South City

The Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis has a bold vision to stamp out poverty

The Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis plans to invest $10 million to uplift ZIP 38126, which one of the poorest ZIP codes in America. By strengthening support organizations, the foundation hopes to give residents the necessary tools to combat the effects of poverty. 

Everything in Betty Isom’s living room has been neatly chosen. The curtains, armchairs, throw pillows, rugs and table decorations are all matched in zebra print. 

Isom’s eye shadow matches her purple tie-dye dress, which complements her hair accessory and her bracelets that clank together when she gestures to her grandchildren running through the living room.

At the corner of Tate and Walnut streets, 66-year-old Isom has created a slice of harmony.

“That's my prayer for this whole city. That we could just love and live together and help one another,” said the longtime resident of South Memphis.

Everything really hums together outside of the colors and patterns of Isom’s living room. Twice annually, Isom’s front yard transforms into a neighborhood-wide block party. Several hundred people show up to listen to live music, mingle with dignitaries such as Congressman Steve Cohen and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham, and come together to decry violence in their community.

Betty Isom in front of her home in South Memphis.

Isom credits the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, a locally-led foundation that invests in women and families in impoverished neighborhoods, for financial assistance that led her to purchase her own home in 1999.

Isom has hosted the Peabody-Vance Stop the Violence Block Party for about as long as she’s owned her five-bedroom house. She previously lived in Cleaborn Homes, a public housing complex less than a mile away.

“A lot of people didn't believe. I didn't ever really think I could do it on my own, just move out the projects. But I thank God I could move up out of there and make a change better for myself and get my own place,” she said.

Through 22 years of investing in women and families of Memphis’ impoverished neighborhoods, the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis has risen to be a trusted partner in living rooms and boardrooms.

Isom and her family represent the early beneficiaries of the Women’s Foundation. Isom purchased her home with the help of an Individual Development Account, which is essentially a savings account that a foundation matches to help people in poverty quickly purchase assets. At the time, the IDA was hosted by the RISE Foundation in partnership with the WFGM.

Other organizations based in 38126, Memphis’ poorest ZIP code, now also host their own IDAs and lead programming that alleviates the effects of poverty.
"With the focus on 38126, I wish they had done it a long time ago."
The WFGM doesn’t believe they’re the only change maker in the neighborhood, but they weren’t afraid to be the first.

“The foundation is creating a vision that helps other people to say, 'We can be a part of this change and help make this happen'. We can't do it alone,” said Ruby Bright, executive director of the WFGM.

A new vision to transform poverty in Memphis

That investment continues in Vision 2020, the latest mission of the WFGM. In a break from its previous funding methods, the WFGM is targeting all of its grant-making efforts in ZIP 38126 for the next five years.

“With the focus on 38126, I wish they had done it a long time ago. It's so nice just to see these women helping other women to do what they need,” said Isom.

Isom is one of ZIP 38126’s 10,000 residents. The community just south of Downtown Memphis has a poverty rate of 62 percent, which is more than double the poverty rate in other Memphis ZIP codes. Most of the households are female-led and 76 percent of children live at or below the poverty line.

By the year 2020, WFGM hopes to have decreased poverty in ZIP 38126 by five percent. It plans to achieve that goal by pouring $10 million into existing support organizations and building capacity wherever possible.

The WFGM’s overarching goals of improving workforce development, access to early childhood education, youth activities and financial education align grantee partners with a mission to combat poverty from the inside out.

“We employ the two-generation approach. We want to help the mother and help stabilize the family. When you stabilize the family, you start thinking about what are some things you can do for yourself,” said Bright.

Students play basketball at Streets Ministries' facility at 430 Vance Avenue.

The organization has already seen incremental results. In the first year of its five-year commitment, the WFGM donated over $1 million to organizations that serve 38126. And in that first year, 275 people obtained jobs and 700 youth participated in youth development programs.

One of those new grant recipients is Streets Ministries, a faith-based youth development organization. Located directly across from the Foote Homes property on Vance Avenue, the 34,000-square-foot facility provides afterschool care, tutoring, college prep and mentorship programs at low-to-no cost.

“I think it really comes down to the tyranny of the urgent that nonprofits face so often,” said Megan Klein of the WFGM’s value to the local nonprofit community.

“We get our heads down and focus on what it is we're doing because we have to raise money," explained Klein, who is chief development and communications officer for Streets Ministries.

Sometimes there’s a lot of value in just taking a breath and looking around and seeing how we can work together. I think the Women’s Foundation has provided those opportunities.”

The WFGM’s $10,000 grant in 2016 increased the capacity of Street Ministries’ mentoring program. In 2017, the foundation more than doubled its commitment. The recent $25,000 grant will provide mentors for middle school and high school students as well as financial literacy instruction.

Volunteer and Streets board member Drew Gibson tutors Quentin Vazquez, a 6th grader at Grizzlies Prep Academy.

Klein said that the WFGM has served well as a convener of different nonprofits who may not realize how they can support each other. Through Vision 2020, Streets Ministries has sparked conversations with the Memphis Public Library system and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis about future collaborations.

“Collaboration is always something people want to do, and I think it's been a push for nonprofits in the city in the last 5 years,” Klein added. “(The Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis) said, ‘Okay here are our overarching goals. Who is doing this work? Come work alongside us.’”

A mission to transform neighborhoods in Memphis

The ZIP code of 38126, which is roughly encompassed by McLemore Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, South Third Street and East Street, is set for a major transformation.

Ruby Bright, executive director of the Women's Foundation of Greater Memphis.In recent years, the nearby public housing complexes of Cleaborn Homes, Dixie Homes and Lamar Terrace have all been renovated or redeveloped. Foote Homes, the last standing of Memphis’ traditional low-income housing complexes, will be demolished in the coming weeks.

In its place will rise South City, a mixed-income neighborhood that supporters believe will improve residents’ quality of life.

The WFGM will be tracking that development to ensure that residents’ are better off once South City is complete.

At the time when Vision 2020 wraps, construction on South City will also be complete. Bright said that the WFGM will continue to have a role in ZIP 38126, but the organization will shift its place-based grantmaking approach to ZIP 38106 in South Memphis.

The highly-concentrated grantmaking will then move to another ZIP code after the next five years. Through that model, Bright hopes that adjacent communities will gain capacity around the same time and help each other become more sustainable.

The WFGM’s data-driven approach is supported by the Center for Research in Educational Policy, which is housed at the University of Memphis. Together, the partners will track Vision 2020’s impact in areas such as full-time employment and earned income, enrollment in postsecondary education programs and the drop-out rate among high school students.

Bright describes WFGM as a “backbone organization” in the City of Memphis’ effort to develop South City.

“WFGM is creating a stronger culture of collaboration that brings together over 60 partners, builds trust, shares our vision and connects to the larger goal to move the poverty needle,” she said.
LaTonya Taylor and her family stand in front of the home Taylor purchased in ZIP 38126 with the help of the RISE Foundation's Save Up program. As a partner with the Memphis Housing Authority since 2004, the WFGM has supported comprehensive services, such as case management, that help low-income residents break the cycle of poverty.

Aligned in that work is The RISE Foundation, a nonprofit that helps residents of low-income housing to manage their income, purchase assets and improve their credit scores. The WFGM provides funding for the RISE Foundation’s Save Up program, which matches savings accounts for participants such as Betty Isom.

The organization was founded in 1999 to promote financial literacy among public housing residents. As public housing in Memphis has evolved, the nonprofit has expanded its audience to include anyone who receives a Section 8 housing voucher or qualifies for an earned income tax credit.

As Bev Dickson, former executive director of WFGM, is the RISE Foundation’s first president, the two organizations are longtime partners. And Linda Williams, current president of the RISE Foundation, said that Vision 2020 is helping both of the organizations return to their roots.

“It’s helping us to focus back in where this need is, so we’re doing a concerted effort in this area. We work with people from all over Shelby County, but we’re focusing especially on 38126 as part of Vision 2020,” Williams said.

“We think that poverty is something that shouldn't exist in this day and age in a country as wealthy as the United States and certainly not in Memphis,” she added.

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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.