Memphis has long been known for its high rates of child poverty, and community leaders at a New Memphis forum focused on the economic forces driving poverty, how to stem gun violence and make gangs less attractive to young people.
Tuesday’s forum, titled ‘Celebrate What’s Right: The Great Debate,’ brought together four nonprofit leaders to dissect the impact of child poverty on the city and what can be done to reverse the trend.
The discussion highlighted that African American children are more likely to live in more difficult neighborhoods that suffer from poverty.
According to the 2022 Poverty Fact Sheet, black children had the highest rate of poverty in any area than any other age or race.
Ephie Johnson, panelist and president and CEO of Neighborhood Christian Centers, told the story of a Memphis child who was near her window when gunshots rang out in her front yard.
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“His house was shot and it wasn’t his fault,” Johnson said of the child who was traumatized.
She explained that her brother and his wife had received a call from the child. They drove to the house, determined he was safe, then picked him up and took him to their home. “I’m tired of living like this, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Johnson said quoting the child.
She said the temporary relief to help the children was not enough, as the children return to the same violent environment. “Sending them home with a backpack with food for the weekend is not enough,” she said.
Panelists also claim that the lack of a living wage is a major factor in child poverty. “Our goal is to get them from $8 to $10 and help them get to $15 and up, which is a living wage,” Johnson said.
Another panelist, Susan Deason, executive director of Youth Villages, said the people who are most willing to work are those whose applications may be passed over in a job interview because they may not meet the professional qualifications.
“I really think it’s important as employers that you think of really creative ways to hire people who aren’t at the top of their class, who don’t look like top performers,” Deason said.
Youth Villages changed its human resource practices to hire people with felony convictions. “They have the most credibility to be able to get someone out of this life,” Deason said.
“When you’re already struggling to read, then you’re skipping school and taking the wrong path, guess who’s waiting for you? The gang member, the drug dealer, the negative influences in that community that wrap around their arms these kids,” Deason said.
Youth Villages launched a program, Memphis Allies, to eliminate gun violence from Memphis communities. It’s a $60 million initiative that, according to Youth Villages, only raised $5 million.
Julie Sanon, chief operating officer of Agape Child and Family Service in Memphis, said the choices children make are influenced by their environment.
“We have strategies in place that will help move each of these children, otherwise it is the children who are going to fall through the cracks,” she said.
“We’re going to see them, but we’re going to see them in not so good places,” Sanon said.
New Memphis’ Kaylon Bradford, director of leadership programs, hopes the city’s embracing discussion of tough topics — and encouraging child mentorship — will ignite a brighter future for Memphis youth.
“I’m a big believer in exposure,” Bradford said. “I believe exposure affects behavior, so if young people see people who look like them in roles they aspire to, it’s those kinds of things that make them want to dream more and ultimately become more.”
Porsha Hernandez is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected].