South City

South City area residents benefit from Vision 2020 grantmaking initiative

With more than twice as many individuals living in poverty as other Memphis ZIP codes, the South City neighborhood of ZIP 38126 has seen its share of struggles over the years.

The neighborhood just south of Downtown is comprised of mostly female-led households with 76 percent of children living at or below the poverty line, has a median household income of $14,131 and has the highest rate of HIV in Memphis. Sixty percent of its residents live in poverty.

Now in its third year, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis’ Vision 2020 plan is bringing investment to 38126. To date, more than $4.7 million has helped boost the area’s economy and address needs by providing vital funding for organizations dedicated to this under-served area. The plan’s goal is to reduce poverty in the ZIP code by five percent.

This work complements the revitalization of Foote Homes, a 420-unit public housing complex that was the anchor of the 38126 neighborhood. Displaced residents are supposed to be the first offered housing in the South City development near the corner of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Paul Young, director of housing and community development for the city, announced recently that residents can expect to start moving into the first phase 114-unit mixed-income housing complex as soon as July. The second phase, to be completed in 2020, will add 134 more units.

As a part of the federally-backed effort, the City of Memphis rebranded the greater neighborhood surrounding Foote Homes as South City.

However, according to Young, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notes that when cities redevelop housing in underserved neighborhoods, it isn’t necessarily a catalyst for investment in the surrounding communities. This type of investment needs to happen contiguously with additional redevelopment.

Related: "The Women's Foundation of Greater Memphis has a bold vision to stamp out poverty"

So as former residents of Foote Homes return to live in the South City complex, they will hopefully find positive changes happening in the neighborhood that is in many ways shaped by the investment efforts of WFGM.

“We are really kind of a clearing house. Our works are basically philanthropy, leadership and collaboration. We bring together organizations, such as we are doing with Vision 2020, to really work together so you can provide the greatest impact,” said board member Shirlee Clark, who rose to head of corporate communications for FedEx until retiring 15 years ago.

To achieve this, Vision 2020 follows a place-based approach which attempts to address issues neighborhood-wide like housing, poverty and lack of basic services, to name a few. Firm goals are established for the dozens of annual grant recipients that include Hope House, New Ballet Ensemble, Advance Memphis and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

So far, the numbers have improved. For instance, the average household income in the area jumped by 44 percent last year, in part due to nonprofits like Hopeworks, which provides continuing education for those seeking an equivalency diploma. They also provide training for job interviews.

“We have had fabulous, fabulous results in the areas of individuals placed in jobs, starting a business, residents who are first-time homeowners,” said Clark.

Another nonprofit that benefits from Vision 2020, and from the input of the foundation’s all-female board, is Karat Place, located at 558 Boyd Street. With a staff consisting of its founder, Melvena C. Leake, and one part-time employee, the South City nonprofit provides a home for women transitioning back into society following release from prison.

“She has put her whole life savings into this nonprofit for women who get out of prison to help. She has established a transitional home for them so they can become productive citizens. We have to help her measure what she is doing because she is the staff, basically, with a part-time employee,” said Clark.

To address HIV rates and provide support for those in need, WFGM selected Hope House as a grantee partner this year. The grant will expand their outreach program that was started in the 38126 ZIP code last year. According to AIDSVu data, 2,271 out of 100,000 people in 38126 are living with HIV. For comparison, the 38017 ZIP code shows only 109 out of 100,000.

“We’re already in the community providing awareness as well as advocacy work and education in HIV prevention, risk reduction and stigma reduction,” Jessica Cox, social worker at Hope House, located at 23 S. Idlewild Street.

Additionally, the program provides educational services, linkage to care and advocacy for those living with HIV and those at high risk for contracting the virus. It also hosts support groups for HIV-affected individuals and families.

“We’ve hooked up with several agencies in the neighborhood to provide HIV one-on-one classes, where we talk about how the virus is contracted, ways to prevent the spread of HIV, the importance of testing, etc.,” said Cox.

They also discuss sexual health, consent, healthy relationships and the importance of early diagnosis with consistent medical treatment.

Hope House notes seeing an increase in diagnosis, particularly among 15 to 35 year olds, and have noticed a correlation between poverty and HIV. Many things can contribute to these higher levels, but Cox says a lack of health education, particularly sexual health education, is a factor.

“For those living in high poverty areas, they are engaging in sexual activity without knowing anything about condoms, don’t know where to get condoms. There’s just very little knowledge. The Women’s Foundation has given us this funding so we can work with other agencies in that same neighborhood to help break down those barriers that might be keeping them in poverty as well as limiting their sexual health,” said Cox.

New Ballet Ensemble has made an impact in the South Memphis enclave with arts education through dance classes. The Cooper Young-based organization had a longstanding partnership with the WFGM through a workforce development program for teaching dance to female artists of color. With the launch of Vision 2020, New Ballet became a grant recipient, allowing it to expand a long-running program based in Orange Mound into 38126.

“Everything is better in Memphis when you can work with proximity because of our terrible problem with geographic spread and transportation. We’ve been in Cooper Young since 2002, so we try to reach out first to those communities that are as proximate as possible so we have a chance to go pick up young people and bring them to our program,” said Katie Smythe, New Ballet Ensemble executive director.

The first year’s grant in 2016 allowed New Ballet to refocus their programming from teens and towards younger students by adding classes at LaRose Elementary along with Streets Ministries, a faith-based youth development organization on Vance Avenue, which is also a Vision 2020 grantee partner.

“We had been trying to work with Streets for many years but the funding was difficult. With the Women’s Foundation grant, we were able to cut what Streets would have to pay for us to work in their program after school. It [the grant] made it affordable for Streets and for us,” said Smythe.

Part of the goal for the place-based approach is to have various organizations complement each other’s work by filling gaps in the other’s services.

“That is the other power of the Women’s Foundation is being able to bring together these small organizations together with large groups so they can each see what the other is doing and use the resources that they provide in order to support each other,” said Clark.

Held in Streets' chapel, the classes didn’t draw as much interest as hoped but did manage to spot and develop talent. Seven students were recruited from Streets into New Ballet’s full-time program in Cooper Young on full scholarships.

The classes at Street Ministries ended this year, but new ones have been added to LaRose Elementary. Dance classes are held early in the school day or during the last period. As a result, the amount of classes offered by New Ballet has tripled at the elementary school. 

“Dance is something that’s muscle memory that you have to learn early like language. Your brain has to get it early and your body has to get it early in order to be successful if you’re aspiring to be either a professional dancer or a college dance major. We want college and, or career for all of our students,” said Smythe.

In August, New Ballet will be expanding into Booker T. Washington for grades 6th to 12th. Dance programming will span from elementary to high school in the 38126 ZIP code.

“It’s the way to expose children to it where they receive all the benefits of dance from exercise to memorizing sequences to all the other benefits of arts education - quantitative and qualitative,” said Smythe.

Through completion of the foundation’s third year, organizations taking part in Vision 2020 have helped place over 600 people in jobs.

Over 1,600 individuals have participated in programs supporting positive youth development, either during school, after school or in the summers. WFGM has seen about 650 caregivers and parents engaged in early childhood development and parenting education resulting in more than 400 young children enrolled in early education and childcare programs.

They’ve done all of it through partnerships with more than 60 local and national organizations, supporting almost 80 programs over the last three years.

“It’s fabulous to be able to walk into a corporation, to an individual donor, to an event where we are speaking and be able to hand out a one-page summary of what an individual or organization’s investment in the Women’s Foundation has done for the people in 38126,” said Clark.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.