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Two Tales of One City: Shifting our Perspective on Memphis and our Neighborhoods

Memphis is a city rife with crime, poverty, and blight. One of the most obese cities in America and one of the least educated. A city with vast social and economic inequality, a city of racial injustice and racial exclusion, a city of corrupt politics. Memphis has always been this way – a backwater town with nothing going for it and absolutely zero hope of catching up with other, better cities like Nashville or Atlanta. The best thing the people of Memphis can do for themselves is move somewhere else.

If you’re reading this blog, the odds are you’re a Memphian. How did you feel reading that first paragraph? Did you feel resigned, disappointed, even embarrassed? Or did you want to jump on the defensive – pointing out all the reasons you love Memphis and all the good things we have in our community?

The thing is, everything I wrote in that first paragraph is at least partially true. We live in a city facing tremendous challenges. Crime, poverty, blight, poor health, racial prejudice, and political corruption are just a few examples of the many very serious issues affecting the lives of Memphians every day.

But, of course, nothing in that first paragraph is the whole truth. Memphis is a complex community. We face challenges, yes, but we also have much to celebrate. We all know that a glass that is half empty is also, by definition, half full, and in recent years more and more people have been speaking out in support of Memphis and our city’s many strengths.

Helping to fuel this civic pride are some of our new media cheerleaders like the I Love Memphis blog, Choose901, and High Ground News, among others. Frustrated by a constant focus on the negative, these media outlets have chosen to remind us of all that is good in our city – changing the narrative and challenging us to shift our perspective. They write about so much more than just blues music and barbecue – highlighting new businesses and entrepreneurs, cultural and arts institutions, nonprofits and social movements, educational reformers, parks and greenspaces, community events and activities, and the many, many opportunities for us to come together, as Memphians, to build our community.

That shift in perspective is a powerful thing.

It is also at the core of our work at Center for Transforming Communities (CTC). While I Love Memphis, Choose901, and High Ground are helping change our attitudes about Memphis as a whole, CTC has been working for years to nurture the same change at the grassroots level in Memphis neighborhoods. One of the tools we use to do this is called Asset-Based Community Development (ACBD). Through ABCD, CTC helps diverse neighborhood stakeholders – residents, churches, businesses, and other institutions – come together to identify their strengths – their assets – and think strategically about how to use those assets to build their communities.

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