“People see poverty only as an economic benchmark, meaning that only so much money comes into a household. What we’ve found is that it is the lack of the ability to create well being, a life of well being for yourself and for your family. And it’s from one generation to the other. – Ruby Bright (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The New Tri-State Defender’s yearlong MLK50 reporting project continues with this second installment of MLK50: The view from 38126. Zeroed in on the city’s poorest ZIP code – and one of the poorest in the nation, the coverage focus is on raising the profile of poverty, putting faces to conditions and chronicling the transformative efforts of individuals and groups.

The offices of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis are on the 22nd floor of the tower at 40 S. Main St. in Downtown Memphis. Without straining, it is easy to look out the windows and see that something is going on a few blocks away in ZIP code 38126.

Executive Director Ruby Bright and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis have chosen to have a vested interest in the city’s poorest ZIP code. By 2020, they are planning to have measurements that show poverty there has been reduced by five percent in one-year increments.

Bright remembers getting that “bless you child response” when the foundation embarked on its mission two years ago. It was a comeback meant to politely convey good luck trying to do what the speakers – and many in the silent majority – just can’t imagine coming to past.

In 1997-98, the foundation had worked with the University of Memphis Center for Research on Women on a poverty study – A Profile on Women and Girls. The poorest ZIP Code in the community at the time was 38126. Two years ago, as the foundation’s board and staff contemplated the organization’s next five years, there was a sobering point of reference.

While the foundation had worked with other organizations “to do some good work” and had some accomplishments to show for it, “Twenty years later and it still is not very much better,” Bright recalled.

Shante Avant (right) and Ruby Bright share the view that one of the ways to realize Dr. King’s vision is to “continue to work hard for impacting communities such as the community of 38126.” (Photos: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The path forward involved locking in on lessons learned, having conversations with the community, creating a logic model. By-invitation-only requests for proposals were sent out because they didn’t want to cast a broad net at that point. More meetings followed.

“It kept coming back to we need to stay with reducing poverty,” Bright said. “It just came out from board members – ‘We need to reduce poverty in 38126. We need to go to the poorest ZIP code. We need to make our next five year’s investment in that ZIP code.’”

There was a recognition that generally speaking Memphis didn’t want to talk about poverty. So the foundation dug in, resolved said Bright, “to focus on informing our community, getting our community to come on board with us to talk about poverty.”

On April 17 during a presentation at Booker T. Washington High School, one of 38126’s historical anchors, the second-year results of the foundation’s Vision 2020 initiative will be detailed.

Foundation Chairperson Mary H. McDaniel has been on the board since 2009.

“38126…when you say that to me what I actually think about is one of the areas that has the most poverty-stricken individuals in the city,” she said. “I think of it as an opportunity for me to serve in a personal capacity and in a professional capacity. I want to specifically make a difference when I think about 38126.”

So you are going to reduce poverty by five percent over five years, with a one-percent decrease each year?

“I am a total optimist when it comes to bringing about change. I do believe with vision and a mission and willingness to do the work that we can make change,” said McDaniel, who buttresses her optimism with a focus on the foundation’s five measurable goals.

• Support families in ZIP code 38126 in securing resources to meet their basic needs.

• Equip residents with marketable job skills to gain living wage employment.

• Ensure that all children age 0-5 living in 38126 will be prepared to enter and learn in kindergarten.

• Develop positive outcomes in youth that include competence, confidence, connection and character.

• Help families gain the financial education skills to help them reduce poverty.

Since the launch of Vision 2020, the foundation has awarded $2.2 million dollars to 27 grantee partner organizations to support programs designed to advance the five goals. A measurement partnership with the University of Memphis, Center for Research in Educational Policy yielded these first-year results:

• 3,500-plus individuals were reached via programs funded by the foundation.

• 333 have been placed in jobs and have steady employment.

• 407 children are enrolled in early education and child care programs.

• 850 young people have been exposed to opportunities provided by the programs supporting positive youth development.

• Household income increased by 20 percent.

But as prevalent as poverty is in 38126, all is not gloom and doom — children still play in the streets on sunny days, just like anywhere else. Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

“This is not something that is mystic or that we don’t have some interest for,” McDaniel said. “These are simple impact measurements so that if we focus on these goals over the next five years there is no reason why we will not see change.”

The signs of change most visible from the foundation’s windows tell the story of Memphis’ last remaining housing projects making way for a future projected to be substantively different.

“We’ve been a partner helping with the relocation and being thoughtful about how that’s done, responding to the needs and the voices of the people within the community,” Bright said.

There have been challenges. “Trust is a big factor, suspicion,” said Bright.

One meeting in a Memphis Housing Authority boardroom stands out. The objective was to identify “ambassadors” who could talk to their peers regarding the transition and build a bridge to available support.

“One of the ladies said, ‘You know, I’m here because I was asked to be here. I’m at Memphis Housing Authority and I was late on my rent. They are not gonna put me out if I do this. … You sit there in your fine suits and your nose up in the air. You’re asking these questions. You don’t really care about me and my family.’’’

Later, Bright engaged the woman in a conversation about her children – a son “who was out there,” a daughter and an 11 year old who “could be somebody if he just don’t get with the wrong crowd.”

Bright asked if there was something to help the child would it make a difference to her. The answer was, “I’d think about it.”

“She became a very strong arm,” said Bright, “and it helped us all view from her seat. We recognized that if we were going to have a conversation, it needed to be equity. We needed not type form them. And we needed to go to them, go into the neighborhood.”

Shante Avant, chairperson of the Shelby County Schools Board of Education, is the foundation’s deputy director. She said the work the foundation is doing there through and with its partners is in keeping with what Dr. King came to Memphis to address – economic injustices.

Over time, the people in 38126 have been disenfranchised, she said. “There has been de-investment in the community in resources, in systems, in structures.”

Like McDaniel and Bright she talks with conviction about the foundation helping the residents by meeting its poverty-reduction goals. She paints this picture of ultimate success – a revitalized community.

“It (success)  is reinvestment in the community. It’s quality schools. It’s quality of life. It’s economic mobility for the families that live here. The emotional well being of our children is at the compass of how we do this well.”

The success picture is also one that shows the breaking of the factors that contribute to multi-generations of poverty, with the foundation’s focus on its five goals a key element in the image.

“It (success) is less of a dependence on public assistance. Those are the things you want to see in the end if you are reducing poverty.”