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Memphis Challenge celebrates 30 years of supporting students of color in Memphis

In a show of support for arts in education, Memphis Challenge chose music as the way to kick off its 30th-anniversary celebration with an evening of entertainment, Jazzin’ Around 7, Friday at 7 p.m. at the Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts in Downtown Memphis. The fundraiser will support the nonprofit and its expanded educational opportunities for Memphis’ high achieving students of color.

“The impact of Memphis Challenge for me will always be continuous because I can’t help but pass down the benevolence with which someone took the time to help me develop and launch my foundational platform for success,” said Lila Hood, electric violinist and a Memphis Challenge alum who will be one of the performers at the Jazzin’ Around event.

Singer and trumpeter Johnny Britt is the featured performer. In addition to playing at the Oscars and Golden Globes award shows, he also worked on the soundtracks to La La Land and the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures.

The evening will also feature local ophthalmologist Bill Hurd, who is a master of the alto and tenor saxophone. Hurd has recorded with notable musicians like Isaac Hayes, Kirk Whalum and Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Prior to the performance, the three artists will hold free Jazz Jam master classes for around 140 Shelby County high school students. The classes will focus on strings, brass and wind, and students will learn music created by the performers. Hood’s workshop will help students build upon their current skill set and expand into genres like rock, pop, jazz and hip-hop. Now living in Los Angeles, she launched Electric Youth Orchestra L.A. and the adult beginner Galactic Blue Orchestra this year.

“As a string student who was classically trained by some of the top string professionals in Memphis, I know how it feels to be in their shoes. One of the most rewarding things to me is helping string students elevate their minds outside of the classical box. I strongly believe that one experience can change a life,” said Hood.

Lila Hood, a Memphis Challenge alum, is leading a Jazz Jam masterclass and will perform at Jazzin’ Around on December 7. (Submitted)

Memphis Challenge started as a pilot at East High School in 1989. AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde created the nonprofit as a way to retain local talent by funneling students to colleges and universities throughout the country and encouraging them to return to Memphis after graduation. Memphis Challenge launched with 20 seniors in its first class.

Now, 150 teens from 18 Shelby County schools take part annually. It has grown into an effective resource for developing future minority leaders for Memphis through a diverse educational curriculum.

Located in Emerge Memphis, a business incubator Downtown, students have their own space and meet after school from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Fast forward three decades, talent retention is on the radar of every major city in America. We are proud that about 55 percent of our alums are back in Memphis working, living and are a significant part of the fabric of this community. You name an industry, I can identify a Challenger who is part of that industry — from medicine, scientists, pharmacists and magistrates,” said Cassandra Webster, executive director of Memphis Challenge.

Recruitment for incoming freshmen begins in 8th grade. Applications are made by the student, who must have a 3.5 GPA or higher. In addition to the GPA, seniors are required to have a 25 ACT score. The senior program has helped over 900 students gain the attention of admissions counselors at several top-tier universities and colleges, with 97 percent of Challengers graduating from college.

“During my years in the program, my class or group attended workshops together, practiced writing college essays together, and rehearsed for college interviews together. As we completed each task along the way, we realized that not only was college attainable, but the college of our dreams was also attainable,” said Hood.

The core curriculum focuses on mock interviews, time management, communication etiquette, public speaking and stress management. For years, Memphis Challenge was only available to juniors and seniors in high school. But in 2014, the nonprofit expanded programming to 9th and 10th graders who perform at a high academic level.

“We identify high achieving students grades 9 through 12. We take them through a core curriculum of personal and professional development, really tapping into social and emotional intelligence needs, as well as we have an experiential learning program,” said Webster.

Memphis Challengers are shown at a reading at Lindenwood Christian Church, where they read to children and donated books they wrote, illustrated, and published as part of the 2016 Tell Me A Story service project. (Submitted)

In 2016, Memphis Challenge launched the Tell Me a Story project as an experiential learning element. Students write and illustrate children’s storybooks, along with an anthology of poems, which are published. They read the books at afterschool programs, Ronald McDonald House, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and public libraries.

Last year, students tried their hands at filmmaking, creating three shorts along with two podcasts about the struggles youth in Memphis face. This year, they created four webzines — short-form, online magazines — around the theme of social justice. The publications highlighted art and creative writing in honor of MLK 50.

“It’s a way in which our students can truly amplify their voice and make a statement and have an outlet for the challenges they are experiencing,” said Webster.

In 2019, to celebrate 30 years, Challengers will create testimonials to the legacy of Memphis Challenge with plaster moldings of their own hands, embellished with artistic impressions of their views on community, heritage and hopes for the future.

Culminating in a commemorative celebration of Memphis Challenge’s 30th anniversary, the hand sculptures will be auctioned to raise funds for the organization and a large-scale public art version of Our Hands, Our Legacy will also be unveiled.

“It only takes a spark to ignite the imagination, hope, belief and confidence in youth. In many ways, Memphis Challenge was that spark,” said Hood.

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