Hope in Memphis is a recurring series about people who are working every day in Memphis to defy and defeat crime and violence, poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, inequity, intolerance and ignorance.
A dozen members of a generation that regularly experiences active shooter drills and “soft” and “hard” lockdowns in their schools hosted a meeting the other day with several public officials.
The teenagers talked about the confusion and fear they felt the week before when they were locked down inside the BRIDGES Center Downtown while authorities hunted a man who was shooting random strangers all over town.
The students took turns asking the sheriff and the district attorney and two men from the mayor’s office what was being done about all the guns and shootings and anxiety and anger in their young lives.
The public officials talked about laws that make guns more plentiful and accessible, circumstances that make people more hopeless and desperate, and other challenges and frustrations they face in preventing and suppressing crime and violence in their community.
After an hour or so of discussion, the members of the opens in a new windowShelby County Youth Council explained that they weren’t there just to share their feelings. They were there to share their insights and policy recommendations.
They handed each public official a copy of the opens in a new windowShelby County Youth Voice Report, a product of months of studious research, serious discussion and solemn reflection on the criminal justice, education and mental health systems.
“Youth voice is not just important; it’s necessary,” youth council member Lydia Yoo, a Collierville High School graduate, wrote in the report. “Our stories and experiences must be recognized. Our voices must be heard in order to create authentic, real change for matters that affect us directly.”
Youth voice. Real change.
To members of the Shelby County Youth Council and thousands of other students who have been involved in the nonprofit youth leadership organization known as BRIDGES, those are necessary ingredients for improving the lives of children and youth, who account for a quarter of the population of Shelby County.
opens in a new windowBRIDGES, best known for its Bridge Builders program for students in grades 6-12, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.
What began a century ago as a church mission to help “wayward and delinquent women and girls over 16 who found themselves in difficulty” has become the community’s own teenage peace corps.
Every year, thousands of Memphis area middle school and high school students regenerate the aging organization and its ambitious mission, building relationships with each other and working for social change across racial, ethnic and income divides.
The organization has initiated public debate, impacted policy and inspired a new generation of public officials, nonprofit leaders and community activists.
State Sen. London Lamar, former county commissioner Tami Sawyer, and former Millington alderman Frankie Dakin were Bridge Builders.
“Every issue I work on, I find myself talking to current or former Bridge Builders,” said Dakin, deputy chief of staff to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and a Millington High and Rhodes College graduate. “It’s hard to overstate the impact BRIDGES has had at various levels of our government and community.”
Other former Bridge Builders include Lauren Wilson, founder of Sweet LaLa’s Bakery; Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound and newly elected county commissioner; and Kevin Dean, founder of Momentum Nonprofit Partners.
“The program challenged my assumptions about communities that were different from mine, but it also reinforced how similar we all are in what we want for ourselves and the Memphis community,” said Dean, a Briarcrest graduate. “My perspectives on issues such as racial equity, gender parity and privilege broadened.”
“Youth are intelligent and insightful. We have a lot to offer.” — Nuria Martin, youth council member from Arlington High School
Mario Hendrix didn’t want to be a Bridge Builder.
“I didn’t want to go,” said Hendrix, who was among the first high school sophomores to attend a Bridge Builders summer conference in the mid-1990s. “Halfway through the week I was ready to go home. It was not for me at all.”
Hendrix stayed, in part because his grandparents wanted him to be there, in part because his counselors told him he could choose to stay or go.
“Something shifted in me that week,” said Hendrix, a Central High and University of Memphis graduate, and now vice president of opens in a new windowBridge Builders. “It changed my perspective about myself, about others, about this community. Bridge Builders is Memphis. I am Memphis. I bleed blue.”
Jim Boyd, the BRIDGES president and CEO from 1996-2011, has seen that shift countless times.
“You’ll see a student come in who’s just there because a parent or grandparent made them go,” Boyd said. “The student has no real interest. All of a sudden, that light comes on, and they discover there’s a possibility they’ve got something other people like and respect, they’ve got something to offer. When that light goes on, it is really powerful.”
Boyd, an Episcopal priest, was hired in 1996 to broaden the organization’s local funding base and impact. The program, first called Church Mission of Help, then Youth Service, had lost its federal funding and was in danger of closing.
Under Boyd’s leadership, the program returned to its Greenlaw neighborhood roots with construction of the distinctive, 55,000-square-foot BRIDGES Center that evokes a truss bridge rising toward the river.
Boyd and his successor, Cynthia Ham, ensured the program’s long-term future by building a $20 million endowment.
“There’s so much potential in our kids, but BRIDGES has demonstrated that we don’t have to wait for that potential to impact our community now,” Boyd said.
Boyd was the second Episcopal priest to lead the organization. In the early 1960s, the Episcopal bishop dispatched a young, motorcycle-riding priest named Rev. Don Mowery to run the youth program, at that point called Youth Service in Memphis.
Mowery became more widely known as Father Don for his weekly “Talk it Out” call-in radio show. He expanded the program into Youth Service USA, a federally funded program based at dozens of domestic military bases (including Millington) that provided summer camps and vocational training for half a million teenagers.
Along the way, Father Don earned the support of everyone from FedEx founder Fred Smith, who had Father Don christen FedEx’s first 727 and DC10, to Elvis Presley, who each year before Christmas gave Father Don a check.
In the late 1980s, Becky Wilson, then an assistant U.S. attorney, began working with Mowery to develop a new program to help high school students make friendships across lines of race, class, neighborhood and schools.
In the summer of 1988, they organized a weeklong summer camp and two weeks of community service for a dozen juniors from Briarcrest Christian School and a dozen juniors from Northside High School. The next year they added three more schools.
They called the program Bridge Builders.
“I could see the Mississippi River bridge from my office every day,” said Wilson. “I thought, that’s what we need. Our schools and neighborhoods are so segregated. We need a program that bridges all the differences in our community and brings people together.”
Over the past 35 years, Bridge Builders has brought together thousands of students from all parts of the community.
The students commit to spending a year working together on a community service project. The work begins with team-building activities and trust-building conversations at a weeklong summer leadership conference on a local college campus.
“Part of my fight for equality and equity started when I fell backwards into my team’s arms from a ladder,” said Tami Sawyer, the local activist and former Shelby County commissioner who was a Bridge Builder as a White Station High School student in the late 1990s.
“Ten kids from across Memphis with little in common, jumping off a ladder on the Rhodes College campus, learning to like and love each other in spite of what we were taught by society. It’s amazing that it’s been sustained. Imagine the world we’d have if we all lived like that.”
One of Sawyer’s summer counselors was Mario Hendrix.
“Bridge Builders isn’t a program. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the way I live my life,” Hendrix said. “It’s more like real life than school is. We don’t teach lessons. We provide shared experiences with peers and other people from all backgrounds and perspectives. Through those experiences, you learn about yourself, others, the community, the world. I’m still learning.”
“Youth are often not given the opportunity to identify the issues that they face in their schools and communities.” — Zaheen Chowdhury, youth council
Caitlin Lloyd didn’t want to be in Memphis.
Her family moved here from New Orleans when she was in the first grade. She became a Bridge Builder in high school in 2014.
“I hated Memphis until I was a Bridge Builder,” said Lloyd, a White Station High School graduate. “Working with so many other students from other schools and neighborhoods changed my view. There’s something magical about Memphis and all of our diversity. So many people put their heart and soul into making this their home.”
Lloyd is now coordinator of COLLABORATE, the traditional yearlong Bridge Builders program that involves about 1,000 local students each year.
It’s one of three levels of involvement and intensity students can have in Bridge Builders.
The broadest level is CONNECT, which brings the Bridge Builders curriculum to about 4,000 area youth each year through workshops and events at schools and after-school programs.
During the past school year, for example, CONNECT staffers worked with the Civics and Debate Class at opens in a new windowGrizzlies Prep, a Downtown charter school for boys in grades 6-8.
“We want to help our students understand that their voices are critical to creating a just society and that their ideas and actions are needed in order to do that,” said Tim Ware, the school’s executive director.
The Brothers, as Grizz Prep students are called, were so engaged the conversation became heated at one point.
“The BRIDGES instructors immediately helped the Brothers calm down,” Ware said. “They then held an impromptu restorative circle where the young men were able to articulate how they felt, what stressors led to the agitation. They apologized to each other and the class, and a very productive work session ensued.”
The most intensive level of Bridge Builders is CHANGE. Each year, about 30 experienced Bridge Builders earn a stipend by learning how to become an agent for social change.
In 2015, Lloyd and other CHANGE students started Memphis Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (MASHA).
“The school system was addressing bullying but not the sexual harassment of students,” said Lloyd, a 2016 graduate of White Station High.
MASHA’s advocacy influenced Memphis-Shelby County Schools to hire a full-time coordinator for Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school that receives federal funding.
The MASHA students also lobbied the board to revise its anti-harassment policies to include the bullying or harassment of students based on “sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, a mental, physical or sensory disability, socio-economic or familial status.” Parts of the revised policy were written by MASHA students.
MASHA now partners with the Memphis Area Women’s Council and its Memphis Says No More campaign to address domestic and sexual violence.
MASHA is one of four opens in a new windowBridge Builders CHANGE cohorts.
The others are as follows:
The Memphis Youth Union (MemYU), which launched the Shelby County Youth Action Council.
Gender and Sexuality (GAS), which trains teachers, school leaders and local business leaders to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.
Education Justice (EDJ), which has pushed local schools to establish and expand “reset rooms” and make other changes to address the “school to prison pipeline.”
The young Bridge Builders haven’t shied away from difficult or controversial issues.
The focus on LGBTQ issues has cost BRIDGES some support. Briarcrest Christian School, the first private school to join the program in the late 1980s, no longer participates. LGBTQ youth or advocates can be expelled from that school.
The focus on closing the “school to prison pipeline” has created some tensions with the school district and local law enforcement.
The Shelby County Youth Council has lobbied the school district to remove sheriff’s deputies from schools and use security funds to hire more counselors and expand mental health services for students. Last November, the MSCS school board voted to keep deputies in the schools.
“As much as our culture focuses on the future impact of when today’s youth grow up, we have just as valuable of a presence right now.” — Tyler Cooke, youth council member from Germantown High School
Mahal Burr didn’t know who or what she wanted to be.
Burr’s mother is white and her father is Filipino. Her families span two continents and multiple faiths, including Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Quaker, as well as atheist and agnostic.
“I often see myself as a bridge,” said Burr, who became a Future Bridge Builder as a seventh grader at Snowden School in the early 2000s.
Burr is now director of the BRIDGES opens in a new windowYouth Action Center, the organization’s newest endeavor.
The center helps local organizations involve youth in decision-making. For example, Memphis Public Libraries created a 22-member Comeback Stronger Youth Council last year to help expand teen programming.
Other YAC local partners include Stand For Children, Seeding Success, and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.
Burr joined the BRIDGES staff as CHANGE coordinator in 2014.
“BRIDGES is a space where I feel very hopeful about Memphis,” Burr said. “The building itself is beautiful, but even more beautiful is its mission and the young people who are part of it.”
When CHANGE students started looking into the school-to-prison pipeline, Burr and her colleague, Evan Morrison, helped them find true experts on the topic: Incarcerated youth in Shelby County’s jails and detention centers.
In the process, they organized a new and unconventional youth leadership program called Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change.
The program put youth detainees in front of police officers, political leaders, church groups, students and others to help them understand the root and systemic causes of youth violence.
“We think it’s important to listen to the people who are experiencing those problems first-hand and involve them in repairing the systems that failed them,” Burr said.
That program has expanded to become opens in a new windowBrothers & Sisters Speaking Out for Change.
Last year, the group helped opens in a new windowStand for Children form the opens in a new windowYouth Justice Action Council (YJAC). It includes students from Carver, Kirby, Germantown and Collierville high schools.
The council is working with the University of Memphis law school and Project STAND, a MSCS initiative for justice-involved youth.
Their goal is to reduce youth crime and recidivism by providing “restorative alternatives” to the juvenile court system.
Newly elected Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy have said they will include YJAC members in their transitions. A YJAC student already is a member of the county’s Juvenile Justice Consortium. YJAC students are planning to lobby state legislators next year.
“The goal is to have youth voices at as many tables as possible,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children in Tennessee. “And not at the table as sort of lesser, junior voices, but as full partners in what happens in their community and society.”
Dana Wilson, BRIDGES president and CEO since 2019, said the goals of all the organization’s programs are the same: Bring young people together from all walks of life and parts of town. Develop their leadership skills. Empower them to find ways to make their community better.
“We want to help our students dig deep, find their gifts and passions, give them agency so they become more invested in the community and each other,” Wilson said.
The pandemic interrupted the organization’s growth as various BRIDGES programs were pushed online. But the summer conference was held in person again this year, and membership and programming are expanding.
Eighty-five area middle and high schools are represented by students in COLLABORATE, CHANGE and the Shelby County Youth Council this school year.
Twenty-three are Memphis-Shelby County Schools, 23 are private schools, 24 are suburban schools in Shelby and three neighboring counties, 10 are public charters, and five are home or virtual school networks.
As BRIDGES works to expand its reach in Memphis, others are working to expand its reach beyond Memphis. Bridge Builders Alabama has been operating in Montgomery for several years. A group in Houston is also working to launch a program there.
“It takes a lot of work and a lot of intention for this to work,” Wilson said. “We’re excited about the possibilities of expanding this work in other cities, but we’ve been at this a long, long time. This is the work of generations.”
“It’s important to hear youth issues from the youth themselves and give recommendations that would actually be beneficial to the current generation.” — Mayyadah Alzaben, youth council member from St. George’s Indepdendent School.
Khadija couldn’t wait to become a Bridge Builder.
Neither could her brother, Muhammad. Nor her brother, Ali. Nor her brother, Abdullah.
“Bridge Builders is like a home for us,” said their father, Dr. Hafiz Elahi, chief resident of neurology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “It helped all of us connect to the community.”
The Elahi family moved from Pakistan to Memphis in the early 2000s. Elahi was offered positions in New York, Chicago and Memphis.
“This place is more like Islamabad,” Elahi said, referring to Pakistan’s capital city, which has about a million residents. “The size, the weather, the hills nearby, how easy it is to move around. It felt more familiar.”
Khadija, the eldest child, blazed the BRIDGES trail for her younger brothers when she became a Bridge Builder 12 years ago as a White Station High student.
Khadija was one of the first CHANGE students. Her cohort studied food and nutrition. As an experiment, the group only ate food provided at school.
“We were more sluggish, moody, our grades dropped,” she said. “The meals were carb-heavy, so our energy spiked after we ate, then dropped.”
The cohort pushed the school district to provide more nutritious and healthier breakfast and lunch options for students.
Now married, Dr. Khadija Ali is a third-year neurology resident at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
“In Bridge Builders, we learned to look for root causes of a problem. That’s the only way to make change,” she said. “That’s why I’m focusing on preventive medicine. Preventing strokes through nutrition.”
Khadija’s oldest brother, Muhammad, became a Bridge Builder two years after her. He joined the food cohort.
The experience inspired him to help start a food pantry at Midtown Mosque in North Memphis. After college, he worked at Church Health. Now he’s a medical student at East Tennessee State University.
“Some people have a very negative view of Memphis, but I defend it,” Muhammad said. “Because of Bridge Builders, I have friends, strong connections, in every part of the city. It’s my city.”
Brother Ali became a Bridge Builder two years after Muhammad. He joined the MemYU cohort and worked with students from across the community. Now he’s a third-year medical student at the University of Wisconsin.
“Because of my Bridge Builders experience, I want to get to know my patients and their stories, not just focus on their pathologies,” Ali said. “Memphis has problems like any big city, but what makes Memphis special is the people we have here.”
Youngest brother Abdullah, a senior at Memphis University School, is now a Bridge Builder. He and fellow CHANGE members have formed MEM: Mental and Emotional Health Matters. The cohort will be working to bring more mental health resources to local schools.
“BRIDGES has been the best thing for our kids,” said Rukhsana Awais, their mother. “They learned how to work together with others, to have respect for each other, to listen to and understand others. We are so grateful. We’re hoping one day our grandchildren will be part of Bridge Builders.”
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.