There are folds of Memphis that remain untouched by the resurgence of commerce and the arts that the heart of the city has been enjoying as of late.
These neighborhoods, specifically the communities of North and South Memphis, occupied primarily by black residents, are overwhelmingly impoverished and underserved in education and employment.
The lack of resources to combat socioeconomic woes prompted Brandon Shaw, Lawrence Crozier, and Barrett Shaw to create 901 Evolution, an organization dedicated to empowering Memphis' black youth by assisting them in the physical and educational needs that often go unmet.
"It's a vicious cycle we're trying to break, this cycle of not having adequate resources," Brandon Shaw said.
- 901 Evolution works on a community garden.
Every Saturday, Brandon and nine other mentors gather between 20 and 30 youth. Time together is divided between tutoring, community service projects, and learning trade skills. The aim is to enrich their lives by placing a strong emphasis on the importance of supporting one another and building community.
"We wanted to not only feed them for free or take them out on field trips, but we wanted to fill in on all the needs that they're not getting in school, or in some cases that they're not getting at home," Brandon said.
According to Brandon, larger, more well-known metro nonprofits do not necessarily reach the communities of North and South Memphis. Additionally, these neighborhoods have been plagued by a slate of school closings, so their mentees are likely to have experienced multiple school transfers, with repeated losses of reliable nutrition and academic support. These combining factors have left 901 with a rapidly expanding roster.
Recently, 901 filed for a 501(c)3 nonprofit status. Brandon hopes this will financially assist the program, which is currently funded straight from the mentors' pockets.
Karen Spencer-Mcgee is a long-time Memphis resident who sends her 15-year-old son, Robert, to 901's mentors every Saturday. She asserts her son's trajectory has changed because of 901's efforts.
"Just from them taking him every Saturday, it has really opened his eyes," Mcgee said. "It gives him time to slow down, to see things they wouldn't normally see in South Memphis."
Mcgee adds that one of the most crucial benefits her son receives is coaching on how to safely turn away recruitment attempts by local gangs. Brandon confirms that 901 is "committed to gang intervention, because it means keeping them out of jail or being killed at an early age".
"Having those boys redirect his brain and his heart ... it has really helped him," Mcgee said.
The larger goal of 901 stands rooted in the idea of community, the idea that when an individual's needs are met, it leads to the empowerment of others. Their mission statement encapsulates this philosophy by stating, "Restoration of black communities starts with black youth."
"That's a part of the job description [for 901 mentors]. You make those connections with people who are part of the community," Brandon said. "Compel the kids in the community to stand up, compel the parents to stand up."