This is the seventh year of the Flyer's annual 20<30 issue, and this year's crop of young movers and shakers is, as usual, a diverse and impactful group. They are taking on the city's major issues — poverty, transportation, education, civil rights, and medical research. They are enriching the city with their work in music, art, fashion, agriculture, and business.
They are the future of Memphis, and they have a common denominator: They all want to make their chosen city a better place to live. Some have moved here from elsewhere; some have returned to the city where they grew up. You'll be seeing their names and hearing from them in coming years. Here's an introduction to 20 of Memphis' best and brightest young people.
In 2005, Nadia Matthews wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the stage play A Ghetto Fairy Tale at LeMoyne-Owen College to a standing-room-only crowd four nights running. She donated the proceeds to the school. It's just the sort of success every playwright aspires to. Nadia was 16 years old (she's still the youngest donor to the school).
"I really wanted to be a part of a production, a lead, but being an African American there are only so many roles out there," she says. It was a Tyler Perry production that showed her that "people with my skin color were really acting. They had lead roles, and these were stories about black people, stories I could tell."
That same year, she founded the 501(c)3 nonprofit LilyRoze Studios, named after her grandmothers. The studio is part production company, acting school, and photography studio, with a mini-movie theatre, green screen, conference room, and dance studio.
Shortly after A Ghetto Fairy Tale was produced, she was invited to be on The Tyra Banks Show. Flown to New York, she was pampered and came back to Memphis with a taste for showbiz. Nadia quit her job at Graceland (a job she says she loved) to open LilyRoze, giving kids from ages 4 to 17 a glimpse into the life of being on, or behind, a camera.
"I wanted the lifestyle," she says, "but I didn't want to leave Memphis."
Allison Gibbs came to Memphis from Miami, Florida, five years ago, because she wanted to make a difference. She taught at Vollintine Elementary School in North Memphis, then moved to Freedom Preparatory Academy in South Memphis as a community outreach manager.
When it came time to move on, she looked for something that would allow her to continue doing good work in the black and Hispanic communities that she's passionate about. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, and "it was the right timing to move from one area to another area that was gaining traction and visibility," she says, "and to be part of the ground floor of work being done in Memphis in particular."
Allison is now the program manager (and was the first hired employee) for Just City, a nonprofit spurred from the Shelby County Public Defender's Office to serve, advocate, and reform. Most notable is their Clean Slate Fund to help expunge qualifying criminal records. With Just City, she says, she wears a "lot of different hats, so while my title might be one thing, I'm learning to do other things, which for me isn't a burden. It's really a learning opportunity."
The good news for us is that she's "on the hook to stay" in Memphis. Seeing the vast improvements in amenities and lifestyles with redevelopment in key Midtown neighborhoods, she says she'd like to challenge Memphis to do the same in those other areas — in North and South Memphis — that attracted her here in the first place.
Marshall Bartlett is happy as a pig in slop with his work. After college at Dartmouth, where he majored in environmental studies and anthropology, the Mississippi native spent time in New Orleans with AmeriCorps, helping to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Then he moved back home to Home Place Pastures, an 1,800-acre ancestral farm in Como that dates back to 1871; he's the fifth generation to work the land. But where his family once grew crops from the soil, Marshall raises hogs and has become a key link in the popular farm-to-table movement in Memphis. Some of those tables where you might have eaten Marshall's pork include Porcellino's (or any of the Ticer-Hudman restaurants), Sweet Grass and Next Door in Cooper-Young, Las Tortugas, Erling Jensen, or Bounty on Broad. There are others locally and in Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans.
But this farmer isn't a foreigner breaching the state line; he has a house in Midtown, where he plays music and enjoys Memphis life. "It's nice for me to have the best of both worlds," he says. "I can come down to the farm and focus, going to bed at 9:30 p.m., getting up at 6 a.m. Then, when I want to hang out and have a little bit more of a life, I can go up to Memphis."
Marshall plans to add lamb and beef to his menu at some point, which should make local restaurants — and diners — very happy.
Gabby Salinas goes to work every day at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital with her "family." They aren't blood related, but the men and women on staff have been as much a part of her life as any kin.
Her story has been well told: She fell ill in Bolivia at the age of 7 and was taken to a New York hospital, where she was diagnosed with the bone cancer Ewing's Sarcoma but was refused treatment because of her family's inability to pay. Marlo Thomas read the story in a newspaper, contacted her parents, and sent her to Memphis. Gabby beat that cancer and then fought it off twice more. At the age of 8, while returning from a trip with her family, a car wreck took the life of her father and younger sister and paralyzed her mother.
Despite such a tragedy, or maybe because of it, she flourished, earning an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Christian Brothers University. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Now Gabby dons a white coat every day and works to find a treatment for malaria in the hospital that saved her life, and she regularly speaks on behalf of St. Jude to help raise funds. "I grew up at the hospital, so it was a big part of my daily life," she says. "I always say that growing up at St. Jude is very much like having a lot of aunts and uncles. They definitely inspired me."
You may not know Michael Roy, but you know his work. His paintings are larger than life, his canvases on the sides of buildings and shipping containers. He has trouble describing his style, saying, "Words are my enemy. That's why I paint." Then he'll go on to describe whole worlds he wants to create and the history, myths, and cultures therein.
Michael knows a thing or two about different cultures. After growing up on the Mississippi gulf coast, where he was introduced to art in high school, and furthering that education at the Memphis College of Art, he moved to Korea to teach English. "I didn't know what to do with my artwork," he says. "I wasn't happy with how it looked or what I was trying to say, so I thought, 'I'm just going to go to the other side of the world, and I'll teach English.'"
In Seoul, he says, there were abandoned sections of the city that would be there one day and demolished the next. But before they disappeared, they were covered in elaborate graffiti. "It wasn't American graffiti; it wasn't letter-based. Most of it had a strong foundation in illustration, with these complicated characters and dragons and monsters." It became the inspiration for his work. After Korea, he traveled through Vietnam and Thailand, picking up details of those histories and myths he paints now. He moved back to Memphis in 2014 and says he's been "lucky" to make a living with his artwork. A quick drive through the city makes it clear that we're the lucky ones.
The front line of any war is a literal world away from working the line in a commercial kitchen, yet these two worlds vied for the attention of Mark Hackett. While many of us would've opted for the heat of a Viking Range and the smell of rosemary, Mark chose pain and suffering and, if everything works out, justice.
He is the founder of the nonprofit Operation Broken Silence. He and his team travel into the battlefields of Sudan, Africa, to film and photograph the atrocities of war and the refugee camps. Then they travel to a different kind of battlefield in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York, to raise funds and awareness. The funds go to Sudanese refugee camps for on-the-ground emergency relief and food programs.
Born and raised in Memphis, Hackett graduated from Bartlett High School and entered college with thoughts of becoming a chef, but conversations with some of the large Sudanese immigrant population in Memphis led him down a far different path and to the founding of Operation Broken Silence in 2012. Why Sudan? "It's ground zero for words we don't like to talk about a lot of time, like 'genocide' and 'war crimes.' It's been happening for so long in Sudan, over 25 years now, and the world hasn't been able to fix the issues there."
On the day of the photoshoot at Central Station for this story, a MATA employee was beside herself when she realized she was in the presence of a celebrity. She fawned, and she cooed, and she asked to have her picture taken with him. It's a scene that has become commonplace for Moziah "Mo" Bridges, founder of Mo's Bows, and those wanting to meet the 14-year-old entrepreneur have extended up the ranks to the President of the United States.
At the first White House Demo Day last year, Mo didn't think he'd be able to meet POTUS, but an aide took him aside and said Obama wanted to meet him. "I was shocked, so I ran into the room he was in, and we chatted."
Mo's Bows was established in 2011 (amazing, since Mo himself was only established in 2001). Even at age 9, he liked to dress sharp, and there weren't any bowties in his size. His intention was never to gain notoriety, yet notoriety has found him. He's been featured on television shows such as Shark Tank and the Today show, and in publications including Oprah Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and Forbes.
His plans are to continue with the work and expand into a clothing line. The home-schooled eighth-grader plans to go to college for fashion design, but he's still a kid, so what does he wear when he plays outside? "Sometimes, if it's summer, I'll take the bowtie off," he says, "but most of the time, I'll keep it on, even when I play with my friends."
It's the wrong kind of "distribution center" Memphis wants attached to its reputation, to be sure, yet the good work done by Whitney Maxey-Trotter represents just the sort of dedication and heart for which the city is known. The city's central location is advantageous in the world of interstate commerce, but also, unfortunately, for human trafficking. Whitney works with the nonprofit Restore Corps, trying to make a difference. "I think the reason that we pick [the victims] up here is because we work really well with the sex crimes unit with the Memphis Police Department," she says.
Restore Corps is a nongovernmental organization whose mission is the eradication of human trafficking through holistically empowering survivors, equipping communities to identify and abolish slavery, and seeking justice for the oppressed.
She moved to Memphis from Austin, Texas, in 2010 to work with HIV patients at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, then attended the University of Memphis to become a dietician, and got a graduate assistantship at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in its HIV clinic. That became the catalyst for her to work as a volunteer with Restore Corps.
For someone who spends her days in what can be the mire of human suffering, the natural question is: How do you relax? Well, she loves Memphis, for one thing, despite the dark side she sees. She and husband Jeff enjoy activities with their church and outings at the Levitt Shell. "I have to have downtime and boundaries to rejuvenate because I'm young, and I don't want to burn out. I definitely believe in self-therapy and self-help."
Rachel Knox lost a bet. It was a footrace, and she was slower. The terms of that bet stipulated that she had to audition for a stage production. She got the part, which began a fascination with the theater. Now, working in professional development with the Orpheum, she spends her days introducing others to her world.
Knox majored in theater at the University of Memphis and worked with the Voices of the South troupe before moving to Washington, D.C., for a fellowship at a regional theater company. She moved back to Memphis to work with the Orpheum.
Rachel returned because she loves the city, and she proved it in 2015 by running a different kind of race — for a seat on the City Council. It was an accidental involvement when she got into discussions with friends who had a stake in the city's pension fiasco. She went to City Hall and made a speech in front of the Council that went "Memphis viral," and the next thing she knew, she was in the race.
"I got tired of being that person who was always talking about problems but who wasn't actively doing something," she says. "I didn't want to be a person who just complained and whined. I felt that I could do some good in the community."
Rachel ultimately lost that race, too, though in a hard-fought run-off. Still, she considers herself a winner. "What I enjoyed about the process was the fact that I met a lot of people who are already in our communities advocating on a multitude of subjects. It really educated me and increased my own intellectual IQ about what's happening in the city and the issues we're facing."
"I cannot keep a job, but I can change the face of the planet." That's a line from Marco Pavé's recently released EP Black Tux, recorded in Los Angeles. But Marco can hold a job. In fact, he holds several, and all are in his control, from songwriter to CEO of his own Radio Rahim Music label to philanthropist.
And yet, with so much on his plate, the odds for Marco to ever make it to 23 years old, let alone make a career, were against him growing up in North Memphis where he saw peers dying young or becoming pregnant.
He started rapping in the third grade, but it was an experience in the 10th grade, while a student at East High School, that changed his outlook. He and a friend were playing with a gun, loading and unloading it, when his friend pointed it at Marco's face. The trigger was pulled and the gun jammed. "That was the moment where I knew I was here for a higher purpose," he says.
That purpose has led the father of two to give back to the community with the 2013 Books on Beale benefit concert, where $20,000 was raised and hundreds of books donated for story booth at Crosstown Arts. Instead of wedding gifts, he and wife, Zandria Robinson, asked friends and family to donate money to their newly established Soulstar Scholarship in 2015 to help high school art students realize their dreams.
What is the essence of the Marco Pavé experience? "Being a full human being, not being pigeonholed," he says. "That's what hip-hop is all about, not just about making music. There are surprise elements to hip-hop."
"I have this memory of an eighth-grade art class and getting into an argument with a friend about why Memphis was a cool place to live," Nicholas Oyler says.
As Nicholas got older, while still a fervent defender of Memphis, he asked himself what it would take to make the city better. "That curiosity eventually led me to discover there's this whole field of urban planning, this whole profession dedicated to planning cities, designing cities, and making them be as good as possible."
That curiosity led Nicholas to his job as transportation planner/bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated, regional public agency tasked with planning the transportation network for the greater Memphis area. That includes roads, highways, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and public transportation.
After graduating high school, he went to Europe for two weeks. "I was really inspired by what I saw over there and came back saying to myself, 'Why can't we have that same quality of life, that same greatness in our cities, that I felt they had over there?'"
He got his undergraduate degree from the University of Memphis and his master's in urban planning from Texas A&M. He left again for Germany where he worked as a planner for four years (and met his future wife). "My goal all this time was to gain experience from abroad, and then one day return so that I can apply what I learned to Memphis."
As youth services manager for the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Stephanie Reyes is in charge of community outreach to youth. She visits libraries, schools, and started a youth group at the center for 13- to 17-year olds. She's been looking into the problem of homeless LGBT youths and initiating a comprehensive census of their numbers this year. "LGBT people make up between 5 and 7 percent of the population," she says, "but LGBT youth make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population, so there's a lot of disparity."
The problem is, though, that solutions to the problem are temporary and often unsafe as the youngsters turn to adult homeless shelters. A better solution may be at hand, in the form of land recently purchased in Orange Mound to create transitional housing. A fund-raiser is planned for February, the ultimate goal being $250,000.
It's a daunting task, serving the underserved and raising money for a better future, and it's being taken on by a relative newcomer to Memphis. Stephanie is from New York where, as she says, "I've been involved in some form of community service since I was a kid."
She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut before a relationship brought her to Memphis, where she fell in love with the city. "I really like Memphis a lot. I think it's a very passionate city."
Though there are still problems, she says, "We're moving in the right direction; I haven't had a lot of pushback on this project. People know this is an issue and they want there to be a solution for these kids."
When Logan Guleff first got his start in the kitchen, he barely stood taller than one of those traditional white chef's hats. At 2 years old, he was making pigs in a blanket with his mother. The secret to developing a passion for cooking? "She did not make me clean up," he says.
These days, his mother insists, he is made to clean up after himself. But he's older now, more experienced; he's 13.
Don't let his age fool you, though. Logan has been seen many times in local media and on national television shows such as MasterChef Junior, where he was the youngest to ever win the title. The first taste of fame came with the "Jif Most Creative Peanut Butter Sandwich Contest," when, at the age of 8, he won with a peanut butter turkey burger. "It's really, really good," he says, "and a very complicated recipe with lots of steps." Logan was flown to New York to collect his $2,500 prize and has had a bit of flour on his face ever since.
He's now working to develop recipes for food trucks and planning the concept for a children's cookbook. He'll be taking part in charity events alongside such noted chefs as Kelly English and José Gutierrez. And he's putting together an "underground supper club." He's quick to point out that his favorite local restaurants include the taco truck on Summer, Tsunami, and Strano, among many others.
What does Logan think about his full plate of fame? "I really enjoy being on stage and cooking. I just love everything about it."
HIV is "a huge problem" in Memphis, Eddie Wiley says. "We have approximately 7,300 people who are positive, and those are only the ones who know. So there are another 12 to 16 percent who don't know."
Eddie would know. As a Comprehensive High Impact Prevention (CHIP) supervisor, he works at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital with HIV testing, linking patients to care after a diagnosis, and in community outreach. The program is primarily for 13- to 34-year-olds, as well as pregnant mothers and their children. He says that, even though he's recently been made a supervisor, he still tries to find a way to get out into the community to speak with youth to spread awareness and decrease the stigma that surrounds HIV. "Some of the people don't have family, don't have friends, so I basically became their best friend. I wanted to make sure that they're taken care of."
Eddie went to school for journalism, but he'd seen family and friends die from HIV and took community service as his calling. He's now at the University of Memphis working on a master's in public health.
"It's a rewarding experience," he says of his work with Le Bonheur. "Just to see the difference in a person when they come into the hospital and they call me when they're positive, and by the time we're done with the program they look at life completely differently. I try to make it a new normal for them to just continue to live life."
When you try to call Alexandra Scharff, you're going to get her voicemail. And you'll want to make yourself comfortable, because it takes a while for her disembodied voice to list off the businesses you may be trying to reach: the Ivory Closet, the Attic Apparel, Adel Amor Cosmetics, Ellen Anchor Brands. They were all founded by this University of Memphis alumna.
Her drive to entrepreneurism came through the corporate world, where she worked for International Paper as a sales representative, traveling the country alone, with no one micromanaging. It was as if she were running her own business and dealing with customers and follow-ups, markups and margins. "Once I realized I could sell something like paper, I thought, 'If I can sell this, I can sell anything.'"
In 2012, she opened the Ivory Closet boutique in Harbor Town, followed a year later by the Attic, co-owned with husband Benjamin, in Overton Square. She has since moved the Ivory Closet to the Square as well. Her cosmetic line, which she began while still at IP, is an ongoing concern.
Alexandra is also working on a master's in business and learning about franchising. The first two Ivory Closet franchises opened last fall in Mississippi, and there are more on the way. "I'm back in the corporate world," she says, "but this time it's for myself. I have to grow. If I'm not growing, then I'm getting in a slump."
Jeremy Calhoun could have easily become just another statistic. He was born to a teenage mother, his father was incarcerated, and, by Jeremy's own admission, "I was that kid," the one who acted out and didn't take school seriously.
But he is not a statistic. He turned his life around, for which he credits God and a handful of role models. Now he's honoring those who helped him by helping other young people to change their ways. As the co-founder of the nonprofit STS Enterprise, Jeremy and a team of mentors work with high school students to expose them to opportunities they may never have known about. There's a formula: "I'm going to set their expectations high. We're going to hold you accountable. We're going to seize life, and we're going to celebrate the victories."
STS Enterprise brings in mentors from the corporate world and facilitates public speaking engagements at college campuses, the RISE Foundation, and Leadership Memphis. He's built a networking program for students from LeMoyne-Owen College, Christian Brothers University, Rhodes College, and the University of Memphis, among others.
Jeremy works in information technology at International Paper, where he helps to mentor new hires. He was also selected to be on Mayor Jim Strickland's Youth Transition Team. "I've been so passionate about our youth, so the opportunity was a blessing, and I'm so thankful for it," he says. "I'm looking forward to seeing what the mayor does."
Marcella Simien's got a squeezebox, and we're going to dance all night. The 24-year-old musician can be seen all around town with her band, Marcella & Her Lovers, and is becoming a staple for date nights at regular venues like Bar DKDC and Mollie Fontaine.
She comes from a family of music down in Lafayette, Louisiana: Her dad, Terrance, is a two-time Grammy award-winning artist; her mom, Cynthia, is his manager and booking agent. Marcella says, "I was singing before I could talk and started writing songs and spitting one-liners at a very young age."
She came to the Memphis College of Art and brought that bayou accordion with her, taking it out for solo shows. "Friends said my song choices and performances were unusual and lively, so I didn't stop," she says. "I did songs I was into by artists I dug — Nina Simone, Buzzcocks, Dylan."
Marcella now tours regularly and has played in front of audiences from Hawaii to Tortola. As she looks to put more out-of-town dates on her calendar, she assures us that Memphis is "absolutely" home base. "Here in Memphis, I feel thankful to be a part of a community so rich in history, with a future and potential just as rich as that past."
The range of topics Ace Madjlesi has been involved with while working for the Center for Research on Women (CROW) at the University of Memphis are many. She's worked at CROW for five years and has been involved with everything from HIV and transportation to teen pregnancy and birth control. She now coordinates a birth control study on behalf of A Step Ahead Foundation conducted in Christ Community Health centers in Frayser and Hickory Hill.
"I've had a lot of different roles in the movement — volunteer, community organizer, nonprofit administrator, researcher," she says. "People think they can't get involved because they're limited by time or money. That just isn't true, especially not in Memphis, where half the battle is just showing up. There are about a thousand different ways for people to play a part in the fight for equity and justice. As I like to say: Get in where you fit in."
Ace came to Memphis for the graduate program in applied anthropology at the U of M. She's originally from Mississippi and had spent some time in Washington, D.C., where she became interested in motherhood and children and that experience for women. She linked up with CROW through her graduate studies. "It was just a really great opportunity to take this academic understanding of gender and apply it to some of the most salient issues we face in Memphis."
Ace is also the founder of the Memphis Pinball league, and is the highest-ranked female player in the state, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association. "There's definitely a burgeoning pinball scene in Memphis," Ace says, "and it's really exciting."
Alvin Crook III
Alvin Crook III knew he wanted to be engaged in politics from an early age. "I've been interested in politics all my life," he says. "It started as me just doing community service and wanting to help people. When I was 6 or 7, we used to feed the homeless, my church did. We'd pass out food and clothes, and the older I got, the more I found out about politics that could help better a community."
At 29, Alvin is the president of the Shelby County Young Democrats and, as such, has the ear of state Senator Lee Harris, state Representative Antonio Parkinson, and Shelby County School Board member Stephanie Love. He had a working relationship with Mayor A C Wharton and looks forward to getting to know Mayor Strickland.
In 2014, Alvin ran for Shelby County commissioner, eventually pulling out to support Van Turner who, he says, "has taken me under his wings."
Alvin grew up in Whitehaven, raised by a single mother and with two younger sisters. Today, he and his wife Andrea are parents to 3-year-old Alvin Crook IV, and he has every intention of running for office again.
For now, though, he is content with his work as a bailiff in Family Court at Juvenile Court. It's a position that gives him a unique perspective on the issues and troubles facing our city today, the perfect learning ground for a future leader.
"I know I can't change the world, but I believe I can change my community."
"They're intelligent and capable and inquisitive," Katie Jones says about the children who fill our city's schools. She should know. Katie is the assistant principal for Southern Avenue Charter Elementary School. She did her student teaching at Frayser Elementary School, and is currently working on her Ed.D. at the University of Memphis.
"[Children] need folks who are compassionate and folks who are tech-savvy," she tells her teachers, adding, "You can't afford to be unplugged, especially with the new wave of education."
Jones originally left Memphis for UT-Knoxville, hoping to become a civil engineer. "I got involved on campus with the Black Educators of Tomorrow," she says, "working with children in schools. It changed my mind." She switched her major to English, with a minor in elementary education, and completed a master's in education.
She joined up with the Junior League of Memphis for a way "to be hands-on and support the work of a longstanding tradition of women who've been really involved here in Memphis." She began the small business Equilibrium Education Services and is working with Knowledge Quest in South Memphis to create a curriculum for learning math through music.
Her future is committed to Memphis, which she considers ground zero for education reform. "It's very interesting to watch what's happening, and I want to be a part of making sure that we do close that achievement gap for all students here in the city."