Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Suggestion Of The Week: Branding Memphis For Social Equity

We continue to solicit contributions from readers who have ideas for improving Memphis. This post is the latest in that series, and it comes from Dr. Aaron Shafer, a postdoctoral fellow conducting research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. You may remember that we previously wrote about him and his colleagues who are championing a skatepark to attract young professionals and to build a sense of community.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the need for Memphis to develop a city brand. As we said then, it's not about taglines and slogans, but about the higher purpose of our city.

Dr. Shafer offered a comment to that post and we asked him to expand upon it for this "Suggestion of the Week" feature.

Here's his idea to brand Memphis as the center of social equity:

The Brand

I've been thinking about what Memphis represents for awhile now, especially in the context of globalization. Perhaps the “brand” is nothing more making a vision for a city synonymous with an image or short phrase.

To have a vision for the future, one must delve both into the past and look how certain economic models and traditions (good and bad), such as our lovely capitalism, have shaped our current economic climate. When we see how these forces play with our economies, we can formulate a vision that proactively responds to how these economic forces and cultural habits (e.g. consumerism) will continue to degrade our job growth and economic strength.

So, how did we lose the jobs in the first place?

Into The Void

When manufacturing was shipped overseas to China and Japan and now India, places like Memphis took a huge blow, and I would argue they have yet to recover from that loss. Welfare replaced the void. Why? All in the name of profits and consumers wanting the lowest price.

Was freedom to choose from dirt cheap goods worth the trade for jobs? Shareholders and we consumers enjoyed unheard of profits and choices and so our standard of living went up and the concept of the sustainable living wage disappeared. So now, we have a very large population of poor who have multitudes of consumables to choose from, but no jobs that could actually sustain them.

From this type of analysis, I would propose, that Memphis stands to position itself as the future leader in demonstrating how to successfully implement a socially and environmentally equitable economic model.

Nonprofit Models Of Business

In this type of model, businesses will be tightly integrated with the non-profit sector so that business serves to empower the low-income worker in housing and to empower its non-profit operations that directly serve the community. The idea is to create self-sustaining nonprofit entities that engage both in business activities and local outreach.

The two arms are tightly linked in that the at-risk and lower-income participants that utilize the non-profit services such as life skills training, mentoring, daycare, transitional housing will then be funneled into the corporate arm where they obtain a job. We need jobs to go hand-in-hand with the services that train the people for them.

In this scenario, the community center is the corporation. Ideally, this would naturally happen with the existing businesses in Memphis, it does if you are in the “network” but largely the jobs just are not there.

Why Memphis?

So what type of jobs are we talking about? And why would Memphis poised for this new type of type of approach? Memphis and the U.S. stand to recapture the manufacturing market. Memphis is rich in non-profits and organizations that exist to serve and raise up the community.

If these nonprofits and future nonprofits start to incorporate self-sustainability and job creation as their major goals, I think that philanthropic foundations will be quick to fund these type of approaches because these type of new “companies” are not merely draining cash but are aiming to train and create jobs with the mission of creating long term job stability with low-income jobs that can actually sustain their workforce.

By sustain, I mean that workers could actually buy a house with their wage. How? The company profits or an initial start-up capital from a foundation subsidizes mortgage at a cost that is scaled according to the wage of the worker. In the long-run this type of subsidization will allow for competitive pricing. I would argue this type of subsidization is a far better incentive then the welfare which provides a major incentive NOT to work.


Why go to all this trouble to re-invent manufacturing? One could argue that we merely need to educate and modernize our workforce. That's a part of the solution but - here's the problem - we are losing our workforce at all levels to globalization. As a scientist in the high-tech biotech sector, I can personally say that the competition is fierce.

Memphis can demonstrate that it can re-engage its workforce in a business that exists to make low-wage jobs once again a sustainable effort in that profits are poured into the employees and the community. Let's be the first ones to re-figure this out, but this time using a more socially and ecologically minded approach.

The great news is that this is already happening.


Memphis Bioworks represents the beginning of this new era. With the formation of Tennessee’s first charter school, the establishment of a biotech program at Southwest Community college and the partnering with some key foundations, Memphis Bioworks will be a key component to this new type of socially equitable economy.

Another local visionary is Detric Golden who has started an after school program called, Goldenchildministries. He has started a real estate business that solely exists to sustain his outreach program. He is a father figure/mentor for 35 kids that are in his program. He also is training the kids in his program how to assess, buy and sell real estate.
He’s a role model, a teacher and a potential employer all wrapped into one.
That’s amazing.

So, the major challenge will be how to empower low-wage workers with affordable housing while maintaining a competitive edge price-wise. Or will the “brand” or reputation or the “good-will” of the company out compete the profit driven competitor? History would say good-luck buddy!

Do It Or Have It Done To Us

Can we be proactive before globalization forces us to do this in a far less friendly fashion? With the assistance of foundations, I believe we can make sustainable competitive companies, because in the end, we are replacing welfare and re-infusing pride and jobs into a community that has been marginalized for far too many years.

If the government can subsidize a major sector of society (which it is currently) so that the current economic climate can continue to “flourish,” why can’t we subsidize companies so that people can make a sustainable living and eventually reach the point where the company no longer needs to be subsidized?

What’s the catch? Will this be easy? No.

Socially Equitable Capitalism

There will be a lot of personal sacrifice to execute this model. We will need to re-define and downsize our standard of living to make it work. Companies do this all the time for profit margins at the expense of jobs. We can either downsize now by choice or…one day this standard will be forcefully re-imposed on us (via globalized consumerism) as we continue to consume at a rate that is not ecologically sustainable.

Socially equitable capitalism: this is the brand that will work for Memphis. We are a distribution center. We have a huge working class that can be retrained and are proud to make a living-wage that is sustainable for fair living. If we don’t adopt this brand, Uncle Sam will continue to be a major "employer" to many Memphians. Let’s not leave the branding up to him.

Ultimately, we can pour millions into every imaginable type of facility or amenity, but if in the end, we have a no jobs and hope for the economically disadvantaged then is lost to acts of desperation - to crime. Crime is merely the result of society and corporations failing to mentor, train and provide opportunities to the poor. Prisons and welfare will continue to be the standard “hands off” approach for dealing societal burdens, but let’s not let this happen because one day we could be that societal burden as our global neighbors pier down at us with casual indifference.

Memphis can make a brand for itself as being the first city in the U.S. to refuse to let the status quo be the norm.

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