It was a couple of weeks ago that a group of Memphis contractors gathered in East Memphis for a fund-raiser to benefit the city's mayor. It was a hastily arranged affair, but with only three days' notice, the group of builders had been able to put together a kitty of $18,500. Not too shabby.
The foregoing paragraph, or something like it, could have been written at various times over the last several decades of Memphis history. It has surely happened over and over — contractors hobnobbing with their city's chief executive and, depending on how one looks at it, either giving him a pat on the back for his performance and friendship or scratching that back with hopes of getting some scratch back later on in the form of city business.
What distinguished this circumstance from the great majority of similar such events preceding it over the years was that the assembled well-wishers were, with few exceptions, African Americans, and their tribute, considered either as praise or as a proffered quid pro quo, was presented in self-evident sincerity and good faith.
So was the response of the beneficiary, Mayor Jim Strickland, a white man and the first member of his race to hold Memphis' prime leadership position in a quarter of a century.
"We measure what we do," Strickland told his hosts. "We measure how long it takes to answer a 911 call. We measure crime. We measure how long it takes us to fill potholes. We also measure how we do on minority- and women-owned business contracts."
Strickland went on to state for the record that, when he took office not quite a year-and-a-half ago, some 12 percent of city construction work was going to minority contractors. It had grown to 16 percent on his watch, he trumpeted. "That's 33 percent in one year!"
But he followed up that heady statistic with one that was (no other way to put it) dismaying. "Twenty-five years ago, only 1 percent of the businesses in Memphis were owned by African Americans," he reminded the gathering. "And today it's still the same," Strickland lamented.
"City government needs to lead the way," the mayor said, going on to proclaim, "For the first time ever, employees are being evaluated on their minority contracting at City Hall." And he finished up with an exhortation to the group: "If you're not certified as a credentialed builder, go downtown and get certified!"
This event didn't come to pass in a vacuum. Giving Mayor Strickland the benefit of the doubt, city government may, in fact, be attempting to lead the way in contracting reform. But this is one of those exercises that requires coordination in the community at large, and at least two other major entities are all in on the effort, as well.
Simultaneously, the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, in an announcement this week, has set a goal for 2017 of seeing "600 total new contracts for minority- and women-owned enterprises (MWBE) and locally owned small businesses (LOSB). ..."
And the Shelby County Commission, which over the past year devoted commendable time and energy to the preparation of an in-depth disparity study, has seen its own MWBE/LOSB efforts redoubled and then some, voting both to expand the existing county Equal Opportunity Compliance office (EOC) and to endow a brand new office entrusted with the task of actively seeking out women and minority contractors.
Yep, it takes a village.