afford to live there now--basically being forced out of their home. Stuff like that really touches on me. I just want to help people get their stories out. 

HGN: What would you want someone to know about your neighborhood if their current perception was based solely on nightly TV news reports?
It gets a bad rap, of course, because of crime and poverty. But there's also so much more in the neighborhood, like a lot of history and things of that nature.

HGN: Any takeaways from your time in class so far?
Just knowing that it's OK for one to be nervous. You're not expected to just be this amazing writer from the beginning. It takes time and comes with experience. Getting better and just learning from people who've been in your shoes and have done the same thing. It's okay to not know a lot of things and still be able to learn.

[Interview conducted by Erica Horton.]

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. 
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