Michelle Fowlkes, the new Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission executive director, has never worn a badge. But her lack of experience with law enforcement is countered by more than 22 years of community organizing with local nonprofits.
Most recently, Fowlkes served as the regional director for Save the Children, a national nonprofit aimed at helping disadvantaged children. She said she'll focus on steering kids away from crime in her new role as crime commission director.
"You start when a child is born and look at how you create the type of environment that will ensure a safe and high quality of life," Fowlkes said. "We have to look at what type of community Memphis is creating to ensure public safety."
As crime commission director, Fowlkes will head Operation Safe Community, a massive crime-abatement plan in place since 2006. The plan's original aim was to make Memphis and Shelby County one of the safest communities of its size by 2011.
While that goal may sound ambitious, crime has decreased since the initiative began. So far this year, crime is down 30 percent in Memphis. Crime in Shelby County is also down 21 percent.
Fowlkes' background in the nonprofit sector is a shift from tradition at the crime commission. Former director Linda Miller had 25 years of experience in criminal justice, serving as director of the Shelby County Crime Victims Assistance Center, as a warden at the Shelby County Adult Offender Center, and as a member of the Tennessee Board of Parole.
Previous to Miller's tenure, Mike Heidingsfield served eight years as the commission's director. Heidingsfield had a law enforcement and military background, serving in the Air Force and police forces in Arizona and Texas.
Before heading up Save the Children, Fowlkes served as executive director of the YWCA of Greater Memphis. Based on her experience with youth, Fowlkes should be poised to deal with the parts of the Operation Safe Community plan that deal with preventing kids from joining gangs, expanding safety initiatives in the schools, reducing truancy, and expanding juvenile offender re-entry programs.
"The prevention and intervention part is so key, and I think that's what I bring to this job," Fowlkes said.
Besides the Operation Safe Community plan, Fowlkes' experience with youth might also come in handy. Last week, Fowlkes was among several city and school leaders, pastors, and community members who were invited to meet with the United States Department of Justice about a new national youth violence initiative.
"I did attend a listening session, and I think Memphis has made great strides in the area of youth violence already," Fowlkes said. "We had quite a bit to share with the [DOJ] so they could get an idea of how we have pulled together key individuals in this community to start addressing the problem."