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Q & A with Sarah Sieloff

Memphis Team Leader for the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities

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Since 2011, Memphis leaders have had a "red phone" to the White House, a direct line to leaders in federal agencies. That's when Memphis and six other cities were selected as pilot sites for President Barack Obama's White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2).

The program was designed to spark new partnerships between the federal government and local governments. Memphis and the other pilot cities, such as Detroit and New Orleans, were selected because they've "faced significant long-term economic challenges."

Memphis' program was set to end at the close of 2013, but the city got an extension thanks to some leadership changes in the program and key city agencies, such as the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

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Sarah Sieloff has led the program's Memphis team since January 2013 and will remain until the program ends in January 2015. The Washington state native was working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington D.C. and jumped at the chance to work on this project in Memphis. She said she has "fallen in love with this city." — Toby Sells

Flyer: Tell me about your job with SC2 in Memphis.

Sieloff: My days are incredibly varied. My job is to coordinate with my inter-agency federal team, and we provide [Mayor A C Wharton] and his city targeted federal, technical assistance in support of his priorities. That is everything from reducing juvenile violence to growing small businesses in Memphis.

I try to bring together federal agencies and break down silos. For instance, if HUD is looking at safety issues in HUD-subsidized, multi-family apartment complexes, then that's an issue where [the Department of Justice (DOJ)] probably should be at the table because they may know some programs that will help.

Have you seen progress since you've been here?

Oh, yeah. Some people who have watched Memphis for a long time say there's a renaissance happening. Even starting two or five years ago, they'll talk about the change they've started to notice. Even in the last 12 months, I've seen several big changes.

What are some examples of progress?

There are several anti-youth-violence initiatives going on in the city. You have Memphis Gun Down, funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies and run by the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team. You've also got the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission and its Operation Safe Community program. Then you've got Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth, which is running the Network for Overcoming Violence and Abuse.

The DOJ was very interested to learn from an enhanced coordination from all of those groups. They provided us some technical assistance, which gave us access to a researcher who worked with all three of those groups. Where are the gaps? How does it fit together? Since then, they have been moving forward and now you have these groups talking with each other and meeting together monthly.

What are some new things to be watching for?

The city has been awarded nine AmeriCorps volunteers who will be coming on board this year, some of them very soon, even as early as next month. They will be working on some philanthropic engagement, around city anti-poverty initiatives. They're going to be working on some of that youth-violence coordination work that I mentioned before. They're going to be working on marketing for the [Memphis Office of Youth Services]. Also, they're going to be working on some educational initiatives in struggling Memphis high schools.

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