by Canisha Robertson
Chris Dean knows of a path that will take you from the White House to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The stimulating salute to Dr. King is located in West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall in Washington. At night, the inspiration factor goes way up.
For a few weeks several summers back, Dean was an intern working in President Barack Obama’s administration. Some nights he would sit on one of the benches near the statue of Dr. King, soaking up the inspiration as he reflected and pondered the future.
Among the reflections was a journey that had led him from historic Booker T. Washington High School, an anchor in the South Memphis community that encompasses ZIP code 38126, the poorest in the “Bluff City” and one of the poorest in the nation.
BTW had won a national high school competition, with the top prize being then-President Obama speaking at the school’s commencement. Dean had played a pivotal role in BTW’s race to the top spot. Each competing school had to present a video and Dean was featured in the Warriors’ entry. He was selected to introduce the president at the 2011 graduation.
“I don’t know (how they picked me). I still don’t. I wasn’t the smartest student. I’m still not,” said Dean, now 25. “I’ve never been an A or F student. You know, I didn’t fit in anywhere but I could fit in anywhere,” said Dean.
The “Obama moment” was just an opportunity that presented itself, he said. It wasn’t done for his personal fame. He simply wanted to speak for his people, for his community.
“I kinda went off the energy of people,” Dean said “I asked them (his teachers) plenty of times why they chose me to be in the video. They chose me for the video. President Obama picked me to introduce him.”
Suddenly in the spotlight, Dean took that opportunity to reach as many as he could to get them to understand what really was going on in his neighborhood, in 38126.
“I knew (people) didn’t understand what was going on. They knew we lived in the poorest ZIP code, that we were going to one of the most failing schools, but we changed that. They didn’t understand the brotherhood or the love; we loved each other. We still had our problems, but it was instilled in middle school by our principal at the time, Mr. (Leviticus) Pointer, that we were brothers.”
People thought his world changed after meeting President Obama, Dean said.
“I still lived in Memphis, still from South Memphis, still struggling, still hungry,” he said. “I just got one more friend, one more cool guy. People thought my life was going to change because they knew of me, they didn’t know me previously.
“They thought I was going to become some amazing stand-up character. I was only willing to stand up for my neighborhood and for myself.”
The spotlight netted Dean national attention. He landed a scholarship to Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., and two internships – one at the daily newspaper and the other at the White House.
The newspaper internship led to a partnership with one of its longtime photographers, who had ventured into moviemaking. They collaborated on a 12-minute video, “ ‘As I Am’: From the Streets of South Memphis to the White House and Back Again.”
The images that surfaced as Dean reflected on his White House experience included the picture of Dr. King that Obama had hanging in the Oval Office. And while some might have tried to parlay the summer experience into a more permanent separation from Memphis, Dean never saw it that way.
“The dream is here and Memphis needs … someone from Memphis to come be a part of Memphis. I had an opportunity to go to Chicago and work for (Obama’s) foundation, but I wanted to come home because when you get old enough and privileged enough to have some wisdom, you go back home and spread it. President Obama, he did that. He conquered the world and went back to spread that wisdom to Chicago, and that’s what I’m doing in Memphis.”
Dean now works as the director of community outreach for Memphis Mountaintop Media, which owns a five-acre complex that links 879-915 McLemore in ZIP code 38106. Across the street is the physical heart of 38126, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Philanthropist and film director Tom Shadyac (“The Nutty Professor,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Brian Banks Story,” which was shot in Memphis) owns the Memphis Mountaintop Media complex that has its official opening on April 3. By design, that’s 50 years to the day that Dr. King gave his “Mountaintop” speech, his last public address.
Shadyac, a member of the family that helped found world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, paid $1.85 million for the bankrupted Towne Center property at an auction in 2015. It will open as a rock-climbing gym and a community center, with Shadyac envisioning an art school and film studio.
“When I met him (Shadyac), I felt he had a good energy and was ready to come meet the real Memphis, and be a part of people’s lives; not come in and try to change it,” Dean said.
“When he came (to Memphis), he asked, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You gotta listen. I know you have a lot of wisdom but it’s not your turn to talk. It’s your turn to listen.’ And when he agreed he would sit and listen to Memphis, I knew that’s who I’d work for.”