These young people have graduated from their teens with a sense of responsibility beyond their years, and it is driving them to do good, to leave Memphis a better place. Within their ranks, there are advanced college degrees and long hours spent learning and perfecting a craft. The members of this group can dribble a ball, carry a tune, cook a meal, tell a joke, take a picture, book a show, raise money, raise awareness, and raise us all up if we put ourselves in their capable, young hands.
Each is an ambassador for our city. They are giving their best to make themselves and their community a better place to live and to visit.
News of violence and scandal can make the future seem bleak, but we can rest easier knowing that these 20 men and women are a part of that future. Keep an eye on them and watch what they can do when they put their minds and hearts to it.
1) Victor Sawyer
Victor Sawyer counts Jimi Hendrix among his musical idols. That's not so unusual for a 25-year-old who's been playing in garage bands and working to perfect his six-string solo since high school. It's a bit unexpected, however, for a jazz trombonist.
Victor began playing in band class at Ridgeway Middle School and chose the trombone, he says, for no other reason than that he had the long arm to work the slide. And it soon became his passion. Having moved through the competitive ranks of the high school band room, he still has a lot of respect for those humble beginnings. "Without high school music programs, I probably would have never really gotten into music."
He studied at the University of Memphis and then went for his master's at the Manhattan School of Music. New York jazz, he says, "is very cerebral, very technical, but here in Memphis, the home of the blues, there is a very strong sort of passionate element to it, an intangible sort of thing."
Returning to Memphis, he worked briefly for Leadership Memphis but felt he had to take a shot at giving everything to his music and plays regularly now with several bands while sitting in with whoever will have him. Living the life of a working musician — feast or famine as it is — he may not know what life will hand him from week to week, but, he says, "There's never a dull moment."
Victor can be caught playing all over town. Dig it. Twitter: @vdsawyer
2) Tiffany Langston
As online content and public relations specialist for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, one of 28-year-old Tiffany Langston's jobs is to sell Memphis to travel writers and journalists. And one of the best ways she's found to do that is through their stomachs. Tiffany is passionate about food.
"Memphis has been known for being a barbecue town, and that's great, but over the past few years, we've really increased our culinary variety," she says. "I want Memphis to be in the conversation with New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, and Charleston." The Anderson, South Carolina, native has eaten in all of those cities and will put Memphis' restaurants up against any of theirs.
She keeps a blog (tiffanytastes.com) about her gastronomic adventures and was part of the planning committee for the inaugural Best Memphis Burger Fest and is on The Commercial Appeal's Southern Tastes panel.
Tiffany attended the University of Miami before coming to the University of Memphis to study film in graduate school. Her love affair with Memphis began after graduation, when she went to work for the Memphis Zoo. "We really do have the best zoo, it's kind of amazing," she says.
A member of MPACT Memphis and the Memphis Urban League of Young Professionals, Tiffany continues to see her city anew through the eyes of visiting journalists. "There's just something about the energy here. It's a little gritty, a little rough and tumble, but it draws you in," she says. "My job is to promote all of the great things that are going on here, and every day I learn something new and awesome that's happening." Twitter: @tifflangston
3) Stephanie Bennett
As the new executive director of Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services, Stephanie Bennett, 27, holds the snips that help keep the animal population in check.
"We're trying to make a change in the whole animal world by trying to save all of the animals that are killed every year, but we're also trying to see things from an economic standpoint," she says. The organization offers its services to low-income households, trying to remove economic barriers to being a responsible pet owner.
The numbers she quotes are staggering: 11,000 animals were put down in Memphis in 2011. "Most of those were the direct result of animals that weren't fixed — and their puppies and their puppies' puppies. So our goal is to be a proactive prevention for this problem." Her organization performed more than 4,800 neutering surgeries last year.
Not unexpectedly, Stephanie is an animal lover, with a cat named June Bug. Her most beloved creature, however, may be a certain bear local to these parts. She's an avid fan of the NBA Grizzlies, attending games when possible and following on television when not.
By working to make Memphis' pet-loving community more responsible, Stephanie hopes to make Memphis a better place as well. "You can truly make a difference in this town," she says. "If you show up and work and try to make a change, the city accepts you with open arms." Twitter: @stephMEM
4) Scott Robinson
Scott Robinson is an Indiana native who's come from basketball country to Hoops City, where he coaches the men's basketball team for Victory University and oversees the burgeoning sports program as athletic director.
After coming to Memphis to study business management and play point guard for Crichton College, Scott went to the University of Memphis for a master's in science and education, focusing on sports science. While there, he worked as manager and graduate assistant under coaches John Calipari and Josh Pastner, both mentors.
After graduation, he proposed an athletic program for Victory in 2010 and was hired as its athletic director at the age of 27. Entering its third year, the program now offers volleyball, cross-country, bowling, indoor and outdoor track, spirit squad, and baseball — a fast rate of growth for a new program.
"It's all about the people you have around you," Scott says. "We've got great coaches, and our success, in terms of starting the program, wouldn't be where it is without the coaches we were able to bring in — really high-character."
Scott is looking for more growth in the future while working to expand the college experience for his student athletes. "Victory University is going to continue to grow because of the athletic department," he says. "It's brought a whole new element to our school being able to have that on-campus environment." Twitter: @CoachSrob
5) Sarah Maurice
Sarah Maurice's answer to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" was: "neurosurgeon." But as an undergraduate studying criminal justice at Tennessee State University, she changed that goal to becoming a forensic pathologist. She received an MBA in international business from the University of Memphis, studied in India for four months, and then earned her master's in health administration from Memphis.
Now 29, Sarah has been chief operating officer of the century-old Campbell Clinic since August. She oversees four clinic locations with 450 employees, 44 physicians, an after-hours program, and a physician's assistance program.
"Operations is everything — from keeping the big machine oiled and running to interacting with physicians, vendors, staff, and patients," she says. Sarah is responsible for the big projects, as well — the expansions and additions.
If it sounds like a lot of heavy lifting, that's okay, because Sarah is at home in the gym as a competitive bodybuilder. It's a sport she became interested in after trying to drop some weight and get into shape during grad school. "I fell in love with the way it made me feel," she says.
Exercising is a great way to relax, she says, after a long day helping to manage such an important component of Memphis' health-care industry.
6) Marvell L. Terry II
Marvell L. Terry II was diagnosed with HIV at 19. He withdrew and "was numb," he admits. But he came back with a stronger purpose and commitment and the fortitude to found the Red Door Foundation, which educates the community about HIV and AIDS.
"I wanted to start an organization that could save my own life," he says. "I wanted an organization to resemble me — a young, black, gay male — and I did not find that."
Now 27, the Kirby High School and University of Memphis graduate sits on state and city HIV/AIDS councils. Marvell says that the biggest problem in the city is a lack of funding. "We're number five in the country with our HIV and AIDS rate, with 600 new cases every year," he says.
For his efforts in combating HIV, Marvell was given the Light of Hope Award by the Shelby County Health Department in 2012.
Marvell uses all of the means at his disposal to increase awareness, including social media. He also speaks at conferences, churches, and schools. He is often asked why, with all of the obstacles in his way, he is still smiling. "I have to erase the stigma in this city," he answers. "So many people have said, 'Hey, you look like me, you're HIV-positive,' and they felt the will or the drive to keep on living." Twitter: @Marvellous2theT
7) Kelly Miller
Kelly Miller knows she could be making more money — a lot more money — working in the field of engineering science that she studied at Vanderbilt University. But she also knows that there are things more important than money. At least right now, at least at 23.
Kelly chose to come back to Memphis after college and work with the Peer Power mentoring program, an organization begun at East High School to train older students to mentor underclassmen. Kelly was a student mentor and says, "I felt like something was missing and that, when I left school, I wanted more options than just engineering."
As a student mentor herself while attending East, she came to know the program and to see the value in it. She came back during her summers to work with them and, when it came time for a career, she decided there was no better way to begin a professional life than by giving back. Her duties now include facilitating the 9th-grade after-school tutor program, working as an in-class math tutor, and supervising the college-aged mentors.
She hears from people who only see the potential for bigger paychecks, but Kelly knows from her time in the classroom that some rewards are greater than cash. "I have a love for teaching," she says. "It's natural for me."
8) Jermel "Ziggy" Tucker
People say of his photographic skills that Jermel "Ziggy" Tucker excels in capturing the moment. After a cancer scare last year, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, capturing the moment has never been more important for this 27-year-old fashion and portrait photographer.
Ziggy's good with people. He enjoys seeing new faces, making new contacts, and talking (friends began calling him "Ziggy" due to his rapid-fire speech pattern). After graduating with a degree in psychology from Christian Brothers University, he decided that his true passion lay behind the lens of a digital SLR camera his brother had given him and which is ever-present around his neck.
Self-taught, he has toiled long nights in clubs, capturing the movement. His career highlight came last year, when he was given the opportunity to photograph President Obama during his visit to the Booker T. Washington High School graduation. Ziggy stood eight feet from Obama, clicking away. "It was pretty awesome," he says.
Free of cancer now, his goal is to become a photojournalist. He looks up to local photographers as mentors and says, "I must be doing something right."
Movement. It's what Ziggy likes to capture, and he'll be moving forward in his own way for years to come. Twitter: @loopless
9) Lori Spicer
From a basement office below Jefferson Avenue, Lori Spicer has the reins of the Regional Medical Center's outreach and community programs as manager of community affairs and engagement/volunteer services.
Lori implements health fairs, taking outreach workers into underserved areas. She also works with the mayor's office for hospital violence intervention to assess the environment of anyone who comes in with a gunshot wound and the Sunrise Program to educate teen mothers on the importance of prenatal health care. Lori also serves or has served on the boards of Dance Works, Girls, Inc., and Memphis Prom Closet and is the community organizer for Northside High Girl Talk, a mentoring program she developed for high school girls.
Lori received her undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a master's in mass communications and public relations from the University of Florida. She worked in public relations in Washington, D.C., before moving back to Memphis to work for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, a job she called "a blessing," in her attempts to acclimate to the city where she'd grown up. "It allowed me to create a whole new appreciation for Memphis that I didn't have before I left."
Her move to the Med was a challenge but has proven to be vastly rewarding. "My job is fulfilling," Lori says. "It's very purposeful work, especially considering the health outlook of our city and our community."
10) Elizabeth Cawein
Memphis music, from Sun Studios to Stax to Goner, is widely seen overseas as the nexus for all that is holy in popular culture. Of her time in England pursuing a graduate degree in contemporary media studies at Brunel University, Elizabeth Cawein, 27, says, "I was like a celebrity."
Wanting to maintain that energy, she moved to New York for a stint as a music writer before coming home to work with the Memphis Music Foundation. "This is what I really want to be doing," she says. "I get to work with not just musicians but Memphis musicians every day."
The job, however, didn't last, and she began her own firm, Signal Flow PR, in 2011, as a specialty public relations and publicity firm catering to musicians and music businesses.
Beginning with two clients, she has grown to a roster of 15, including the Memphis Rock-n-Soul Museum and Archer Records. Artists under her charge include Chris Milam (on this 20<30 list), Myla Smith, Keia Johnson, and the Patrick Dodd Trio.
She is also an adjunct professor teaching publicity and marketing, distribution, and merchandising at the Visible Music College.
Elizabeth has found her niche in looking after the interests of music professionals and says of the local music scene: "The thing that has never changed about Memphis is the talent." She's doing her part to help maintain that talent and to get her clients, the artists, their due. Twitter: @SignalFlowPR
11) Jen Andrews
Jen Andrews is from the small town of Marianna, Arkansas, where she was one of 20 graduates in her high school class. The first-generation college graduate studied English literature at Rhodes College and planned to get her Ph.D. and live her life in a library. But after an internship with Ducks Unlimited, she says, she "met the park." The park is Shelby Farms Park, where she became the first employee of the Shelby Farms Conservancy in 2006 and is now its director of development and communications.
She's proud, she says, "to look back at seven years so well-spent, learning and working with talented, committed people, and to see an organization of almost 30 people now, which we created out of nothing — nothing but a couple of women and a big idea."
Jen speaks of the park as a living thing and is excited by the recent additions, such as the Shelby Farms Greenline and Woodland Discovery Playground. She's excited about the future extension of the Greenline and expansion of Patriot Lake and all that it portends for the largest urban park in the country.
"It's not just about the bigness of the park but the bigness of the vision and what that can mean for the city."
Is there still time to sit beneath an oak tree and read some literature? Well, not so much. It's a job that keeps her busy and fulfilled. "It's not hard to stay inspired when you work at a park, and you can look out the window and literally see why you do what you do."
12) Molly Pearce
We all remember what it feels like to be a child and face the doctor — lying on that crinkly paper while some stranger with a probing light and syringe approaches. It can be scary. Molly Pearce, child-life specialist with Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, works to change that experience. "I help patients and families cope with the stress of being in the hospital," she says. "We do a lot of explaining things to kids, explaining procedures, explaining diagnoses. We do a lot of emotional and family support."
It is, she says, the best job in the hospital.
The 29-year-old remembers going to Le Bonheur as a child herself for outpatient procedures. "I was just so scared and so anxious," she says. She grew up in Memphis and went to Middle Tennessee State University to study child development. When she graduated in 2007, she says, "I wanted to be in Memphis, and I knew Le Bonheur was where I wanted to be."
As she works to reassure kids that they're safe and that everything will be okay, it often has the same effect on parents, who may not know how to react when seeing their child treated for an illness or accident. This creates a familial feeling and one that can be carried over for years when Molly sees the child again if they are being treated long-term.
When not working, Molly enjoys spending time with her nephews and friends and volunteering with her church, Grace Evangelical, in Germantown.
13) Chris Peterson
"Seeing garbage turned back into dirt has always been a really cool thing to me," says 25-year-old Chris Peterson. He loved spending time outdoors as a child and helping his mother with her gardening in Germantown. It's carried over to his current job as executive director of GrowMemphis and its initiative to bring community gardens to blighted, vacant lots around the city.
Chris has a degree in philosophy and religion from Christian Brothers University and spent a year at King's College in London for an intensive master's course in human values and contemporary global ethics. "A program like that is interdisciplinary," he says. "It focuses on ethical issues but with some influence of law and social science. The situation in London, where you're around the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that you're talking about every day in class is unbeatable for that sort of program." Traveling was nothing new to Chris, who had previously studied abroad in Argentina and did volunteer work in Nicaragua.
In England, he says, the issue with community gardening is a lack of space. People will get on waiting lists for a spot to open. In Memphis, it is just the opposite. Chris enjoys "empowering people to start community gardens." GrowMemphis has done so in areas such as Binghamton and Orange Mound and with schools around the city.
His interests lie not just in getting his hands dirty but with farmworkers' rights and global development. He is the personification of thinking globally while acting locally. Twitter: @GrowMemphis
14) Kevin Sullivan
Kevin Sullivan went to Northside High School and then to college at the "University of Tsunami" with a spatula and ricer replacing textbook and laptop.
Now a chef in his own right, he began working as a dishwasher at Tsunami in Cooper-Young 10 years ago, when he was 17. He became curious about the alchemy happening on the butcher's block and the stove. "Ben [Smith, Tsunami's owner] does a lot of things in-house, so seeing the fish come in and then watching all the way to when it hits the plate was interesting to me. I liked watching him cut fish and learning from the guys in the kitchen. They started teaching me and training me, and eventually I was cooking myself."
But Kevin wanted to branch out and make his own flavor. Ki Kitchen (Ki is Japanese for "soul"), a nascent catering business, marries soul food with an Asian sensibility. Kevin grew up eating the soul food of his grandmother, aunts, and cousins, but the Asian infusion is something he learned as a chef's apprentice.
His favorite dish to eat is mahi on rice. At home, for wife Stacey, it's pork chops.
While his heart and loyalties lie with Tsunami, his soul and dreams are behind the wheel of a food truck and maybe a restaurant of his own some day. Someplace funky, where he can marry the food of his past with some spice from today.
15) Frankie Dakin
At an age when most people are just forming a political ideology, learning to paraphrase college professors, parents, or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, 20-year-old Frankie Dakin has jumped into politics feet first.
The Rhodes College junior was recently elected alderman in Millington, beginning his term on January 1st. "I felt like a hypocrite," he says, telling people they should work to make a difference in their community when "in the community where I grew up, there were people who needed help as well and needed somebody to step up."
He attributes his good fortune and interest in being a part of the solution to his studies in political economy at Rhodes and his participation in BRIDGES. "It changed my life," he says of the Bridge Builders leadership program.
As an alderman, Frankie enjoys addressing local groups and working toward changes and interests close to his heart, such as the implementation of a citizen review committee for the Millington Police Department and creating a new skate park.
Where does he go from here? He may take some time off after graduation before entering law school. He'll certainly finish out his four years as alderman. No doubt the experience he's gaining in Millington will lead him further into the political landscape.
First, though, he's focusing all of his energy on his hometown. "If we can figure out how to solve some of our problems," he says, "I really think we can create a laboratory for change in other places." Twitter: @frankiedakin
16) Katie Midgley
Where does a Starkville, Mississippi, native go with a B.S. in psychology and a master's in criminology? Memphis is a good start. After school at Mississippi State and the University of Alabama, Katie Midgley came to town to work with the Urban Child Institute, a nonprofit that works with researchers, strategists, and practitioners dedicated to the well-being of children. "I wore many hats," she says. "Not only did I write policy briefs, but I did media appearances, community outreach, and communications for that group."
Now at the Plough Foundation, the 28-year-old is a program associate addressing the problems of aging. "It doesn't matter if you're looking at young children or if you're looking at older adults, the needs are the same. We all need a caregiver who's supported, we all need public transportation, we all need a house. Across a lifespan, we all have the same basic needs," Katie says.
In addition to her work with Plough, Katie sits on the boards of the Wolf River Conservancy and Books from Birth. She's become "swept up" in the progressive efforts and in all the city has to offer. She and husband Tom live in Midtown and enjoy the Greenline and taking their pug to the new Overton Bark.
When it comes to addressing problems in the city, though, it's all about a positive perspective for Katie, who says, "A community that's good for a young child is going to be good for an 80-year-old." Twitter: @KatieBugMemphis
17) Emily Halpern
Like many of us, 29-year-old Emily Halpern first became interested in art in kindergarten with Crayolas and glue sticks. This interest carried her through elementary school and St. Mary's Episcopal School. Back in her birth city of New Orleans for college, her interest in art became more focused and led to an art history degree at Tulane University.
During college, Emily interned in galleries from New Orleans to New York, as well as the David Lusk Gallery in Memphis. As Hurricane Katrina raged outside, she finished up her degree before heading to New York University for an interdisciplinary master's program in visual culture. She met her husband, Joel (20<30, 2011), had a son, Jackson, and moved back to Memphis, where she worked as director of communications for the Dixon Gallery & Gardens.
In her latest role as director of programming and communications for Crosstown Arts, she calls on her experiences in different art markets to bring together neighborhoods and, on a larger scale, the city of Memphis. The Crosstown neighborhood bridges Midtown and downtown, and the arts are playing a revitalizing role there.
"Art can do many things, but what excites me right now in Memphis is its ability to connect people to each other and to places in so many ways," she says. "As a social connector and shared experience, art becomes a means for communicating information, evoking emotion, and inspiring new ideas and actions. Supporting and facilitating these opportunities is just one step, but an important one, in the process of building community and reimagining spaces, places, neighborhoods, and cities."
18) Chris Milam
Chris Milam grew up listening to his parents' music on road trips. His mom liked the soul and funk of Stax; his dad, the lyric poetry of James Taylor. It may have created the impetus for Chris to become a singer-songwriter. The Houston High School graduate got a degree in English with a minor in music from Vanderbilt University — what he calls a "songwriting degree." He got his "master's" from playing clubs in New York City for almost two years.
Neither Nashville nor New York ever felt like the right fit, though: "Memphis has always been my first love and home, and it's where all my favorite people are, so I knew I wanted Memphis to be home base again."
Chris now spends 100-plus days a year traveling, countless hours in the studio, in addition to belting out lyrics for his fans around town. "I have faith that I've got the support system around me, and I'm paying the dues now to hopefully get there one day," he says.
You can pick up his latest CD, his fifth release, Young Avenue, wherever you buy records. You can see him live every Monday night at Newbys. Twitter: @ChrisMilam
19) Anna Mullins
Museum directors are balding, gray-bearded, fusty old men with dust on their coats and cobweb-shrouded books under their arms, right? Not Anna Mullins, executive director of the Cotton Museum. The 29-year-old has been anything but staid as she's worked to expand the museum's offerings, exhibits, and programs since coming on board in 2011. She's done so with art exhibits and outreach programs that teach the history of the region and city through tales, photographs, and artifacts of farmers and merchants.
Anna's own history is in journalism, which she studied at the University of Memphis (including an MFA in writing) and practiced as editorial director of niche publications for E.W. Scripps.
She spends her days now at Union Avenue and Front Street on Cotton Row and acts as greeter to the tourists who may have come to town for Elvis and pork but are treated to a history lesson in agriculture and tradition. "A lot of people, both tourists and locals, unfortunately, don't know the legacy of cotton in Memphis and the way the city was founded as a cotton port. The reason tourists come to Memphis — the music, the history of civil rights, the history of diversity that Memphis is known for — in many ways came out of the cotton field."
With Anna's help, visitors weave their way among our past and leave with a better understanding of why we are who we are.
20) Anthony Petrina
When you grow up in Memphis, you come to learn a few things. For instance, there are two mayors; there are two kings; there are two bridges; two school systems (for now); and at least two names for every street.
But there is only one Peabody Hotel Duckmaster, and his name is Anthony Petrina.
As Duckmaster, Anthony is, of course, in charge of the Peabody ducks, escorting them on their daily trips from rooftop to elevator to lobby fountain. And there are also trips to schools and nursing homes. As Duckmaster, Anthony considers himself the ducks' butler. "Alfred to their Batman," he says. "While they're working hard every day — swimming, eating, and sleeping — I'm making sure all of the accommodations and travel arrangements and everything is proper and working for them."
Despite the unglamorous side of the gig, it is a position that carries the responsibility of being an ambassador for Memphis. Anthony and the ducks greet tourists, Hollywood celebrities, and famous politicians. He's rubbed shoulders with the likes of George Hamilton, Peter Frampton, and comedian Jim Gaffigan.
At 26, Anthony is an outgoing and theatrical guy by nature and the youngest Duckmaster in Peabody history. He grew up in Memphis and studied hotel and resort management at the University of Memphis, but his first exposure to the Peabody ducks was as a child seeing them on Sesame Street. Now his life has come full-circle. "Elmo, Bert, and Ernie all marched the ducks with me," he says.