Monday, June 1, 2015

First-time authors write their way toward overcoming obstacles

"Don't Count Me Out: Contending Voices," published recently by Blues City
Cultural Center, is a collection of narratives and poetry by members of  "Seek
to Serve," a program that promotes servant leadership. (Photos: Wiley Henry)
Overcoming obstacles and turning them into successes is the crux of a recently published book of narratives written by members of a leadership program expressly designed to develop, enhance and promote servant leadership among persons living in affordable public housing.
“Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices,” compiled and edited by Carolyn Matthews for Blues City Cultural Center’s Seek to Serve Program, is the end-product of an idea spawned three years ago by a facilitator for Seek to Serve.  
“The book idea was incubating for a few years with the grassroots leadership training leaders, Naomi Dyson and Deborah Frazier,” said Matthews. “Dyson conceived the title and Frazier searched for ways to sustain the momentum and document the history of the organization.”
She (Dyson) felt the participants had such rich stories of overcoming that needed to be told,” added Frazier, who co-directs (with her husband Levi Frazier) Blues City Cultural Center (BCCC), an arts organization using the arts to enlighten, empower and transform.
"Don't Count Me Out..."
A subsequent book signing is set for Wednesday (June 3) at 6:30 p.m. at Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Parrish Library, Room 101. Some of the authors will be available to read their work.
Martha Perine Beard, vice president and regional executive of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis – Memphis Branch, wrote the book’s preface. Robert Lipscomb, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority, touted Seek to Serve in the book’s foreword.
“Seek to Serve” was created to reinforce to residents that they are valued citizens of Memphis,” Lipscomb wrote. “They have positive gifts and talents that should be shared to make Memphis better, and are vital to its well-being.”
Program participants had much to express in writing workshops facilitated by Matthews, who sought ways to hone their creativity in narratives by using their own voice. She also interviewed them about their lives in their homes and in the class.
I wanted to stay close to the initial premise of the project – to share the impact of Seek to Serve on the lives the authors,” Matthews explained. “As the participants shared their stories, there was a dominant thread: overcoming adversity due to lack of resources, unhealthy relationships, or from self-limiting mindsets or societal marginalization.”
Noticing the similarities in their stories, it became clear to Matthews “that this theme running through the stories was the life force of the impact of Seek to Serve (a six-month program) because it revealed how they were changed by their participation.”
Editing the colloquial voice can present a challenge, said Matthews, an accomplished writer whose poetry and prose have appeared in “Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers,” “The Laurel Review,” “Newsmagazine,” “Jewel Magazine,” and the forthcoming “Cave Canem Anthology: 2010.”
“When you say to someone, ‘I value you. I want to teach you how to articulate YOUR issues and concerns, because you have something meaningful to contribute to your community, and I care about what you say,’ I think it is important to trust that their voice is powerful enough to communicate their message. (And) preserving their voices validates their message.”
The grassroots servant leadership program began with an idea on a Walgreen’s parking lot between Frazier and Lipscomb, then the newly appointed director of the Memphis Housing Authority. Frazier was program director at Leadership Memphis.  
There were 22 affordable housing communities in Memphis at that time, and Lipscomb, Frazier recalls, saw the need for a leadership program that would train the presidents of those housing communities.
The year was 2000. The following year the first class graduated. The Seek to Serve program, however, stayed with Leadership Memphis until 2007 and then moved to the Uptown Resource Center, where it is currently located at 314 A.W. Willis Ave.
“One of the goals of this servant leadership program is that a participant will NOT talk about his or her accomplishments or problems, but search to praise or help his neighbor,” said Frazier. “As a result, we celebrated the accomplishments of others and what they had done at home, at church, and in their community.
“This book says you never stop never stop never give up.  It takes the group to encourage the individual.  So it’s more than encouraging yourself; it’s about encouraging your neighbor and then you are encouraged.”
BCCC, whose tag line is “ARTS FOR A BETTER WAY OF LIFE,” has received funding and support from neighborhood grants – Community Development Block Grant, FedEx, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Tennessee Arts Commission, and ArtsMemphis.
“Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices” was published with funds from ArtsMemphis’ Arts Build Communities (ABC) grants. Funds also were derived from the IOBY (In Our Backyard) crowdfunding program, an online fundraising platform.

        (For more information about the book “Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices,” or Blues City Cultural Center’s Seek to Serve Program, contact Deborah Frazier at 901-292-2397 or by email at The website is

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