Monday, July 25, 2016

Commissioner expects dismal turnout in local races; much more in presidential race

If the early and absentee vote count is a barometer of what voters can expect in the Aug. 4 state and federal Democratic and Republican primary election and the Shelby County general election, Democrat and Republican contenders battling for elected office could squeak to the finish line, with one competitor slightly eclipsing the other.
After 8 days of early voting thus far, which began July 15, a total of 15,144 votes were cast as of July 23 – 7,685 for Republican candidates, 7,376 for Democratic candidates, and 83 for non-partisan. The total includes the number of votes cast in the Democratic and Republican primary as well as voters who choose to cast votes only in a county general election.
Early voting ends July 30.
“We don’t anticipate that there would be a great turnout for this (local) election, which is par for the course,” said Shelby County Election Commissioner Norma Lester, a Hillary Clinton delegate who is in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. 
But there is keen interest in the 8th District U.S. House of Representatives seat, she said, after Republican incumbent Stephen Lee Fincher announced he would not seek a fourth term. Thirteen Republicans are vying to replace him, seven from Shelby County.
Two Democrats are on the ballot as well in this overwhelmingly red Republican district. The victor in the Republican primary will face the Democrat and independent in the general election on Nov. 8.
“That’s a highly competitive race,” Lester said.
The district encompasses “Carroll, Crockett, Dyer, Fayette, Gibson, Haywood, Henry, Lake, Lauderdale, Madison, Obion, Tipton, and Weakley counties and portions of Benton and Shelby counties.”
“We’re not seeing a lot of interest or a great turn out for local races,” the commissioner said. “Some people only vote every four years in the presidential election. But we anticipate for the general election in November that we will have a much higher turn out.”
The ongoing battle for the White House is generating worldwide attention. “People will turn out for the presidential election,” she said, despite the fact that both Donald Trump and Clinton are embroiled in one snafu after another.
The four-day Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, wrapped up a week ago with one problem after another – from no-shows by the host governor and former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, Sen. John McCain, the Bush family, and Mitt Romney. And then there were a few lines in Melania Trump’s speech that were lifted from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech in 2008.
“Right now both parties seem to be having some problems,” she said.
Clinton is reeling from the latest debacle that surfaced on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had suspected all alone that DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other party officials were partial to Clinton during the primary. Now a plethora of hacked email messages prove Sanders was right.
“The email scandal is another blow,” said Lester. “There is something constant going on throughout this process. Of course, this is something we’re not proud of. But I hope we can rise above that and just focus on our candidate getting elected.”
Will there be a conciliatory movement between Sanders and Clinton? “Bernie has indicated that,” said Lester, hoping that Sanders will succeed in convincing his supporters to merge with the Clinton campaign in a show of unity.
“We figure we’ll get the voters to come out for this election,” Lester said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of turnout we get. However, we’re expecting it to be a heavy turnout.”

Exchange students avoid terror in Nice, France

Looking back over the horrid terrorist attack that rocked Nice, France, Ava Lehner said she’s lucky that she and her friend Louise Grevoul weren’t among the revelers celebrating Bastille Day on July 14 – the day a Tunisian man, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, rammed the huge truck he was driving into the crowd and killing more than 80 people. More than 300 others were hospitalized.
Lehner and Grevoul were amusing themselves in the city of Eze, France, when terror gripped Nice and once again sent shock waves across the world. Eze is a tourist mecca not far from Nice, a liberal retreat that attracts artists and scores of Europe’s elite to the capital of the French Riviera.
Louise Grevoul (left) and Ava Lehner.
We went to Nice almost every day,” said Lehner, a 17-year-old Corona del Sol High School senior from Tempe, Ariz., participating in the city’s Tempe Sister Cities Student Exchange Program, “a global, culture and humanitarian works program 
aligned with the city of Tempe and Sister Cities International.”
Lehner stayed with the family of 17-year-old Grevoul, a student at LycĂ©e Massena in Nice, for five weeks in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France, one of a number of sister cities around the world. She was matched with Grevoul’s family based on their enthusiasm for cultural exchange and friendship building.
“We were having a farewell dinner in Eze, because we were going to fly out the next day,” said Lehner, reflecting on the day fate steered the student ambassadors in a different direction. “If we hadn’t had our farewell dinner, there’s a very good chance that we would’ve been there celebrating like everybody else.”
Lehner did not know what was going on at first until someone told her. Then she and Grevoul turned on the TV and were alarmed when they noticed countless bodies strewn along the path of destruction left by the speeding hunk that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel used as a deadly weapon.
“It was scary and a little creepy because of how close it was,” said Lehner, who wasn’t the only student selected to go to France. “There were three other Americans there with their French sisters. We all realized that if we’d gone to the celebration, it could’ve been us.”
The three other ambassadors establishing a cultural connection and friendship with their “sisters” in Beaulieu-sur-Mer were Tempe residents Amanda Johnson and Laney R. T. Gordon, both seniors from Corona del Sol High School; and Hanna Olsen, a senior from McClintock High School.
Lehner said there wasn’t a reason why she and Grevoul wouldn’t have been in the area of the attack. She is certain they would’ve been caught up in the chaos and ensuing madness.
“The area where the attack happened, we frequented there a lot,” she said. “All my life, whenever there was a terrorist attack, even if it’s been in the United States, it’s been several states away. So the attack in Nice was heartbreaking.”
When Lehner first got the news that pandemonium had broken out, “all I could do was think about my mom and what she would have done if somebody had gotten hurt by the attack the day we were supposed to come home. It would have been very tragic.”
Tragedy was averted. But memories and the horrific images of human wreckage in Nice may subside with time – until the next terrorist attack brings it all back to mind.
Lehner and Grevoul left Beaulieu-sur-Mer on July 15 and returned to Tempe, where Grevoul is staying five weeks with Lehner and her family. She is now making it possible for her exchange sister to get an up-close and personal look and feel for American culture.

Parents get a ‘LIFT’ with their children’s education

'LIFT' parents include Carmelita Hernandez (left), Victoria Kirkwood, Tonya Sevion-
Cole and Marquita Finnie. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
Since parental involvement is sorely missing in the public schools system, The Memphis LIFT (TML) is on the move to make sure that more parents are involved in the education of their school-aged children.
Last year, a team led by John Little, TML’s surge director, knocked on nearly 11,000 doors throughout Memphis to inform parents about school choice, the radical changes in public education, and to build widespread demand for high quality schools.
TML is a parent-focused advocacy group designed to “educate, engage and empower.” “We’re making a difference,” said Little, a community organizer who first joined LIFT in March 2015. “We have a long way to go. It’s only a drop in the bucket, but we have to keep adding drops.”
Sarah Carpenter, director of The Memphis LIFT.
Little is one of 20 staffers at TML, a non-profit with varied resources to help parents. There is a director of choice counseling, director of operations, and director of Public Advocate Fellowship (PAF) – each working in tandem to give parents the tools they need to improve the quality of education for their children.
Dianechia Fields is the director PAF, “a revolutionary program designed by and for parents to increase the number of parents who participate in the public conversation about education in our city.” TML offers the program free of charge.
“We used to do 20-25 parents a class, which were two classes one day a week,” said Fields. “Now we will have four classes two days a week. We’re looking at reaching 62 parents. The four classes will start Sept. 12.”
“The only way we can save our kids is to educate our parents,” said Sarah Carpenter, TML’s new director and longtime community activist fighting for children. “When you educate parents, they can go to the schools and know the right questions to ask. That’s what we do here.”
Carpenter also said, “We got to meet people where they are and take them to where they’re trying to go, and that is to educate and empower and engage the parents. We’re trying to reach that powerless parent and make that parent powerful.”
Marquita Finnie is the mother of five children. All five are in school. “I have gained more knowledge of what’s going on in the school system than what I knew,” said Finnie, who volunteered each day at Whitney Achievement Elementary when school was in session.
Finnie is now aware that there are options and choices available in public education that will improve her children’s performance. And she’s using the best of TML’s tools to make sure that her children are attending the right schools.
Carmelita Hernandez has six children; three of them will be attending school when the doors open on Aug. 8. Hernandez didn’t know anything about TML until Carpenter gave her the lowdown on the work the advocacy group has been doing to help parents.
“I try to focus on Hispanic parents who don’t say anything, because they think this (education) is better than anything,” said Hernandez, who is advocating for Hispanics at Raleigh Egypt Middle School. “Here (Shelby County Schools), education should be equal no matter where you come from – but it’s not always that way.”
Hernandez said the language barrier sometimes keep Hispanic parents uninformed and out of the loop when they have questions concerning school placement and the tools they need to educate their children.
“You got to push. You got to ask for something. It may be no, but later on it may be yes. That’s what I tell them,” she said.
TML is available to all parents – black, white, Hispanic – whatever their needs are, Carpenter said. “If we empower the parents, we’re on our way.”

(For more information, contact The Memphis LIFT at 901-276-0850 or by email at

Monday, July 18, 2016

Former ‘Invader’ says Black Lives Matter is doing a better job than his group

As Dr. Coby Smith was watching Min. DeVantae Hill on TV and other leaders of the local Black Lives Matter movement shepherd roughly 1,000 protestors to the off-ramp of the Memphis I-40 bridge on July 10, the scene, the movement, reminded him of the 60s-era group that demanded redress for some of the same problems affecting African Americans.
“These youngsters are doing a better job than we were able to do. Their movement is the most consistent movement this country has ever seen,” said Smith, a founding member of The Invaders, a local black militant group of college students espousing black power during the civil rights movement.
Dr. Coby Smith
“I’m proud as the dickens of what these young people are able to do and say. They’ve done some things that we were not able to do,” said Smith, 70. “But it would be nice occasionally [for the leaders] to reach back to get some advice.”
Smith said he wouldn’t have advised the leadership to host the forum on July 11 at Greater Imani Church with Mayor Jim Strickland. “They didn’t have a chance to sit down amongst themselves and discuss what they wanted to say to establish their own agenda,” he said.
Hill, whose mission is "One Memphis, One Vision," demanded redress for the problems affecting today’s African-American community. And he wanted swift justice for the misconduct of others in the seat of power.
He presented the mayor with four demands:
1)     Hire interim police director Michael Rallings as the permanent top cop
2)     Cultural and sensitivity training for police officers
3)     More funding for African-American businesses to reflect the city’s demographics
4)     Increase spending for youth empowerment initiatives
Hill, however, wasn’t the only visible leader at Greater Imani making demands. Others exerted their authority and angry participants wanted their say as well. The forum spun out of control and images of discord were broadcast over the airwaves.
“They were trying to show as many faces and mindsets as they could,” Smith said. “In other words, the media wanted to get a story out of anybody and tried to get a rise out of anybody they could. That’s the same thing they did to us in the sixties.”
The Invaders emerged in 1967. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, the formidable group rose to prominence and drew suspicion, government surveillance, and the ire of the police. They met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers.
Dr. King was the face and moral authority of the civil rights movement. Hill, by default, has become the face of the local Black Lives Matter movement, a potpourri of local groups.
“I don’t know if one leader is the answer,” said Smith. “We had that problem in 1968 after the King assassination. We were not interested in a person singled out as a leader, because we thought they could be assassinated or, in many ways, marginalized.”
Smith suspects that Hill, 24, will be looked at with suspicious eyes, marginalized, and become a target. “You’ll see them doing the same thing to DeVantae [as they did to Dr. King and other leaders in movements past],” he said.
Hill reported receiving death threats. But he was taken into custody on July 14 for a felony allegation of filing a false offense report. The case involves a MacBook laptop that he’d reported stolen from a rooming house in 2013.
A warrant for driving on a suspended or revoked license was dismissed. Hill was released that night on a $7,500 bond. He was in court the next day (July 15), but the case was reset for July 22. He said he’ll press on with "One Memphis, One Vision" and will not be deterred.
Although The Invaders’ reign ended as quickly as it began, Smith believes Black Lives Matter is here to stay. 

Senate candidates vying for the Dist. 30 seat answer questions about women issues

National Political Caucus board member Deidre Malone moderate the Memphis
Women's Political Caucus Town Hall on July 12. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
Two political stalwarts vying for the opportunity to represent the constituents in Senate Dist. 30 touted their experience and answered a volley of questions lobbed by National Political Caucus board member Deidre Malone, who moderated the Memphis Women's Political Caucus Town Hall Meeting on July 12.
Women’s issues took center-stage in this town hall and drew a roomful of spectators and public office seekers to Amurica Studios in the Crosstown community, as state Sen. Sara Kyle and former senator Beverly Marrero discussed relevant issues pertaining to women.
“In this current season, it’s important to empower women, to inform them, and to encourage them to be a part of the political process,” said Latrivia Welch, president of the Memphis Women's Political Caucus (MWPC), a non-profit promoting full and equal participation of women in government and political parties.
State Sen. Sara Kyle (right) and former senator Beverly
Marrero discussed issues relevant to women.
The purpose of the town hall was to highlight two leaders in the community, said Welch, and the work they are doing for Dist. 30. “We applaud them for their willingness to be featured in our first town hall,” she said.
Kyle and Marrero, pitted against each other for the Senate seat that Kyle currently holds, are on the campaign trail leading up to the Aug. 4 Democratic and Republican state and federal primary elections and the Shelby County general election. The general election for this seat is in November.
Both Kyle and Marrero, who are familiar with the political landscape, sat adjacent to each other and espoused legislation that they had a hand in fashioning and discussed germane issues that would uplift women. 
Kyle, an attorney, was elected in 2014 to fill the seat that her husband, former Senate minority leader Jim Kyle, left vacant after he was elected to Chancery Court. She is the second woman to be elected statewide. No other woman has been elected statewide since.
Marrero spent nine years in Nashville and lost the seat in 2012 to Jim Kyle, then the highest-ranking Democrat. Kyle opted to run against Marrero rather than face Republican Brian Kelsey when districts were redrawn that year.
Explaining why she’s seeking re-election, Kyle said, “We’re 51 percent of the population. Only 22 women are running statewide in House and Senate races.”
“It’s important for women to have a voice and to speak their mind,” Marrero added. “We don’t have representation that can represent us.”
Priorities? Marrero said if she were elected, she’d work on pay equity for women. Kyle would do the same, she said, to bridge the wage gap that separates men and women.
“The gap is larger for women of color,” said Kyle, adding that women finishing college “face a 7 percent wage gap.”
  The health care debate continues to rage, with both sides of the aisle in the Tennessee General Assembly digging in their heals and refusing to budge one iota on a plan to insure the state’s uninsured adults.
“Viagra is covered by insurance and birth control is not. That’s an abomination,” said Marrero. “We have people dying because they can’t afford medical care. What kind of sick people who don’t want people to have health care?”
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which he signed into law in 2010, has been widely eschewed and denounced by Republicans. Gov. Bill Haslam, however, offered an alternative in 2015 to expand Medicaid. Insure Tennessee failed by a vote of 7-4.
“It’s a no-brainer to vote yes on the governor’s health care bill,” said Kyle. “Tennessee should have gotten $1.4 billion dollars. It would have created two million jobs.”
The candidates fielded a number of Malone’s questions, from funding education to economic development to fixing the schools. Since questions came from the audience, someone wanted to know the candidates’ feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think it’s necessary,” Kyle said.

Women: ‘You Were Created for More’

Women gathered around Evangelist Patricia Merriweather to receive a blessing.
(Photo by Wiley Henry)
The message was clear and unencumbered by “rhyme and rap,” which preachers sometimes invoke, said Evangelist Patricia Merriweather, when they invite parishioners to come to Christ. Merriweather, who delivered a power-packed message on July 16 at The Word Church, avoided this practice and simplified the message to hone her point.
The parishioners – the majority of them women – listened intently and responded to the evangelist’s message with their hands held high in reverence to God and their heads tilted back to welcome the Spirit in the house. When Merriweather began hitting her stride, they uttered, many times, “Amen!”
The message resonated with the parishioners, which was derived from the theme of Women’s Month – “You Were Created for More” – the church’s month-long observance centered around women seeking God and contributing to the building of God’s Kingdom.
 “We’re looking for something from the Lord. We’re looking for something in these dire times. You need a word that will convict, that will set free, that will deliver,” said Merriweather, the guest evangelist from Redeemed Fellowship Ministries Church in Holly Springs, Miss.
The church is suffering and the children are suffering, said Merriweather, a Shelby County Schools principal. She’s also the founder of A Woman of Standard Ministries, which empowers people to live a holy life according to the standards of Jesus Christ.
The church’s praise and worship team fired away on all cylinders at the onset of the women’s program and galvanized the assembly with the late Andrae Crouch’s signature song: “Bless the Lord.” They sang, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul / And all that is within me / Bless His holy name…”
Their voices were a harmonic blend and warm-up act that segued into a spoken word piece by Iyuana Childs (“I Was Created for More”), a praise dance by Shana Schaeffer, and a riveting testimony by Min. Wanda Taylor, CEO of Ladies in Need Can Survive, Inc., a refuge for troubled women.
“It’s time for women to get excited about women. It’s time to support each other. We are living in a world where women need support,” said Paula Richardson, a member of Evangel Temple Church in South Memphis and the program facilitator.
In her heartfelt espousal, Richardson reflected on the world’s problems, issues and circumstances affecting women and children the most. “When children are confused, when mothers are confused, we have the answer,” she said.
Without prodding the audience or tipping them off, they knew full well the answer – God – and responded with a nod, a handclap, or simply uttered Amen. This was a call and response typical of the African American church.
Although women are the driving force of this month-long observance, Richardson said too many of them have been sitting down for too long. “This is a call to action. You are reporting for duty,” she said. Then a song came to mind, which she could not contain:
“Jesus I'll never forget what you done for me  / Jesus I'll never forget how you set me free / Jesus I'll never forget how you brought me out / Jesus I'll never forget no, never…”
The Rev. Aaron J. Litzsey Jr., senior pastor of The Word Church, and his wife, Lakisha, hosted the women’s program.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators seeks community input on criminal justice reform

Black Caucus members: Sara Kyle (non-member) and state representatives Barbara
Cooper, Brenda Gilmore, Johnnie R. Turner, Ramesh Akbari, Karen Camper and
Memphis City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
A bevy of citizens attending a forum on criminal justice reform on July 10 at First Baptist Church –Broad expressed their concerns about the high incarceration rate of African Americans comprising the federal, state and local criminal justice system.
Hosted by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, the forum drew a potpourri of citizens – activists, civic leaders, politicians and police officers – who listened intently to a panel discussion about reforming both the juvenile and criminal justice system. Memphis was the last leg of a three-city, information-gathering tour that began in Chattanooga in May and Nashville in June.
“The message so far is there are some artificial barriers out there that prevent people who have paid their debt to society,” said Nashville state Rep. Brenda Gilmore (Dist. 54), who chairs the Black Caucus. “They get out of prison and they’re not able to find housing, transportation or meaningful employment.”
The Black Caucus proposed 40 bills during the 109th legislative session on criminal justice reform. Seven of those bills passed with bipartisan support – from the expunction of theft-related Class E felonies to pretrial diversion and judicial diversion in juvenile delinquent matters.
“We’re going to promise you 14 next year,” said Rep. Johnnie R. Turner (Dist. 85), the Caucus treasurer. “Who doesn’t have a family member that hasn’t been impacted negatively by the criminal justice system?”
The incarceration rate in Tennessee is not reflective of the population, said Rep. Ramesh Akbari (Dist. 91), the Caucus vice chair. Low-level offenders, she added, should not be given long-term prison sentences.
“Forty percent of folks that went to the prison system this year from Tennessee were for parole and technical violations,” Akbari said.
Sen. Sara Kyle (Dist. 30) sponsored Senate bill 2440 – “Ban the Box.” The House version (HB2442), sponsored by Gilmore, prohibits a state employer from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial application form for employment.
Kyle is not a Caucus member, but added, “The issues are so important.”
Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan H. Michael cited statistics to buttress his argument that the number of juveniles in his charge has dwindled compared to the number of juveniles entering the system prior to his tenure.
He added that roughly 160 juveniles are placed with the state each year and routed to detention centers such as the one in Somerville in Fayette County – the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center. Fifty percent of them, the judge said, come from Shelby County.
“If we’re going to empty prisons, we’ve got to start with juveniles. We’ve got to start with families,” Michael said.
The panelists called attention to recidivism and that juveniles and adult offenders are likely to return to detention or lockup. “We’re looking for alternative ways to transport youth to detention…to lower the recidivism rate,” said Gary Cummings of Juvenile Court.
Dr. Altha J. Stewart, associate professor of Psychiatry at UT Health Science Center, said too many children are being exposed to trauma. “Forty percent of them have been diagnosed with mental illness.”
The juvenile justice panel went beyond the time limit.
“Our mandate is not to incarcerate, but to educate,” said Chief Kirk Fields of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, kicking off the discussion about criminal justice reform.        
The panelists provided as much pertinent information as possible. When the floor was open for questions, Akbari, who moderated the forum, read many of the ones that were written on paper. She fielded them to the panel.
After hearing much about reform, Deputy Chief Jim Harvey of the Memphis Police Department stood at the microphone and said he had to speak. “When you’re trying to change laws, take the victims into account,” he said.

Memphis calls for calm following violent week

Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association. (Courtesy photo)
Tears flow like water. But they don’t cool off hot tempers that erupted following the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. And they continue to flow after a sniper gunned down five police officers in Dallas and wounded seven others, including two civilians, in retaliation.
The loss of life to violent aggression is egregious. Police departments around the country are now in defensive mode and bracing for the unexpected. In Memphis, the men and women in blue are in just as much a heightened state of mind.
“It’s so unfortunate that individuals that had nothing to do with what happened in Baton Rouge, La., or in Minnesota, had to lose their life as they were protecting individuals who were conducting a peaceful march,” said Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association.
The tension between protesters and the police officers sworn to protect them is escalating around the country. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is calling for calm, using Tweeter to make his case: “Let us all come together, in Memphis and beyond, and have a peaceful and thoughtful dialogue on the issues that confront us.
“Our community stands on how we treat each other, how we treat our police officers, and how we make strides to move forward – together – in healing,” said Strickland, who is expected to name a successor to replace Tony Armstrong, who left at the end of January to take a job as director of security at St. Jude.
Strickland and interim police director Michael Rawllings, who placed his name in contention for the top job, held a press conference on July 8 at city hall to respond to the fatal police shootings and the fallen police officers.
“We cannot survive if we do not work together,” said Rawllings, expressing anger and frustration. He said police officers are not the enemy. “We are your ally.” He also said the actions of a few should not stop “hardworking” and “dedicated” officers from doing their jobs to protect and serve the community.
 “You can’t hold all individuals, or black people, responsible for what happened, because that individual acted alone,” said Williams, a 17-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, eight of them as the MPA president. “Violence is not the answer.”
Police officers aren’t immune to violence. It’s a hazardous job for the city’s more than 2,000 commissioned officers. Williams recalled four recent incidents where officers were either injured or encountered individuals who were very hostile.
“We still have to maintain some semblance of order in all the midst of the chaos,” he said. “Right now you have officers on edge. You have the community on edge. Everybody is on edge. It affects the stability of our community.”
Williams warns officers not to be hyper-vigilant while trying to be safe and over-react instead. “You have to find that balance,” he said, “whereas you’re still able to do your job within the constraints of the authority given to you. But don’t overstep those bounds. That could propel this city into chaos.”
Two officers didn’t help diffuse tensions when they were relieved of duty with pay for posting a “disturbing” image on social media recently of what appears to be a white hand pointing a gun at a fleeing black man. An investigation is ongoing.
“We absolutely take this seriously,” Strickland said.
Anger is exploding across the country and the ripple is felt in Memphis. But the city has its own problems to contend with. The homicide rate is soaring: 118 since Jan. 1.
“I’m a citizen…I’m a police officer…and I live in a community where homicides are happening that I’m concerned about,” said Williams, calling attention to one that happened recently about 1,000 yards from his front porch.

Introducing Obama gives Dean a leg up in life

In 2011, Christopher Dean shared the stage with President Obama, BTW's principal
Alisha Kiner and then-Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
When you add favor, good fortune and opportunity, you get Christopher Dean, the Booker T. Washington High School (BTW) senior who was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2011 after his heartfelt introduction of President Barack Obama, who delivered the school’s commencement address at the Cook Convention Center.
Dean has since parlayed that opportunity into good fortune, which followed him to Lane College, a historically black college in Jackson, Tenn., and to the White House and The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ daily newspaper, to work as an intern. 
What Dean leaned at the White House was kind of other-worldly compared to the rough and rugged streets in South Memphis, a community grappling with poverty, high teen pregnancy, escalating HIV/AIDS cases, and gang infestation. So he learned survival skills quickly
“I did my best anyway, and I competed to the highest level there is. There’s nothing that can take that away from me,” said Dean, 24, crediting BTW’s principal Alisha Kiner for steering him in the right direction and drawing out of him the true spirit of a “Warrior,” the school’s mascot.
He learned a lot working with White House staffers on “Ban the Box,” a bill that gives applicants convicted of a crime a fair shot at a job; “My Brother’s Keeper,” a White House initiative focusing on building bridges of opportunities for young people; and “Let Girls Learn,” also a White House “initiative, but aimed at helping adolescent girls attain a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential.”
Dean stood out among the 155 graduates that year at BTW – not only because of the chance encounter with Present Obama, but because he beat the odds. South Memphis is as rough as a community can get. His father was shot 20 times in a gang shootout when Dean was five, which left his mother with four children to tend to in the projects.   
Gangs were aplenty. Dean grew up among them and befriended Gangster Disciples and the Crips. “Growing up in South Memphis didn’t show me things that I wanted, it showed me things that I didn’t want,” he said. “Everybody around me was doing the same thing. I was determined to be different.”
Dean’s determination to be different was fueled long before meeting the president. “I knew the attention would fade. I wasn’t going to try to live off his name,” he said. “It’s a hunger in my stomach that’s not for food. It’s for success. It’s for surviving.”
If the president had not chosen BTW to visit, Dean said he still would have found a way to make it out of the ghetto unscathed. “I would’ve found a way to get out of here,” he said. “It wasn’t because I introduced the president and went to Lane (college), I was planning to go to Lane.”
Dean will never forget rubbing shoulders with the president of the United States. Neither would his family, friends, strangers, and those who wished him God-speed. “They call it 15 minutes of fame for a reason,” he said. “It’s not all shiny lights like people believe.”
It wasn’t all for naught, either. Now that Dean has graduated college – in April of this year – he’s back home creating documentaries, which he’d done as an intern for The Commercial Appeal. He also lives in a two-bedroom house and cuts his own grass.
“I lived in an apartment my entire life,” said Dean, whose ultimate goal is to create documentaries and spread happiness. “This is all I ask for. I don’t want to be famous. I want to do what I love to do and be happy doing it.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

‘Witness Walls’ going forward despite protest from Nashville Civil Rights Veterans Association

Before the student sit-in demonstrations gained traction in Nashville and served as a model for civil rights demonstrations throughout the South, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. was there at every turn leading the fight against injustices and waging a fierce campaign to end segregation.
First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, then pastored by Smith, was at the forefront as well and served as the headquarters for the arduous campaign. But Smith’s contributions – widely recognized and hailed in historic annals – weren’t enough to warrant recognition or a facsimile of Smith on the “Witness Walls,” a public art installation commemorating the “Nashville Movement.”
“Witness Walls,” a series of concrete walls fronted with historical images, will be installed on the west side of the Metro Courthouse later this year. It is a $350,000 project commissioned by the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission to honor the capitol city’s contributions to the civil rights movement.
The Nashville Civil Rights Veterans Association (NCRVA), however, is “incensed” with the final design that Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood was chosen to create. In a letter to Metro Arts dated June 28, the NCRVA spelled out its “demand” in very specific terms.
“We demand the following: “1) an apology for this travesty; 2) cessation of the entire project; 3) redesign of the Wall’s image to include a prominent display of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr.’s face; and 4) the official monument location when completed to be called the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. Freedom Plaza.”   
A discussion about who would grace the Walls locally took place on Feb. 2, 2016, at Metro Arts. The NCRVA argued to include Smith and his contributions. However, during the week of June 20th, “We were notified that the Witness Walls design did not contain an image of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr.” 
On Friday, July 1, Jennifer Cole, executive director for Metro Arts, released a joint media statement from the arts organization and the artist when asked about the omission of Smith on the Witness Walls and NCRVA’s demand for redress.
“The Witness Walls project has been underway for nearly three years,” the statement said. “Since its inception, Metro Arts has framed this as an artwork, not a memorial or a monument to individuals or a specific documentation of historic events.”
The statement also noted that projects commissioned by Metro Arts include community feedback and input, and that the role of the artist is to listen, interpret and then create an artwork inspired from community conversations.
Whether Smith’s omission was blatant or not, the statement spells out Metro Arts’ practices regarding public art and the autonomy given to the artist when creating the final design. “It is never our practice to promise specific design elements to stakeholder groups, as the final concept for artwork always rests with the artist.”
“The staff (Metro Arts) offered a callous, undefendable excuse then which was culminated in the Arts Commission now making a mockery of citizens’ participation,” the NCRVA said regarding their meeting with Metro Arts and the NCRVA’s “empathetic insistence” to include Smith’s image in the final design.
 Metro Arts said the Movement, which encompassed sit-ins, economic boycotts, marches, acts of violence and acts of reconciliation, involved thousands of people and stories and that Hood met with the NCRVA three times to review and discuss sample images.
“The artist, at the request of the Veterans, did modify some images to focus on collective action, specifically the inclusion of an image of the Freedom Rides in the design.” Other images were “culled through archives and stories submitted online to inform his final design concept.”   
Hood’s final design, the statement said, was discussed at two publically noticed meetings – the Public Art Committee Meeting on Feb. 9 and a board of commissioners meeting on Feb. 18. “No concerns were raised at either.”
The NCRVA has called for a redesign. Metro Arts said the final design has now moved into fabrication and that no changes are forthcoming. 

Filmmaker produces documentary to fight human sex trafficking

Slavery in the United States has been illegal since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than 150 years ago. Human sex trafficking is just as illegal, which leaves in its wake thousands of broken victims. It is one of the fastest growing crimes in Memphis and Shelby County.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, there were 100 documented cases of adult victims and 100 juveniles ensnared in commercial sex trafficking in Shelby County.
“Now, there are about 4,000 cases in Memphis, Tenn.,” said Michelle Sweeney, a 28-year-old documentary filmmaker who hopes to emancipate as many victims as she can by drawing attention to the documentary she produced called “No Way Home.”
Michelle Sweeney
The documentary is about sex trafficking from two perspectives: the mother of an 11-year-old who tried to pry her daughter from her perpetrator’s coercive grip, and a once hardened pimp who now denounces the practice.
“It’s a cold world. Don’t just think it’s a game. People have lost their lives. People got hurt. People are selling people,” warns the ex-pimp, who is veiled in shadows to protect his identity as he uncovers the illegal practice of forcing a woman to sell her body.
Human sex trafficking is defined as illegal coercion of adult prostitution or the sexual exploitation of men, women and children for profit.
“As long as there is a desire and a demand from johns to have sex, sex trafficking will continue,” Sweeney said. “It happens to the lower class. It happens to the middle class. It happens to the affluent.”
The crestfallen mother in the film explains how an adult male lured her daughter into prostitution. “She left out walking with a group of friends. This adult male drove up. Not wanting to be embarrassed in front of her group of friends, she ended up getting into the car with the guy.”
The man, she says, took her daughter to CK’s Coffee Shop, left her there for two hours, and came back with his friends. “They gave her drugs. She drank alcohol over in the night. This is when the rape occurred. This is in the same area where we lived in off of Flowering Peach.”
From that point on, “her attitude turned dark,” the mother says. Then it became increasingly difficult for her to save her daughter, whose defenses were broken down and her emotions frayed by the man who controlled her every move.
“It depends on where you’re hurting. Some guys, they’ll find the weak spot. Or they’ll find your addiction,” the ex-pimp says, noting that women 11 to 60 are vulnerable to sex trafficking and recruited through Craigslist, Backpage, Facebook, and other social media sites.
Sweeney released a 12-minute version of the documentary recently to gage the public’s response. She’s planning to finish the documentary by year’s end and present it to churches, organizations and the Tennessee State Legislature to create awareness.
She also hopes the documentary will educate people. “When the legislature is able to see the documentary, they’ll see it is a real problem in Memphis. It’s a real issue. It’s a story of a real person, not just numbers on a page.”
There are signs to look for if someone is being trafficked for sex: “carries hotel keys/ key cards, unable or unwilling to give local address or information about parent(s)/guardian, or chronic runaway/homeless youth.”
Last month, for example, Memphis police arrested 28-year-old Nicholas Webster for forcing a woman into a bedroom to have sex with a man for money. He was charged with rape and Trafficking for Commercial Sex Act. A bond was set at $100,000.
If you suspect a case of human trafficking, call the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline: 855-558-6484.