Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Old Path Of Memphis Politics Makes Case For Young Leadership

Shelby County Commissioners Henri Brooks and Sidney Chism continue their war against reason.

Their latest misguided salvo targeted MPACT Memphis, the organization of young professionals (or in the parlance of the day, emerging leaders) whose sin apparently is to have this simple goal: to improve the city.

To do this, the hundreds of MPACT members are encouraged to get involved in the civic, social and political life of Memphis, they are determined to improve the dismal Memphis self-image and to invest in a social network to make new friends. Its core values are active engagement, connectivity, creativity, diversity, inclusivity and opportunity, hardly qualities that should produce the shrill attack upon them by Commissioners Brooks and Chism.

Incredulity Amok

These kinds of assaults are of course commonplace from them, but this time around, it was even more incredulous than normal, because it was clear that it sprang from a place of political hatred for any one who doesn’t agree with them. All of this was a sideshow that developed from the request for county government to put $1 million in Memphis Fast Forward, which included MPACT Memphis as a key to achieving its economic growth goals.

The mangling of the facts and the predictably strident rhetoric were once again front and center, but this time, it felt more like the political equivalent of being unable to add two plus two and get four.

Here’s the thing: MPACT wasn’t being condemned for anything it had done. It was being attacked because one of its dozens of founding members also just happened to be a founder of that other much-needed grassroots group, the politically-oriented New Path.

Politics Of Destruction

In other words, all of this was yet another model of the slash and burn political style of the commissioners that in the end is nothing so much as personal and misguided. In their zeal to attack three perceived political enemies, they set out to slay MPACT, an organization with hundreds of members and an organization whose nonprofit status prevents it from even getting involved in politics.

Of course, this straightforward fact was of little interest to the commissioners as they vilified MPACT. In the star chamber proceedings that now pass for some meetings of the board of commissioners, MPACT was maligned and condemned, and the sad truth is that Commissioners Brooks and Chism know in their hearts that MPACT isn’t a political organization.

They just happened to be so intent on destroying the founders of New Path – whose younger, more progressive candidates apparently threaten the worldview of these entrenched political interests – in any way that they could. At one point, one person in attendance sarcastically suggested that before it was over, the commissioners would try to revoke the county business licenses for their companies.

A Parallel Universe

Yes, it was just about that preposterous. Several attempts were made to prevent the Memphis Regional Chamber from even having the right to contribute to New Path from money that didn’t originate with county government, and at one point, an amendment was so sweeping that the county attorney had to point out that taken to its logical conclusion, a Memphis corporation receiving a tax freeze wouldn’t be allowed to contribute to MPACT. Faced with the legal opinion suggesting caution, a leader of the attack made an admission against interest - that the real intent was to “destroy” MPACT.

If there was ever a textbook case of what is wrong with our local political scene, this was it – personal agenda over public purpose, attacks based on the past rather than conversations about the future, and single-minded attempts to drive the division in Memphis ever deeper for political gain.

Actually, the commissioners clearly didn’t want to hear it, but the truth is that both MPACT and New Path are national models held up as models for other cities to replicate. At a time when Memphis is bleeding talent to other cities and languishing at the bottom of cities that are successful in attracting talent, the board of commissioners managed to send the message that our city does not welcome young professionals unless they fall in line behind the same old power brokers and become part of the same old political power bases.

A New Way

Fortunately for Memphis, New Path – as a political organization – has pursued a more enlightened attitude, endorsing a slate of men and women who are identified by their new thinking and fresh approaches to the problems of Memphis. Best of all, these young people seem impatient with the replaying the same old tapes, the same recriminations, the same score-settling and the concentration of power that have become a fundamental part of Memphis politics for way too long.

Meanwhile, over at MPACT Memphis, its members just want to live in a city that is progressive and successful. That’s why its executive director, Chris Allen, earlier this year wrote an op-ed article for The Commercial Appeal entitled: “10 Reasons to Cheer,” which had the audacity to point out that Memphians need to have more pride in their city and its uniqueness. Months later, MPACT member Jenny Howard months later wrote a commentary in The CA that was an eloquent plea for understanding and harmony in the city that she loves.

Apparently, these are the kinds of messages that can shake some in Memphis politics to their core – people that actually see beyond differences to join hands to work for a better city. Yes, they probably do see a more progressive Memphis, one where political power – both black and white –isn’t built on the fault lines of race and class, but they do not endorse candidates and they do not operate any political machinery.

Holding Up Our National Models

As our firm works in other cities on strategies to attract and retain young professionals, we often point to MPACT Memphis as the kind of organization that can make an important difference in encouraging the kinds of roots that keep 25-34 year-olds in communities. If one thing is true about this generation, it is their mobility, and it’s creating relationships and reasons to stay that present the greatest opportunity.

Cities like Memphis that seem stuck in a time warp and that operate in a culture of scarcity – the attitude of “if you’re winning, I must be losing, so therefore I’m against you” – are simply being left behind in the fight for the kind of talented workers needed to succeed in today’s economy.

It’s clear from our work that today, Memphis suffers from a perception that it is slow-moving, unambitious and fatally divided, and that’s why the commissioners’ rhetoric is so painful. They have now successfully reenforced those perceptions, taking in the welcome mat, as the word of this rebuff to young leadership is repeated on the Internet and creates the inevitable buzz that defines social networking.

Breaking Free

It’s strange how history does in fact repeat itself. It was about 30 years ago that young white people in Memphis looked at the body politic and concluded that “this generation just needs to die off.” Today, young African-Americans are increasingly saying the same thing.

Hopefully, for some of us older folks, we’ll have the chance to see some progress in our lifetimes, but it sure feels like we’ve been waiting an awfully long time.

Surely, the vast majority of our people can see the value of an involved younger generation, one that’s not inclined or interested in repeating our mistakes and one that’s anxious to prove that the rhetoric about diversity can become a reality in their time.

Contribute Now

If you’re looking to help usher in this new era, remember – even if the county commissioners can’t get it right – to send your contributions to New Path and other political organizations welcoming the involvement of young people who want to change the direction of politics in Memphis.

If you want to support the efforts to keep more young professionals in Memphis, send that contribute to MPACT. Regardless of what you may have heard in the halls of county government, it doesn’t get involved in politics.


LeftWingCracker said...


While I think Commissioners Chism and Brooks were wrong, and I know some of the new Path folks and like them and what they do, I am in fact taking issue with the idea that MPACT has not tried to do politics.

When John Pellicciotti ran against Mike Kernell a few years ago, I was on their mailing list when I noticed that a prominent member of the business community in Memphis (email me for the name) would match any MPACT member's contribution to Pellicciotti's campaign, which is blatantly illegal. I immediately emailed their head at the time, was told they don't do politics, I emailed back to advise that they could well lose their 401 (c)3 status if they didn't stop this immediately, and that I WOULD pursue it.

Then, I was dropped from the mailing list, emailed them back to complain, then was restored to the list, receiving a newsletter that said they could not do that. No kidding.

Now, to my knowledge, they haven't tried such foolishness since, so hopefully they have learned from it.

Smart City Consulting said...

LWC: This is not to say that some of the members are politically active, thank God, but it is to say that the organization itself is not.

black and know it said...

New Path and MPACT are but subtle ways of blurring the line of distinction between the traditional terms - Democrat and Republican!

Memphis and its surrounding SMSA is already 50% African American and the area's REPUBLICANS have decided the "natural dis-taste" Blacks have for the racist politics of the Republican Party is too much to overcome using the "tradional brands." Case and point, did you notice - neither Haley Barbour nor John Eaves told Missippissians which PARTY they represented!!! Trust me - RACE MATTERS and PARTY MATTERS TOO!

By the time this current "buppie/yuppie" generation finally sink their soci-economic roots in America some NEW GROUPS will have risen to REPLACE them too - however by such time they too will have been known as Democrats and Republicans!!!

Anonymous said...

I would advise Mpact members, New Path members, in fact, all younger folks with education, ambition, skills, etc. to get out of Memphis. Move. This is a dying city and it's not worth fighting over the few scraps that will be left in the years to come. move somewhere else where it isn't a zero sum game of disgusting politics and watch the rats decimate each other from long distance over the next few years.
Hopefully I'll be able to follow, although I'm not young anymore. I've told each of my children not to return to memphis after college.

Tom Guleff said...

FYI - Jeni Stephens Thompson has been named the new chairwoman of the MPACT Memphis board of directors. Thompson is the director of marketing and development for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation. She has a bachelor's degree in communications from Lambuth University and a master's degree in education from Vanderbilt University. Thompson serves as the programs chair for the Association of Fundraising Professionals and sits on the Playhouse on the Square board. She is a member of the Leadership Memphis Class of 2008.

Anonymous said...

"Black and Know it" is on to something. There is a trend to blur the line between republican and democrat because of changing demographics. But there is another thing to keep in mind. Memphis/Shelby county politics doesn't line up along ideological lines, rather it is all about race and class. It is one of the reasons when people outside memphis look at our politics things don't seem to line up as in other places.

Since race and class are the primary drivers of Memphis politics, it is no surprise that Brooks and Chism aren't very receptive to MPACT Memphis and New Path. To a lot of folks, New Path looks like an astroturf organization for Memphis Tomorrow. Which would explain the class side of the political equation. It smells like rich elites are continuing to try manipulate their control over the course of the city. In fact, the old banner on the New Path website had in pale lettering "Memphis Tomorrow" written on it. That's not exactly subtle.

In politics, you measure a person by the company they keep, so MPACT is going to have enemies because New Path has gotten active in local campaigns. Plus, no rational politican is going to fund his/her opposition. Chism hasn't gotten to his position by handing out bullets to current or future rivals. Throw in the fast and loose playing of nonprofits rules along with Leadership Memphis' role, I'm surprised Chism and Brooks hasn't put up more of a stink.

Anonymous said...

There's so much BS about keeping young people in Memphis, how important we are to the future, and why we should spend our lives here. Then, there's the reality. We're given no real voice, we recycle the same old faces on public boards, we aren't asked to get involved in any real way in decisions, and when we do try to have a say, we get slapped by actions like this. Every day, most of us ask ourselves why are we here. It gets harder to answer.

Anonymous said...

So these hack politicians get a pass because "no rational politican is going to fund his/her opposition." Anonymous is just wrong. First, who would say they're rational, but second, this isn't their opposition. If Mpact is supposed to be a group of elites, they don't vote in their districts anyway. And if they want to quit giving money to organizations whose members oppose their positions, there's nobody left.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm black and I know it. In this city, who'd ever let you forget it? But at MPACT, it's a nonissue. We want to improve Memphis, which means we want to improve the lives of African-Americans caught in poverty.

And we're not trying to blur the lines between Democrats and Republican. Neither of the parties are contributing to the kind of city we want to live in so the kind of rhetoric of black and know it may sound smart, but it's as irrelevant as the politicians of both parties here.

Anonymous said...

This is truly depressing. I’m one of the many young people who moved to Memphis and left soon after. A variety of circumstances contributed to my departure, and not all of them had to do directly with Memphis. But what I can say is that Memphis didn’t make a very strong argument for staying. Mobility and option for young workers like me are incredibly tempting. We don’t have to stay and make a situation better. We can leave, and leave quickly. I’m not endorsing that sentiment, and MPACT and NEW PATH clearly want to stick it out and create change, but Memphis has something a lot of struggling cities don't have: A solid core of young, creative talent that wants to stay.

But in my short time in Memphis, I saw, both in the private and public sectors, an entrenched group of leaders who, while supportive of bringing younger more creative talent to Memphis, were simultaneously threatened. On some level this is human nature. I still believe a lot of these people want more young talent to migrate to the city. Increased spending, increased revenues, increased housing values, increased profit from hiring talented people, the benefits are numerous. But I also got the feeling that everyone in Memphis was one job away from waiting tables, one job away from losing their house, one job away from packing it in--and that covering your ass was the most important skill to have.

bob said...

Basically, I think we just need to understand something:

Here in Memphis, we all live on the Plantation. If we don't want to get whupped, we just need to get with the program and be nice, and we'll be taken care of. Those of us who aspire to someday go up the big hill and live in the plantation house, well, there are organizations we can join, ways we can serve. The other choice, of course, is to catch a train.

Anonymous said...


There is an important postscript that needs to be added to your post.

At the County Commission meeting earlier this week, the County Commission voted 8-1, with 3 abstentions (Chism, Brooks and Avery), to fund Memphis Fast Forward on the condition that no County funds go to MPACT's role in the plan (the same restriction applies to the City Council's funding authorization, by the way), and that no other Memphis ED funds go to fund MPACT's few political activities listed in the Fast Forward plan - otherwise, other Fast Forward plan funds CAN go to fund MPACT's role in talent recruitment and retention.

While it is unfortunate that the county chose to restrict its funds this way, it's significant that 8 County Commissioners voted to allow other Fast Forward plan funds to be used by MPACT for non-political purposes.

As you point out, the funding resolution that came before the Commission would have prohibited any Fast Forward funds from going to MPACT at all...as you say so well, an old path and a dysfunctional one, since it was clear that corporate funders of Fast Forward could have simply funded MPACT outside the plan.

JW Gibson offered an amendment restricting just the county's appropriation, and Steve Mulroy refined the wording to address Chism's and Brooks' stated purpose, to make sure that if the county approved the funding, it made sure that no Fast Forward plan funds from any source were spent on political activity.

Once the Commission voted 8-4 for those amendments - i.e., not to allow Chism and Brooks and, for that matter, the Chamber, to throw MPACT under the bus, Brooks and Chism had no choice but to come clean and admit that their real motivation was to destroy MPACT (and by association New Path).

We should be proud that 8 of our County Commissioners, 5 Democrats and 3 Republicans, didn't settle for letting those two regressionists make them look foolish and petty. They cast a vote for progressive young people this week, and we should lift that up.

Anonymous said...

Those out of control people at M-Pact Memphis better stop those threatening political actions of theirs - registering voters and telling them that they need to care about campaigns. Even trying to get people to exercise the basic tenets of good citizenship is too much for some politicians, I guess.

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