Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Memphis and Shelby County - From "Us" and "Them" to "We"

Some acknowledgments and qualifiers on the front end.

I've served in the city of Memphis for most of my appointed ministry.

I'm a graduate of Memphis City Schools.  W.W. Herenton's name is on my high school diploma.

I first moved to Memphis in 1979.  I was 15.  I lived in Fox Meadows when that was still a very well established predominantly white, middle class community.  I attended and graduated from Wooddale, which was at that time probably 70%-30%, white/black.  African American kids were bused into Wooddale from the Bethel Grove and Orange Mound parts of town.

From what I've seen (strangely enough through Facebook) of folks with whom I attended high school, both white and black, it is clear to me that quality of education we enjoyed at Wooddale was very good.

I lived and worked in Whitehaven from 1983-1987.  The demographic shift was in full effect by that time for those who could afford to uproot and move to Mississippi, Germantown or Collierville, which was still at that time pretty much a sleepy little bedroom community.

I moved back to Memphis in 1992--back into the same community I lived in while in high school, Fox Meadows.  Over the five and a half years of ministry there, the demographic shift was on....reminding me very much of Whitehaven only ten years earlier.  The pressures of serving what was once a "community church" that found the elements of community eroding provided profound challenges to determining what it means to be the church.

It is among the ongoing issues and questions of theological identity for any church in a transitional community. The United Methodist Church in Memphis has had and continues to struggle to find good answers to some of the tough questions such transitions raise.  Visionary leadership and prophetic witness are among the attributes notably lacking in the face of the struggle to find meaning.

In 2001, I returned to Memphis/Shelby County.  Lived in Germantown, worked in Midtown.  Lots of reasons for that which we determined as a family was the best choice at that time in our lives.  And yes, where our kids went to school was among those reasons.

I served in Midtown for 8 years in a place at the crossroads of wealth and abject poverty.  Because Midtown had already transitioned many years before,  I was there as new life emerged.  What some called renaissance (myself among them), others called gentrification.

In 2009, my appointed service shifted back into the county, now serving in Cordova, a community not unlike how I remember Fox Meadows in the late 70's.  It is a community impacted deeply by the downturn in the housing market and the economic crisis of the past couple of years.

In each phase of my life in Memphis/Shelby County, there is always the undercurrent of certain "givens" that frame policy.  While race is chief among them, it does not stand alone.  The place where race, crime, economics and education meet--that's the thing that's always in the room with any conversation of citizens of Memphis/Shelby County about Memphis/Shelby County.  This amalgum of issues long predates my life here, and while the ways we talk about it may be shrouded in more carefully chosen language, it's still alive and well.

Now, how does any of this qualify me to say anything about the status of our city and county, and the school systems that work within each?

I don't know, maybe nothing.  Except that I've seen the biases of people who live in certain parts of the city/county toward those who don't.  There's plenty folks who live in the county who are pretty certain that if you live in the city, especially deep into the city it's pretty certain that you'll be robbed, raped or shot.

And I know plenty folks who live in Midtown who believe that if you live outside the 240 loop...heck, if you live east of Highland that you're a part of the evil system that perpetuates the divide of the city/county and that no one who lives "out there" (me included) can say anything about what could/should be done.  "Sell out" is often a label placed on us folk.

The divide perpetuated by our biases and fears does not make for the best witness of "the city of good abode." It is bias based upon every demographic and pejorative stereotype of "the other" that each can conjure about the other. Some of those biases are not without credence. Abuses of power, leadership that has been at times negligent at the least, and perhaps corrupt at most do not inspire confidence.  Boss Crump may be long gone as a man, but the remnants of how he manipulated and controlled everything lingers still.  That said, our biases provide cover to excuse our behaviors.  And they absolutely prevent us from looking at new ways of being community.

But here's what I know deep within--
We can argue about how and why, but the time to come together as one in the city/county is here.

This will not be easy to do.  I expect it to be among the most difficult things Memphis/Shelby County will have done in its history.  I suspect things will likely get worse before they get better, But it is the right thing.  As a man of faith, I believe it to be the most faithful thing.

It will need to happen for economic reasons, if for no other.
It will need to happen to position our region for growth.
Maybe it will even unify us in ways we've never considered.

Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis...they seemed to figure it out.

Why can't we?

As I write this the Memphis City School Board has upheld its previous decision to surrender its charter and thus fall under the mantle of the Shelby County School System.

The fears, the biases and prejudices are flying fast and furious at each other about each other.

The "citizen of Memphis" side of me wants to see Memphis City School be better than it is.  I want to see excellence from teachers and students and efficiency in how the system is governed.  I want to see the Memphis City Schools perform like...well, the Shelby County Schools.  I want to be able to watch a meeting of the MCS Board and not wonder "what the hell are they doing?" If I'm a parent of a child in MCS, and I couldn't stay up all night in the optional school line, why wouldn't I want the school my kid goes to performing like the schools I see "out there?"

The MCS teachers and administrators that I know are masters at their craft.  They are very talented people doing amazing work.  And yet even the best of talent when operating in a system that seems to be dysfunctional have to feel they are swimming upstream against the current..always.

As a "citizen of Shelby County" and a parent of three in SCS, I look at the implications of a consolidated district and it can't help but give me pause.  What does it mean?  What does it do to my kids?  Does it do anything?  Does it negatively impact the education my kids are getting now?  In short, what does it do to me and mine?  It's a question that rises naturally in us when there is a potential change.  But the better part of me want MCS to be better, too.  And I want to be able to observe the leadership of the SCS Board operate address the issues without feeling like there's something else they're really trying to do without actually saying it.  Our community is better, safer, more productive when all of our schools excel.

There comes a time in our lives when we have to begin to think about the implication of choices and decisions and work with "the other" to find a new reality to frame our future.  I have to wonder...are we the answer we've been waiting for to long held unresolved issues?  Is it for such a time as this that our community moves from too many policies based on old notions toward something new?

As it was when I served in Midtown, and now in Cordova, our churches celebrates its relationship with a school.  It is one of support, care and sponsorship.  The role of the church in community seeks the best for our children.  It is one of the ways in which our village raises up our future leaders.

What lessons will they learn from us through this?

No, I have no expectations that this is something with easy answers.  But I have trust in two of our leaders.  I trust A.C. Wharton and Mark Luttrell.  I think they are both very good men and represent the best of what our city/county has produced.

Whatever happens with the schools...whatever happens in matters of government--we have to stop this us/them dynamic.  It does not bring about the best in any of us.

It's time to move to "we."

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