Opportunity Challenge Ends, But Work Just Beginning

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This morning concluded the three-day Opportunity Challenge that brought together influential people from the local business and civic communities to brainstorm about improving Memphis.

The nonprofit CEOs for Cities and Mayor A C Wharton's Office of Talent & Human Capital staged the event at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation. Its first day was spent listening to national experts make suggestions, and most of the rest of the time involved idea sessions. The session's main objective was to come up with ways to help even the most unemployable or vulnerable citizens put their talents to work.

Charlie Cannon of the Rhode Island School of Design, who facilitated Opportunity Challenge, broke the group's ideas into two main categories. The first was finding ways to make Memphis a learning city, where lifelong learning and civic engagement are encouraged regardless of financial reward, and the other was to make it into a venture city where new ideas are embraced and supported.

"We are in a moment of urgency and opportunity," he said, referring to a PowerPoint slide. "We need to redefine the American dream."

One way is by making education more accessible to the poor or other marginalized groups. Although it's not usually identified as such, Memphis is a college town that often draws the best and brightest to learn and teach, but many of its own citizens languish. Meanwhile, those who come from outside often feel disconnected.

"Barbecue is great, blues is great, but there are so many more faces to this city," Wharton said.

He also admitted that just getting a group of "well-intentioned people together with great vision" at an Opportunity Challenge conference isn't enough. Talent development has to be intentional — and sustained — to improve the city's economic destiny. And as was expressed earlier in the week, education is one of the pillars of any such initiative. A good place to begin is in cities, where population is already dense.

Whereas the dollar used to be everyone's currency of choice, brain power is most important locally, nationally, and internationally, Wharton said. Brain power begins (and ends) with people. He cited a well-known nursery rhyme to make his point.

"There's the church, there's the steeple," Wharton said, "Open the door and see the people."

Without the people, there is no church. There is no city.

Ideas generated from the Opportunity Challenge will be written in a grant-sponsored book.

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