Driving into South Memphis, one can imagine what it looked like when it became the city’s first planned industrial suburb. Although the tree-lined median has been removed, sturdy brick craftsman-style bungalows still line the wide parkway, just as they did in the early twentieth century. The neighborhood’s working- and middle-class status remained stable as its racial composition shifted from white to predominately African American in the 1950s. But by the 1970s, suburbanization, deindustrialization, desegregation, and disinvestment had transformed South Memphis into a struggling community facing deteriorating housing conditions, street violence, an active drug trade, and declining public schools.
Today, 21 percent of the neighborhood’s lots are vacant, 40 percent of commercial buildings stand unused, and more than 50 percent of children live below the poverty line (Lambert-Pennington and Reardon 2009, 54–58). Nonetheless, a strong base of long-time residents, neighborhood associations, block clubs, nonprofits, and churches is responding to the complex blend of challenges facing the neighborhood. Among these is the South Memphis Renaissance Collaborative (SMRC), a group of architects, funders, and city officials working with St. Andrew AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church to move community development to the next level.
In the summer of 2008, Pastor Kenneth Robinson of St. Andrew AME Church invited an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students from the University of Memphis (UM), led by my colleague Ken Reardon and me, to become part of the SMRC. Thus began a community–university partnership that is now entering its fifth year. The evolution of our partnership with St. Andrew has required our faculty–student team to play a range of evolving roles, resulting in new relationships and pedagogical shifts along the way.
A Partnership’s Evolution
The partnership has convened faculty and students from UM’s Departments of Anthropology, City and Regional Planning, and Architecture to help neighborhood stakeholders envision and create a different future for the community. Our roles, research foci, and course content have shifted as our interdisciplinary findings have revealed new issues and questions throughout the three stages of our partnership.
In stage one (Fall 2008), the UM team helped St. Andrew conduct a program assessment. This included a history of the church’s community outreach efforts, accomplishments, and future hopes related to five program areas: Social Ministries; the Ernestine Rivers Childcare Center; Circles of Success Learning Academy (an elementary charter school); The Works, Inc., Community Development Corporation; and the Community Life Center.
In stage two (2009), all partners engaged in a participatory planning process. As St. Andrew sought a way to engage the broader community in conversation about the neighborhood’s future, the UM team suggested a participatory action research strategy that blended community organizing, education, and qualitative and quantitative methods to develop a resident-driven comprehensive redevelopment plan. Working with Pastor Robinson and The Works, Inc., we invited a group of stakeholders representing residents, local businesses, area churches and nonprofits, civic organizations, and city government to serve on an advisory committee. Eventually, we worked with over one thousand residents and twenty-five neighborhood organizations and churches on a variety of research activities, including a land use survey, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and a door-to-door survey.
These research activities formed the basis for a daylong Neighborhood Summit, where eight hundred residents and stakeholders vetted our findings, established a vision for the neighborhood, and set planning objectives and action priorities. Residents formed action teams and worked with UM students to brainstorm and develop program and project strategies addressing key issues. Based on these conversations, UM students and faculty drafted the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan, which residents and the Memphis City Council reviewed and adopted. Residents then identified their top priority for implementation: to create a local farmers’ market to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
In stage three (2010 and beyond), we have worked with our partners to establish the South Memphis Farmers Market (SMFM), held every Thursday in a parking lot across the street from St. Andrew. Accomplishing this required us to work with new partners whose expertise expanded our collective knowledge of how farmers’ markets work and our understanding of the local environment for such an undertaking. Memphis and Shelby County Health Department staff helped ensure that SMFM met health codes and that organizers understood how supplemental food program benefits and senior vouchers apply to farmers’ markets. Healthy Memphis Common Table, a health education and research organization, assisted SMFM with outreach and arranged for health screenings and information to be available at the market. A representative from Grow Memphis, an urban farming and food advocacy group, served on the advisory committee and connected us to the Cooper Young Farmers Market, which coached us through the market set-up process. Finally, the Memphis Regional Design Center helped prepare documents for our land use control board hearing at City Council.
Engaged Curriculum and Pedagogy
Each stage of our partnership with the community has created new experiential learning opportunities and led to new research questions. In stage one, I worked with faculty teaching graduate classes in anthropology, architecture, and city and regional planning to organize the research and outreach timeline, developing a matrix of course topics, research strategies, and opportunities for our respective students to collaborate. Throughout the semester, students developed interview protocols, conducted door-to-door outreach, and engaged in group-oriented research. Using these methods, my anthropology graduate students examined St. Andrew’s model of faith-based development and explored questions about how participatory action research and asset-based community development differ from traditional approaches.
In stage two, graduate students in planning took the lead on many activities with support from undergraduate anthropology students enrolled in my American Communities course. For the anthropology students, the participatory planning process was an opportunity to see community-building first hand. Students paired with residents for door-to-door surveys, assisted with recruiting people to attend community meetings, and helped facilitate small group discussions and action team meetings. In biweekly debriefing sessions and their final papers, students considered how participatory action research can create avenues for cultural critique and community-derived solutions while exploring what anthropology and the anthropologist can contribute to neighborhood revitalization efforts.
During stage three, anthropology faculty and students as well as South Memphis residents have conducted an ongoing evaluation of the market, with an evaluation team co-led by me (a cultural anthropologist with a specialization in urban development and social inequalities) and my colleague Kathryn Hicks (a biological anthropologist with a specialization in race and health disparities and nutritional anthropology). Our research questions include: How do farmers’ markets fit into the urban food system of Memphis? How well does SMFM serve the neighborhood, and what can be done to improve the market? How does having access to fresh fruits and vegetables impact local residents’ diets?
This ongoing evaluation has led me to integrate literature on urban food systems, farmers’ markets, and food policy into my graduate and undergraduate Neighborhood Development and Social Entrepreneurship course. In addition to building a unit on local food policy advocacy and inviting speakers from local organizations, I have created opportunities for students to volunteer at SMFM. Students in my classes have assisted with research at the market, and several anthropology students have interned with The Works, Inc. and the farmers’ market.
UM’s long-term partnership with St. Andrew, The Works, Inc., and the residents of South Memphis has benefitted both students and the community. The partnership has resulted in tangible neighborhood improvements and afforded students opportunities to master methodological skills and course-specific learning objectives. Importantly, the longevity of the relationship has also allowed me to integrate service learning into my courses, with special attention to preparing students for work in the community.
Lambert-Pennington, Katherine, and Kenneth M. Reardon. 2009. “South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan: A People’s Blueprint for Building a More Vibrant, Sustainable, and Just Community.” Memphis, TN: St. Andrew AME Church. Approved by the City of Memphis, March 9, 2010. http://www.memphis.edu/planning/student_projects.htm.
Katherine Lambert-Pennington is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis.