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The Neighborhood History Project - Documenting History to Claim a New Story

2016 Neighborhood History Project Youth Interns

Last week, the 2016 Neighborhood History Project came to a close.

On Monday evening, the four youth history interns from Highland Heights gathered with their neighbors at Highland Heights United Methodist Church and shared stories of their summer – shared how they had grown in appreciation for their community’s history, for their elders, and for each other.

The next evening, the three youth history interns from South Memphis gathered with their neighbors at Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church, and did the same.

By all accounts, the 2016 Neighborhood History Project was a tremendous success. I couldn’t be prouder of what our youth interns accomplished this summer, or of the hard work put in by each of the many project partners. Thank you to my coworkers at Center for Transforming Communities, the team at the Crossroads to Freedom archive, our partners at Knowledge Quest, and the volunteers from the South Memphis Shalom Zone and The Corners of Highland Heights Shalom Zone.

I also want to thank our newest project partners – each of the individuals who donated money to support this project through our ioby fundraising campaign earlier this year. Thank you for your support and for your willingness to help us make this project happen.

So, why is this important? With all of the many challenges facing Memphis, how is a summer program serving seven kids from two urban neighborhoods making a difference?

The reality is that the Neighborhood History Project has so many benefits, it can be difficult to identify what it is that really sets this program apart.

Stevion Young leading an interview

For example, through the program our youth interns learn unique technical skills like video recording, lighting, sound, and editing. They also learn soft skills like professionalism, active listening and building rapport. These skills are important, and they will serve these young people well for years to come. But I don’t think they are ultimately what the Neighborhood History Project is all about.

The youth are also given something productive to do during the summer. I hear this a lot from parents and, interestingly, from the youth themselves. In neighborhoods like South Memphis and Highland Heights, parents just want their children engaged in something positive when they aren’t in school, and this program is one opportunity for that. But, again, I don’t think that’s what the Neighborhood History Project is all about.

Through the program, the youth also get to spend time on a college campus, with college students, experiencing college life. They do most of their work in the beautiful Barrett Library at Rhodes College, alongside Crossroads to Freedom fellows who serve as mentors, guides, and role models for them throughout the summer. It’s a rare opportunity for young people from Memphis’ urban neighborhoods to be able to spend that much time at a premier college like Rhodes, but I don’t think that’s what’s what the Neighborhood History Project is about either.

Yes, these are all benefits to the program that will deeply impact the future of the young people who participated. But what really sets this program apart – what makes it stand out among the many great programs led by great organizations in the Memphis community – is something else.

It’s about stories.

The stories we tell about who we are and where we come from determine our identity and influence our choices. They determine whether we feel pride in ourselves and our communities, or whether we feel embarrassment and shame. Ultimately they determine, through the choices we make, our future.

The prevailing stories told about Memphis’ urban neighborhoods and the people who live in them – the stories we encounter in our media – are overwhelmingly negative. They are stories of poverty, blight, crime, and violence – of declining neighborhoods with residents who live there only because they have no other choice. We know that these stories aren’t true, but their ubiquity has its impact.

Prince Williams and Allison Henry leading an interview.

This summer, our Neighborhood History interns heard – and preserved – 17 other stories. They heard from individuals who have been long-time members of their communities, who told them stories of perseverance, resilience, success, neighborliness, and unity.

They heard from Dr. John Malone, who was a lifetime educator and principal of Treadwell school, a pillar in the Highland Heights community. They heard from Dr. Reginald Porter, who has been a member of Metropolitan Baptist Church in South Memphis since he was 2 years old. They met Jean Chu and Richard Elmore, long-term residents of Highland Heights who still get together regularly to play cards, and they met Lorraine Jones, who is so passionate about her community that she formed South Memphis Citizens United for Action to take on numerous community issues. They heard from Ernest Shinault about how the Highland Heights community came together after segregation, and from Talbert Fleming about how he left his career to return home to South Memphis to start a successful restaurant.

This is just a small sampling of the incredible stories shared during this summer’s program – stories that directly contradict those negative ones we so often hear. And, since we’ve been doing the Neighborhood History Project for more than 4 years now, there are many more stories like this (almost 80 in total) that have been captured on video and archived online.

Earlier this year, when we were preparing for the Neighborhood History Project, I came across an old slogan we had used back in 2013 – the very first year we offered the program. It read:

“Re-storying the neighborhood, one youth, one elder, one story, one summer at a time!”

I think that slogan does a great job of communicating what the Neighborhood History Project is really about: bringing young people and their elder neighbors together to discover, preserve, and present an alternative story of their neighborhoods.

One of the personal highlights for me, this year, was when our youth interns from South Memphis got to interview David Porter, the legendary songwriter and producer from STAX records. After sharing about growing up in South Memphis and his transition into the music industry, Mr. Porter shared some advice with our interns – one of the secrets of his success. He said:

Now it’s very easy to look at the negatives, because they get in the paper, they get on the radio, they get on television. So it’s easy to miss all of the great things that are around us. But the wonderful thing about life is that there are all kind of good things around us. You have to look for those things... I think when you get the strength enough to look beyond the negative things that you see and you look for the good in other people, you find more of those that you can align with and work with. And I think a lot of those [good things] still exist in South Memphis, regardless of what they put in the paper. A lot of good things surround us, every day.

If you want to learn more about the Neighborhood History Project, our youth interns, or if you want to watch full interviews from this year, please visit our interns’ websites:

South Memphis

Highland Heights

If you want to support the Neighborhood History Project – or if you yourself would like to be interviewed next year – please feel free to reach out to me. My contact information is here:

Kenny Latta, Special Projects

Center for Transforming Communities


Here are some of my favorite photos from this year's Neighborhood History Project:

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