January 15th is a significant day in American history. It's when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born. In local history, it was the date that the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center was founded in Memphis.
On that day in 1982, a group of about 25 people gathered and discussed the need for an organization to advocate equality, peace, and social justice through nonviolent action.
Nearly three decades later, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center continues to uphold its initial goals by fighting to end poverty, homelessness, blight, food and resource inadequacy, and inequality regarding race and sexuality. It also teaches courses in how to organize, so citizens can personally contribute to improving their community.
Headquartered in First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young, the center has a pocket-sized staff of five, supplemented by 12 board members. But it's still one of the cornerstone organizing groups in the Mid-South. It has stayed relevant by organizing those who are overlooked by government and other mainstream entities.
Executive director Jacob Flowers says the organization believes that the experts are the people in the communities who are affected by injustice on a daily basis. "Those are the people who know what the real problems are. Those are the people who experience the issues every day. And therefore they are the people who know what solutions are going to work.
"Unfortunately," he says, "the dynamic that we have now in this city, in this state, and in this country is that those people are almost never a part of the conversations, whether it's planning programs to address problems, deciding where and how money is spent to address them. For us, that's a huge part of the problem."
Flowers says getting the voices of those with low incomes heard is imperative if we want to change the state of the city's impoverished communities.
"The way you do that is by teaching people organizing skills," he says, "so they can get out there and organize their community, organize their church, organize their neighborhood; so they can go to the city council meetings; so they can analyze the city budget; so they can pressure their senators and their congresspeople to do the right thing."
Memphians who live in communities faced with blight, drugs, crime, and poverty often experience a sense of hopelessness. They pray that a change will come, but all too often they meet with the harsh reality that the change they're looking for is not happening.
Grassroots Organizers Training for Power (G.O.T. Power) is a Peace & Justice Center program that teaches people the skills needed to become community organizers. The program has three components: Core Organizer, Training of Trainers, and Support and Development.
Allison Glass, the center's training director, says the training enables people to learn the foundational skills of organizing. "They learn how to plan a campaign, how to interact with the media, and how to reach out and work with diverse communities," Glass says. "They also learn how to deal with conflict and how to take nonviolent direct action."
G.O.T. Power is currently being utilized by Occupy Memphis, providing members with direct-action training so they're prepared to exhibit self-control if confronted by police.
Glass says the center fully supports the Occupy movement and believes that it's allowing more voices to be heard. "We want to give people the skills to be able to harness the power that is already within them and be able to create positive change within their communities."
On any given day, there are nearly 2,000 people in Memphis and Shelby County who lack a place to call home. It's a startling statistic, one that the center is working to change.
Brad Watkins, the center's organizing coordinator, is leading its fight to address homelessness by first building awareness of it, then by seeking methods to reduce or eradicate it.
One of the programs Watkins is involved in is called Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, or HOPE. The program works with people experiencing homelessness and strives to organize positive community action in and around issues affecting them, such as housing, police harassment, and shelter.
The organization has created the Memphis Survival Guide, a user-friendly directory of local, private agencies and organizations offering services to the homeless.
In 2010, HOPE distributed 8,000 copies.
"If someone suddenly ended up on the street, with this guide, they could go directly to the service provider that fits their particular need," Watkins says.
"There are dozens of ways that people experience homelessness, so we wanted to make sure that we were comprehensive. Then we put it directly into the hands of the people who need it."
The guides were also utilized and distributed by the Shelby County Public Defender's office, Shelby County Division of Corrections, Pre-Trial Services, Memphis Emergency Medical Services, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and the American Red Cross.
Though the center was involved with the policy and planning committee for the city of Memphis' 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, Flowers says they were disappointed that the city only granted $250,000 of its federal funding to support the plan.
"We spent all of last budget season having to beg the city to give a measly $250,000 to support a plan to end homelessness that both the city and the county mayor produced," Flowers says.
"In that same budget cycle, they gave $4 million away to build a parking garage for a private company in Overton Square and $9 million for a boat dock at Beale Street Landing. Poor people in this city are never going to be able to afford a ticket to get on the Great American Steamboat Company's steamboat. They don't have the money to pay for parking, much less go to those amenities in Overton Square that they're building a parking garage to support."
Despite its opposition to the amount of allotted funding for the city's plan, the organization still supports the initiative.
Center staffers point to the positive impact of such programs as Project Homeless Connect, a massive one-day event in September that gathered people from 70 companies and organizations at the Mid-South Fairground's Pipkin Building. The groups provided the homeless with resources such as dental and medical care, housing programs, employment, food stamps, Social Security information, and even haircuts.
Watkins says for homelessness to be eradicated in Memphis, those who are directly impacted by it need to be front and center in the conversations about its solution.
Watkins stresses that the center does not use the term "homeless people," because people who are experiencing homelessness shouldn't be labeled. "It creates an 'us'/'them' mindset," he says.
"They're not from the planet Homeless. They're not alien or separate. They're Memphians, they're Americans, and they're us."
Building the Community
The Peace & Justice Center has created a program called the Neighborhood Alliance that advocates, organizes, and promotes legislation and policies to improve the quality of life in selected neighborhoods. The alliance focuses on eliminating blight and creating community and youth engagement. It is currently working with neighborhood groups in Rozelle-Annesdale, Glenview, Oak Haven, Orange Mound, and Seventh Street, among others.
The alliance initiated a blight-watch web series in 2010, which spotlighted 20 decrepit or abandoned properties. The videos, which were placed on YouTube, revealed how the blighted properties encouraged littering and dumping, lowered surrounding property values, and presented potential fire hazards.
"We're not only talking about an issue of people's rights and people being able to stay in their homes. We're also talking about the long-term economic viability of the city," Watkins says. "These vacant properties are costly to all of us. They increase our fire-protection costs. At the same time, we're losing tax revenue, because we don't know who owns them."
According to the Shelby County Juvenile Court, in 2010, nearly 11,000 juveniles were processed through the system. More than 300 were ordered to perform community service.
In collaboration with the Juvenile Court, the center's Neighborhood Alliance is creating a plan of action that will give teens who have been ordered to perform community service the option to work with neighborhood associations or community organizations near their homes.
Participating groups include the South Memphis Farmers Market and the Binghamton-based Urban Farm and Urban Market, as well as neighborhood associations in Glenview, Rozelle-Annesdale, Speedway Terrace, and Normal Station.
Watkins says he wants to encourage the teens involved with the program to make a positive change in their communities.
"I'm not looking to have kids do community service with Juvenile Court as free labor," Watkins says. "I want to train these kids with the skills to be organizers, so they can reach out to their friends. Through that, we can reintegrate these kids back into the community, to the point where people in the neighborhood can see them in a positive light, where they have a feeling of their own power, and they can see the fruits of their labor in making their neighborhood a better place."
In January 2010, a study conducted by the Food Research and Action Center revealed 26 percent of people in the greater Memphis area could not afford to buy food for their families. The report dubbed Memphis the country's "hunger capital," due to many areas of the city being "food deserts" — places that have inadequate access to healthy, affordable food.
The Peace & Justice Center's GrowMemphis program is working to help those who don't live near grocery stores or produce markets grow gardens in their community. Any excess produce can be sold at the Cooper-Young Community Farmer's Market at First Congregational Church.
The center is involved with 25 community gardens in South Memphis, Orange Mound, Binghamton, North Memphis, Midtown, and other areas. Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations are among the groups managing gardens.
Josephine Alexander, the center's GrowMemphis coordinator, says the program helps citizens take a hands-on approach to bettering their community by producing food for it.
"A lot of our communities in Memphis, particularly low-income communities, have limited access to healthy food via grocery stores," she says. "People are getting a lot of food from corner stores, where it's more expensive, and it's a lot of junk food."
In 2010, GrowMemphis offered input to the city's planning and development department as it rewrote the zoning code. The Unified Development Code created a special ordinance that allowed community or neighborhood gardens throughout the city, instead of only in certain areas, as the previous code permitted.
"Now, you can take a vacant lot and turn it into a garden, as long as you meet a few basic requirements to meet compliance with the zoning code," Alexander says.
GrowMemphis also backed the creation of a city ordinance that allows residents to keep chickens for household use of eggs.
"We're all about creating a more sustainable city, and any household food production is working toward that," Alexander says. "We want to make it possible for more people to be able to keep chickens and have community gardens."
GrowMemphis' Double Green$ program allows those with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps, to use them at the Urban Farms, Cooper-Young, and South Memphis farmers markets.
The program also provides shoppers using SNAP benefits with 10 bonus dollars added to whatever they spend on produce.
"The program increases revenue for farmers," Alexander says. "It redirects these federal funds to the local economy by [SNAP benefits] being spent with local farmers. It also gets better food on the tables of people who need it the most."
When it was first formed, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center's main objective was to work on national peace-related issues, as well as local justice-related issues. It lobbied city banks to improve their lending practices in low-income neighborhoods; it exposed the city's 12 largest polluters; it raised awareness about apartheid in South Africa and U.S. military involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Janice Vanderhaar, a founding member, says that during the early years, the group was adamant about making sure the organization was integrated. "Our message was to be all-inclusive, whatever race, color, creed. We also wanted to be inclusive of other religions, so that it wasn't any particular religious persuasion. We were very attentive to that. Peace includes all races," Vanderhaar says.
The organization continues to be all-inclusive though perhaps more locally focused in its activism. The center is working to become more of a membership-based entity. A donation of any amount makes one a member.
"If people are interested in taking action to change the situation they find themselves in, to change the power dynamics in the city so that the vast majority of us have policies that speak in our favor, and not in favor of a few chosen developers or a few chosen big businesses, then we're building a movement like that. We need people to join it, help support it, and have a say in how it develops," Flowers says.
"We certainly don't do it for the money," Watkins says. "It takes long hours and it requires sacrifices, but it's ultimately worth it. It's about real people, and real lives every day, and things we can do to make our community better."